Guest post from Josh: “Expect the unexpected”

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.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

10 thoughts

  1. I have a lot of unexpected tasks as well. I just do them as they come. I don’t think that’s a very effective way. I liked your idea of scheduling some down time to take care of spill overs

  2. I don’t have any trouble getting places on time, but I sacrifice being able to use those “in-between minutes” in order to do so. I don’t allow myself to do anything before an appointment (when I only have a few minutes), because time gets away from me and I’ll forget I need to leave. I do set timers sometimes but I’ve found it best not to try to accomplish any tasks. I hate that I lose that time but I have to do it that way. I was trying to think about what I do in those few minutes but I don’t know. All I know is that it’s nothing that will cause me to forget what I need to do.

  3. Well look on the bright side – you may not be great at managing the unexpected when it happens, but at least you’re trying. The people who drive me mad are those (like, sadly, my partner!) who can’t even seem to manage the *expected* – always running late, never think to include travel time in appointment bookings, constantly playing catchup. This annoys me most when I’m away on business, and text my other half with travel details, call from the train to say ‘should be home in 2 hours’, update travel progress regularly… then still arrive at the station to find that I’m standing in the cold and rain for 10 minutes waiting for partner to arrive in the car to pick me up! How much notice do you need?

    1. Had to laugh at this – I am always half an hour early and my family is always two hours late. TWICE I have had people think I am a prostitute when I am loitering on train stations for what seems like hours in the middle of the night. That certainly didn’t improve my mood any I can tell you!

      1. That’s not nice! Mind you the kicker in my case is that it takes a maximum of about 6 minutes to drive from home to the station. Given that I usually text or call at the ‘half hour away’ point, then again at the ’12 minutes away’ point (the station before), one would think that even the most dilatory individual should be able to organise being at the station on time… but no. There’s always something expected which unexpectedly delayed matters at the last minute. Personally I think collecting me from the station on time would be more important than e.g. cleaning the cat litter trays, but clearly not!

        Sigh.

    2. I am like the partner in this case, although I work extremely hard to resist! When I need to leave right this minute I suddenly see a million other things which need to be done, and feel suddenly urgent, like the damn kitty litter tray. I have no understanding why I do this but it is terrible. I wonder if it is simply to give a reason why I am late? Anyway, this year I decided that I MUST arrive on time; it is non-negotiable and to insure that it happens I shoot to arrive a quarter hour early. This way, even if I end up running behind I still have a decent chance of arriving on time. It is really a struggle but feels great when I arrive on time! So embarrassing always being late (sometimes hours late, like Janet’s relatives!)

  4. I think my problem is not allocating time for the unexpected. I can cope with changes but then it ends up with me working round the clock to do everything I had said yes to. I should stop seeing empty time as dead time and use it to absorb changes to my day.

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