How To Build Some Headroom Into Your Day


Choose How To Use Your Time

Your task today in the 31 Days To A Less Stressful Life Challenge is to build some headroom into your day.

Years ago a mentor gave me a piece of advice that has always stuck with me. He told me:

I’ve found this to be a strongly liberating statement.

It gives me ‘permission’ to turn down something I wasn’t planning to do.

It can be hard to say ‘no’ but if you think about it, by saying ‘yes’ to this new thing — you’ve got to be saying ‘no’ to something else anyway by default.

You can’t spend the same ten minutes twice.

Back To Basics

If you’re like me then juggling lots of competing demands for your time and attention is one of your biggest headaches.

It can sometimes feel like an impossible to task to fit everything you’re asked to do into the time available.

If you’re not careful you find your day quickly spirals out of control as you try to accommodate unexpected demands for your time. When that happens you trigger off those pesky stress hormones and suddenly your stress levels are on the rise.

Better time management is one of the keys to lowering the stress you are experiencing. While a lot of time management advice seems like so much common sense, if you’re honest with yourself how much of the advice you’ve heard are you actually implementing?

So, let’s look at some simple strategies you can implement today that will build some additional headroom into your day.

Are You Too Busy To Stop And Think?

It’s tempting to look elsewhere for explanations about the pressure you’re under. If only your boss wasn’t so unreasonable, or if the plans you’d put in place would just be followed — you wouldn’t be under so much pressure.

True, but that isn’t going to change your situation.

Empower yourself instead and take control of everything you can influence directly.


Remember a ‘yes’ always being a ‘no’ to something else matters because you’re constantly making choices about where you focus your attention.

So if your day is one long, uninterrupted series of meetings, phone calls and urgent conversations, you’re starving yourself of opportunities to stop and think.

When that happens, you pile on extra tasks unthinkingly. Soon, your day or week is slipping out of control as you get caught in the flow.

This is how one poor time management practice (leaving insufficient time to evaluate requests for your time and attention) leads to compounding problems downstream — indiscriminately taking on additional tasks, which increases the likelihood the problem will reoccur.

This is a time management doom loop, which can lead in a straight line to burnout if you don’t do something about it.

Caught In The Flow

I’ve been guilty of being caught in the flow like this on many occasions. When you’re busy in the middle of it can be fun at first — you get a buzz from being needed and from driving hard to get everything done on time.

But I’ve learnt that it’s not a place I can afford to be continuously. Some of the problems I’ve found when I try and maintain this way of working for any length of time include:

  • I don’t serve people well if I’m rushing to get things done.
  • I make more mistakes when I don’t have time to think.
  • I get tired and fail to evaluate properly, which is inefficient as it leads to re-work on corrections.

If you’re someone who regularly feels stuck in this situation, there are a few tactics I use which you can adapt to carve out a little breathing space in your day.

Build Headroom Into Your Diary

The first is to build some headroom into your diary. Do this by leaving gaps between your various commitments.

Use these gaps to buffer and absorb unplanned changes to your daily schedule. Gaps allow you to accommodate unplanned requests without squeezing your day too much.

Change The Calendar Default Duration

Another trick is to change the Default Duration setting in my calendar app. I use Fantastical and the video below shows you how to do this on an iPhone. Other calendar apps have similar functionality.

  1. Open Fantastical –>
  2. Click on Settings (cogwheel top left-hand corner of the screen) –>
  3. Click on Default Duration –>
  4. Choose default time (45 mins).

By setting 45-minutes as the default time I create a natural fifteen-minute buffer between my meetings because most people expect to meet either on the hour or the half-hour. To complete the trick, change the Default Alert setting and make it chime fifteen minutes before your next appointment.

This is one case where a notification can actually be helpful.

By setting your phone to ding you fifteen minutes before the hour or the half hour (assuming you have follow-on appointments at these times) you can leave the meeting or end it if you’re chairing and still have a few minutes to collect yourself.

Set Up A Dummy Meeting

A third trick is to create a dummy meeting with your boss once per week. It’s unlikely that these will get bumped — it’s your boss after all — and you can use them to catch up on anything that you’re getting behind on or simply as a time to stop and think.

Agree on Scheduling Rules With Your P.A. or Secretary

If you have a personal assistant or secretary who manages your diary, it’s crucial that you sit down and agree to some diary rules.

  • Be clear when your first and last appointment of the day will normally be and ensure that there’s a gap between meetings.
  • Ensure that travel time is taken into account if you have to move between sites to attend different times.
  • Define how long should be allowed for travel time between regular site visits.

Learn To Say No Politely

Think hard before accepting something new to do. Remember, when you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to another. Saying no politely but firmly might be your best policy.

If you’ve been asked to take on something new, train yourself to respond:

‘Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.’

Doing so provides a space for you to evaluate what you’ll have to stop doing or compromise on in order to say ‘yes’.

The Challenge

Start your day tomorrow by reminding yourself of the advice my mentor gave me. Then plan your day with some gaps between your commitments using a revised calendar default time setting. Finally, start practising saying ’no’ selectively.

The Day 4 challenge on How And Why Being More Assertive Unlocks Your Happiness might be a useful next read for you if you haven’t already seen it.

Share What You Do

Come back to the blog at the end of tomorrow and let us know how you get on.

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