For the parts of your schedule that are pretty regular, budgeting that time is comparatively straightforward.1
From the amount of time you have available to “spend,” you subtract the time you think you’ll need for a given commitment. You’re done budgeting when you’ve run out of time to spend. In this way, you work with a variable list of commitments against a fixed amount of time.
But your schedule might not be fully regular. In some parts, it might be fully irregular.2 And even if it’s normally regular, some seasons of life might introduce more irregularity than usual.
With this kind of irregularity, the idea of budgeting your time doesn’t go out the window. But it does take a different shape.
Rather than working with a known schedule and seeing what commitments you want to address in that time, you need to reverse the process. You’ll instead work with a variable schedule against a fixed list of commitments.
An Example of Irregular Time
For instance, small humans aren’t known for their self-sufficiency or ability to keep invariably to a set schedule. So, if you have kids and you are your childcare plan (either normally or because another childcare plan has gotten paused), you now have a pretty irregular schedule.
In that time, your kids may need you at more or less random intervals for more or less random periods of time. Your plans for that time will need to take shape accordingly.3
If what you’re facing is a seasonal, temporary shift, you might decide to postpone everything and enjoy the time with your kids. If you have the buffer in your work and school commitments to be able to do this, it’s a great option.4
To extend the metaphor of the financial budget, buffer in your schedule serves the function of an “emergency fund.”5 A monetary emergency fund provides a cushion against unknown expenses. Similarly, maintaining buffer in your schedule can help cushion the impact of unexpected events and give you more options for addressing them.
But let’s say the irregularity you’re facing in your schedule isn’t temporary. Or it’s at least long-term enough that certain commitments still need attention. In this case, you need to somehow fold work on these other commitments into the irregular times you have to work on them.
How to Budget Irregular Time
If you try to stack up in your calendar a nice, neat tower of time blocks, you’ll pretty soon find it knocked over. And if you try to stack it up again, you’ll be in for a repeat of the same experience.
So, instead of going around that frustration-building cycle, take a couple seconds to consider what commitments you need to address. As you do so, try to classify them into the four buckets of the “Eisenhower Matrix.”6
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
|Not Important||Quadrant 3|
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important
This classification then becomes your budget for your irregular time.
How to Use an Irregular Time Budget
When your schedule’s irregular, you don’t know what time you will have to tackle these commitments or when you’ll have it. But whatever you have whenever you have it, you can then “spend” working down through these quadrants in numerical order.
You want to
- Abbreviate the activities in Quadrant 1. You can do so by completing these items fully, completing them well enough so they’re no longer urgent, or taking advance action to prevent urgency from arising.
- Concentrate your attention on the activities that fall into Quadrant 2.
- Separate yourself from activities in Quadrant 3. To do so, consider whether you can perhaps automate or delegate these commitments.
- Eliminate from as much as possible the activities that fall into Quadrant 4.
When time is up, unplug, and go hug your kiddos.—You might even thank them for whatever time they ended up giving you whenever they gave it to you.
Let what you haven’t gotten done roll forward to another time slot. But if you’ve spent your irregular time on what was most urgent and most important, you already know what that is. And what you’re rolling forward will be what can best keep until later anyway.
Whether it’s caring for kids, juggling a busy season of appointments, or something else, lots of things can contribute to giving you an irregular schedule.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t budget your time. It just means you need to be especially intentional about spending the time you have on addressing your most important commitments.
Here, I’m intentionally giving a somewhat extreme example. On the other hand, your schedule might be pretty variable but still allow you to know in advance what time you’ll have to address different commitments. In that case, you might find value in blocking your variable time with the journalistic approach. ↩
For this framework, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 154–92; see also Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 91–158; McKeown, Essentialism, 215–24. ↩