When I was a kid I read a 1969 Volkswagen owners manual. The VW to which this manual belonged was parked, non-running, behind my friend Coleen’s house. We we used to play in it, imaginary road trips amongst the rusted floorboards and musty odors. I spend hours obsessing over that car. And inside the glovebox there was an owners manual, which I read over and over until I knew it by heart.
Within this manual there was a list of tips for safe driving; one of these read:
“Always drive defensively. Expect the unexpected.”
The unexpected hits me in many ways: Someone wanders into the library and has a court date the following morning and needs lots of assistance to prepare; someone calls out sick and I need to cover the front desk for several hours; I get called into an emergency meeting. It can be anything really, and the delay can end up robbing me of hours of productive time.
Expecting the unexpected is therefore an essential component of successful planning for me. This means, practically, that I give myself adequate catch-up time; I need to be willing to reshuffle priorities on a dime; I need to maintain flexibility; and I need to be equipped to handle whatever comes at me.
I have developed a few strategies to deal with the unexpected: I usually leave about one hour of unscheduled time free during my work day. Most days I end up using this time to compensate for interruptions; other days it is just getting more stuff done on my weekly list, or getting started on a project I wanted to do the following day or later in the week. On a quiet day I might use some of the time to think about projects or do some brainstorming. It might end up being used to complete something which took longer than I’d anticipated.
Another way that I “expect the unexpected” is by maintaining a list of simple, low-priority work to pick up during downtime; those hours that I end up covering the desk cannot be used for very heavy workloads, but a lot of data entry or updating resources can be accomplished. A cancelled meeting can give me the opportunity to knock something off tomorrow’s task list.
The most important thing is to not let the unexpected send me into a tailspin. I need to deal with the interruption, get back to my desk, and use my planner to help me smoothly move back to what I was doing or pick up the next item. I review my task list repeatedly during the day to make sure that I not only start things, but that I also complete them after handling an interruption.
I can’t say that I’ve really mastered this yet; I still get thrown off and still often struggle to get back to what I was doing. But making some adjustments to my process helps me remain flexible. And it all comes down to expecting the unexpected.