Make ‘firebreaks’ of clear time in your working day

I meet many people who are frantically busy. They wear their diaries as badges of honour, proud to be indispensable and wanted by everyone.

Every now and then they will say to me,’ You have no idea how busy I am,’ and then look puzzled when I reply, ‘Yes I have. I’m busier.’ This is not a macho boast, but fact. The difference shows when I compare diaries with such people. Theirs are crammed with appointments, meetings and social engagements they have often for gotten about until that day. Mine is also booked up well into the future, but there are breaks of ‘clear blue water’ in each day. They are like firebreaks, and there are usually three for each day, lasting for between 20 and 40 minutes each. No one can fill these spaces except me, and if I choose to open them up and use them I can do that only on that day, not before. These ‘firebreaks’ of time in my diary provide a number of benefits:

  • They reduce my temptation to commit to more than I can do. I can say ‘No’ more easily
  • If my work is running late I know I have the luxury of being able to use one to catch up and keep to my schedule for the rest of the day. However, you should not get used to doing this; if you find you are always running late, then you need to look at how you are managing your time in general.
  • If, suddenly, there is something I really want to do, I am not in the position of being so busy I cannot squeeze it into my day.
  • Firebreaks give me the chance to stop and think about my day, my projects and problems, or simply relax and recharge.
  • I no longer feel everyone is getting something out of me except me and my family. Knowing you have some control over your day makes you more, not less, amenable to requests by friends and family for your time.

I am often taken to task by my patients for the length of time they need to wait before seeing me for a routine appointrnent. This is often said half jokingly, as ‘You shouldn’t be so popular,’ but resentment remains. There are two things I have no control over in my work: the number of hours in the day, and the number of patients wanting to see me personally. If I am exhausted and frustrated about trying to squeeze more into the day than I am physically able to, I am of no use to anyone.

As a junior hospital doctor, I once apologized to a patient for keeping her waiting, but a friendly nurse pointed out I was coming to the end of an 80-hour continuous shift, and was slowing down. ‘Really? Then take him away and get me a fresh one,’ was the patient’s reply. I kept my thoughts to myself, but if I had been able to take breaks in that shift, she would have been more charitable

The firebreaks in your diary may not make your work easier, or your boss more friendly, but they will allow control in a busy day that would otherwise beat you.

Divide your diary into half-hour slots and build in buffer blocks of time for the unexpected – three half-hour buffers each day would be ideal. Avoid taking on more than you are capable of by learning to say ‘No’.

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