Budget for the Buffer

Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, I was much more of a “go with the flow” kind of guy. I appreciated spontaneity and flexibility, and that’s probably a big part of the reason why I got into freelancing in the first place. No set working hours, taking on as much or as little work as I desired (theoretically speaking), free to take three-hour lunches or to work into the wee hours of the early morning. It was up to me. That’s a big part of the appeal of the dot com lifestyle, after all: the time freedom.

Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten a little older over the course of these past 13+ years in the game. Maybe it’s because I’ve become a sleep-deprived parent to a rambunctious preschooler, and I’m losing a sense of control over the world around me. Whatever the case, I have a greater desire for predictability and routine these days. I want to know, ahead of time, where I’m going to be, what I’m going to do, and how much I’m going to earn from doing it. I suppose that’s normal.

Except it has also grown to become a huge source of anxiety for me. I’m probably not alone in this either.

Open Up and Say, “Ahh!”

Allow me to paint a typical scene for you. My daughter has a dentist appointment at noon. The original plan was that we’d go to the area a little earlier so we could have lunch ahead of time. Makes sense. That plan changes when it’s decided we’ll just eat a little something at home, and then we can have a proper lunch after the appointment. I expect the appointment to take about half an hour; pediatric dentists know that kids don’t have that kind of patience or attention span, so appointments tend to be shorter. It ends up taking a little over an hour.

We head to the food court at the nearby mall for some lunch. While walking to the food court, my wife spots a kitchen supply shop that she wants to check out. We’ve been meaning to pick up a new cheese slicer, so maybe they have a good one. Fine. So, after we finish lunch, we go to the store and don’t quite find what we’re looking for. We remember there’s another store where we could look, but it’s at the other end of the mall. As we walk in that direction, my kid is distracted by some Pokemon shoes in a display window. We investigate further.

On and on it goes, one thing after another. When I saw my daughter’s dentist appointment at noon, in my mind, I’d be back home by about 2 o’clock, and I’d be able to get down to work. Instead, we don’t end up leaving the mall until some time after 4 o’clock, so we hit some rush hour traffic on the way back. Instead of taking two hours out of my day, this little adventure has taken over four hours out of my day. That’s more than double. And it was a great source of stress and anxiety for me along the way.

Freedom and Responsibility

I know what some of you are thinking, because I was thinking a lot of the same thing. My wife had a day off from work, and she could have easily taken our daughter to her appointment without me. That’s totally true. I could have stayed home and worked. Absolutely. But the flexibility of the dot com lifestyle and freelancing means that I have the freedom to spend this time with my family if I want to, so I did. The FOMO is strong. There are no regrets about going to the dentist or visiting the mall.

The regret, and the source of anxiety, stems from the fact that I misjudged how much time this would take. I underestimated how much of my day it would take up. Logically and pragmatically speaking, it could have been a two-hour excursion. In reality, there will always be unexpected delays and distractions. Everything always takes longer than you think it will, so you may as well accommodate for this extra time right from the get-go.

In other words, budget for the unexpected. Factor in a buffer in all your estimates. This is true when it comes to everyday errands like dentist appointments, just as much as it is true with your professional endeavors. If you think you can write a blog post in a hour, schedule in that you’ll take two hours to write it. Or three hours. It might sound outrageous to triple your expectations in this way, but that reality is likely closer than your original estimate.

If I went into that day expecting that I wouldn’t be home until around 6 in the evening, I wouldn’t have stressed.

Anticipate the Unexpected

And the same applies for money too. Anyone who has ever engaged in a home renovation (or home building) project knows this paradigm all too well. If you think it will cost $10,000 to remodel your kitchen, it’s probably going to cost closer to $20,000 or $30,000. If you think you’ll get it done in a week, it’ll probably take two or three weeks. But if you go in with the mindset of spending $30,000 over three weeks, you won’t fret nearly as much when you end up paying $22,000 over 13 days.

The way to think about this buffer, both in terms of time and money, is the same way that you should think about saving up an emergency fund. They say that everyone should have at least three to six months’ worth of income saved up for an emergency. If you have that security cushion in place, you’ll be far less stressed when you’re hit with a sudden expense than if you didn’t have that fund saved up in the first place. Treat your time the same way. Give yourself a comfortable buffer.

That way, you’ll be much better prepared to handle those unexpected delays… because you expected them all along.