One thing that has fascinated me is the idea that being lean and not having any waste was actually a bad thing during COVID. You may have seen different news articles talking about global supply chain issues. A lot of those issues came from companies trying to not be wasteful, being lean, and having just-in-time manufacturing (i.e., the idea of getting the appropriate supplies at the right time to meet demands).

If during COVID, a company was ‘wasteful’, i.e., had too many supplies even though the demand didn’t match, that company would have been successful or at least fared better than those companies who followed the concept of lean. While other companies struggled to get the supplies for their products, this company would have had more supplies and would have better survived the ‘drought’.

Thinking about the parallels between being lean and working – we cram our workdays with meetings, tasks, coffees and more in an attempt to get more done. But is there value in being a bit wasteful?

Why create space in your work?

Imagine two different kinds of days.

One day, you get into work, rushing because there was traffic and then you had a hard time finding a parking spot. You get to your desk but then realize you are a few minutes late to an early morning meeting. Running into the meeting room, you frown as you are also presenting. You hastily connect your laptop to the projector so that you can get the presentation up on the screen. Despite being late, the meeting is successful and there are lots of questions, which makes the meeting run over. You do your best to capture the discussion and close the questions and then run to the next meeting which is back to back with your morning meeting. You’re late to that one too. After that meeting, you get back to your desk and open up your inbox to respond to emails. Pretty soon, it’s lunchtime without you realizing it and you heat up your lunch and eat before running off to another meeting right after lunch. Several meetings later, it’s close to the end of your day and you realize all you have done that day is attend several meetings, answer emails and ate lunch. Where was the time for the important tasks you need to push forward? You guess that’s a task for another day.

One day, you get into work, not in a rush because you don’t have any morning meetings. You protect your mornings because you know that time is the most productive time for you. You get into work and start working on your most important task. A few hours later, it is almost time for lunch. Making some headway on your important task, you take a break by responding to emails before grabbing lunch. Since afternoons are better meeting times for you, you take a few meetings. None of them are back to back and all of them have sufficient buffer so you can reflect on the meeting, jot down minutes, and send them out all before the next meeting. At the end of the day, you reflect on what you have done. You worked on your most important task. You had several productive meetings where the minutes and action items were sent out. And you have enough time before leaving work to check your calendar for the next day, write down new tasks, and even chat with a few of your team members.

The first day is about packing in as much as you can. When you have back-to-back meetings and a meeting runs over, it spills over into all future meetings. Because you have a packed day, you don’t have time to pause and tackle the things that are important. You are overwhelmed with urgent (though not necessarily important) tasks. If something important came up, you would have to re-organize all of your tasks and tackle them either in the evening, the weekend or squeeze them in the next day.

Contrast that with the second day. You don’t have back-to-back meetings. There’s a buffer built into the meetings so you can decompress, jot down minutes and send out action items. You have your most important time protected for your most important task.

Which of the two days would you like to have?

How to create space in your work

Astute readers will know that the difference between the two days isn’t just about creating space. There are a lot of other ideas underneath the second day.

  • Understanding your energy and when you are most productive
  • Protecting your most valuable and productive hours for your most important tasks
  • Prioritizing your task list so that you are tackling important and urgent, and important tasks
  • Being realistic about the length of meetings and creating buffer that could be used for the meeting
  • Understanding when your energy is lowest and scheduling ‘no brainer’ tasks during that time like emails or social coffees
  • Not scheduling important meetings first thing in the morning when you don’t have control over when you arrive at work

You might wonder how much time would create ‘space’ in your day. Through experimenting with my workday, I have found about 20% of my time interspersed throughout the day helps to make me feel like my days aren’t so packed. That’s about an hour and a half for an 8-hour workday. This is in addition to putting in buffer time for meetings. For example, scheduling 25-minute meetings instead of 30-minute meetings and 50-minute meetings instead of 1-hour meetings. I carve out an hour in the morning to work on whatever is most important. Ten minutes before or after lunch to review my tasks and calendar and my progress. Twenty minutes at the end of the day to update my tasks and review my calendar for the upcoming day and week.

What to do with ’empty’ space

You might be worried that you will have empty time you won’t be able to fill with work. That’s okay, I have three ways you can use the time productively:

Learn. Sometimes, I use that time to learn. How many of you take the time to learn how to do your job better, either at work or in your free time? Probably not many of you. But how will you improve if you keep on doing the same thing? You can’t expect different results (i.e., improvement) from doing the same thing over and over. So sometimes my most important task is taking the time out to take a LinkedIn course or to read a work-related book.

Meta-work. As I’m working on tasks, I’ll sometimes wish I had templates or deliverables to work off of. I’ll take note of the things I wish I had and then continue with my task. But when I have time, I think about the templates or deliverables I wished I had the most and then carve out time to develop them to make any future work more efficient.

Reflect and rest. Some days, it’s putting out fire after fire. I find sometimes I don’t take the time to step back and consider all of the things I need to do. Stepping back can often reveal specific tasks or actions I can take to help me down the road or tasks that might help multiple projects I’m working on. And if I feel like I’m on the right path, I’ll take the time to meditate or rest so I can bring my full presence to the next project I work on.