Controlling Your Schedule with Deadline Buffers


A Hard Week

Last week was hard. Four large deadlines landed within a four day period. The result was a week (and weekend) where I was forced to violate my fixed-schedule productivity boundaries.

I get upset when I violate these boundaries, so, as I do, I conducted a post-mortem on my schedule to find out what happened.

The high-level explanation was clear: bad luck. I originally had two big deadlines on my calendar, each separated by a week. But then two unfortunate things happened in rapid succession:

  1. One of my two big deadlines was shifted to coincide with the second big deadline. Because I was working with collaborators, I couldn’t just ignore the shift. The new deadline would become the real deadline.
  2. The other issue was due to shadow commitments — work obligations you accept before you know the specific dates the work will be due. I had made two such commitments months earlier. Not long ago, however, their due dates were announced, and they both fell square within this brutal week.

The easy conclusion from this post-mortem is that sometimes you have a hard week. Make sure you recharge afterward and then move on.

This is a valid conclusion And I took it to heart. But it’s not complete…

The Deadline Banner

As I dug deeper through the forensic detritus of this brutal week I noticed that I could have made it less brutal. As deadlines popped up or shifted on my schedule, I dutifully updated them on my calendar. But in doing so, I didn’t appreciate the monumental work pile-up these shifts were creating. If I had noticed this, I could have invoked some emergency measures earlier to lessen the load.

In response to this revelation I am now toying with a simple tweak to how I use my calendar: the deadline buffer.

The idea is simple…

Any serious deadline should not exist on your calendar just as a note on a single day. It should instead by an event that spans the entire week preceding the actual deadline. (In Google Calendar, I do this by making it an “all day” event that lasts the full duration; e.g., as in the screenshot at the top of this post.)

The motivation behind this hack is to eliminate the possibility for pile-ups to happen without your knowledge. If you buffer each deadline with a week-long event, any overlap will become immediately apparent.

As a bonus, this approach also helps you keep these key pre-deadline weeks clear of excessive meetings. It’s easy, for example, to agree to a non-urgent interview months in the future. But when you see that this date has a deadline buffer in place, you become more likely to say, “actually, let’s schedule this for the week after…that week is going to be a little tight.”

This is the type of prescient scheduling you’ll appreciate when the deadline looms and you see before you a delightfully light schedule.

In the spirit of anti-planning, I don’t know how well this will work, but it’s worth some experimentation.

16 thoughts on “Controlling Your Schedule with Deadline Buffers”

  1. This is a great idea and one that I can use immediately (end of quarter crunch).

    I have a question about anti-planning: can you optimize your deep work/shallow work dist. by approaching it like a bandit?

  2. Wow, such a simple idea and I am wondering how I’ve never thought of that. I suppose I did a bit of a variation on this for my senior year in high school. In my senior year, I would give myself a deadline of 8pm every night so I would have to finish everything by 8pm.

    However, that doesn’t really have the same versatility when it comes to other tasks, so I do like your idea of deadline buffering.

  3. What I love about this post is that you have gone beyond taking an idea that you think will be helpful and turning it into a strategy that others can use. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the deep reflection you exhibit here is perhaps even more valuable than the strategy you are offering.

    I often find that the strategies that others use are interesting but that they don’t always make sense for me.

    What does make sense, however, is noticing that something in your life did not go well, that something happened that you didn’t like. And, rather than dwelling on how unpleasant the experience was, you interrogated it (and yourself) to understand how to prevent such a situation from arising in the first place.

    This is what I understand to be at the very root of well-being, which arises when you refuse to dwell in negativity, but choose instead to use the negative experiences that occur in your life as a catalyst for your creativity.

    Thank you so much for sharing this experience.

  4. yeah, had something similar a year ago. I was involved in teaching an intensive course (6 hours per day every day) the same week before a book chapter with a hard deadline was due.
    So Memorial day weekend was spent in the office!

  5. Did you ever have to break a fixed-schedule for undergrad finals? Finals week could also become very cluttered with these buffers.

  6. I wonder if this would work with my Gaming style of goal setting, where say i need to work out i set it up as a video game would be a quest with mini quests.

    Although at first glance I’m not sure how much of a improvement I could get out of the system with that.

  7. I’ve started following your blog recently and been finding it full of gems like this! Thanks for the initial link to your fixed-schedule too – I spent a good hour read the full article and following the plentiful references / examples – really made me rethink my work day and productivity!

    And since I am currently working for an online-based program helping students and exam takers cope with test anxiety and improve universal study skills including time management, your ideas are a great inspiration and resource for brainstorming!


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