Buffer Time: The Missing Ingredient of Pacing with Chronic Illness

It’s the problem I keep running into as a high-functioning spoonie time and time again: dealing with unexpected events.

From a flat tire or a malfunctioning computer to sick kids and a migraine that puts you to bed – all those things you don’t see coming mess up my careful energy management every time.

Life’s surprises are already inconvenient when you’re a healthy person with a busy schedule. But it becomes problematic when you depend on planning and pacing to get things done with chronic illness.

You see, managing the limited energy you have when you have health problems depends on predictability. When you have a general idea of what your day and week will look like, you can schedule your activities with plenty of rest beforehand and afterwards. What’s more, you can alternate between physical, mental and emotional demanding to-dos to get the most out of your energetic hours.

But when your car breaks down or you urgently have to take your pet to the vet, all that meticulous planning goes out the window. You need to take action, often immediately. This can be really taxing health-wise. I consider myself on track to ‘recovery’, and yet handling unexpected incidents can mean I don’t have any energy left to cook dinner at night.

And I doubt I’m the only one with this problem. After all, like John Lennon famously said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Now obviously you can’t schedule your entire life – and you shouldn’t want to. Unexpected things aren’t necessarily negative. Who could have planned when they’d meet the love of their life or experience amazing adventures?

But the beautiful and bad things life throws at us can present you with challenges when you’re chronically ill. That’s why having buffer time is so important.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits defines buffer time as “the extra time to get ready, to commute, to do errands before you need to be somewhere, to attend a meeting before another scheduled appointment.” Things always take longer than you think, and by scheduling more space between appointments, you’ll have less stress.

Here’s how you apply the concept of buffer time to optimize your pacing routine.

Buffer Time: The Missing Ingredient of Pacing with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions
All photos by Samer Daboul via pexels.com

How to Add Buffer Time to Your Pacing Routine

1. Master the basics of pacing

Even if you haven’t heard of the term yet, you’re probably familiar with the practice of pacing if you’re living with chronic illness. Pacing refers to spacing your activities out over the day and week to help you stay within the limits of what you body and mind can handle. Instead of keeping going until you get too tired and your symptoms worsen, you alternate activity with rest.

The first step to pacing is recognizing your peak hours, your boundaries and the warning signs of your body. When you have some idea of how long you can be active without ‘crashing’, you can plan time blocks for work and chores, with enough rest to recharge in between.

A pacing routine also allows you to rotate different types of tasks. For example, hanging your laundry to dry (physical chore) is followed by sitting down to make a phone call (mental task). That way, your body can rest up while your mind’s busy tackling another job, and vice versa.

Pacing does not mean you have to plan every minute of your day. You also don’t have to stick to a time-based schedule, but having a rough routine definitely helps to save you energy and get things done.

2. Split your to-do list in two parts

The key of buffer time for pacing with chronic illness is not having to add another item to your already packed to-do list when life throws a curve ball. No matter how stressful things like losing your keys and leaky toilets can be when you’re healthy, most people pull through without much trouble. But having ‘just one more thing to do’ can push your body over the edge when you have health problems, leading to a flare-up of symptoms or a serious health setback.

That’s why it’s helpful to split your to-do list in two parts: one list with ‘must-dos’ and one ‘would-like’ list. On your must-do list, you write down the bare minimum you have to get done that day, including urgent things. Everything that’s not a priority gets jotted down on your ‘would-like to-do’ list.

Do you have energy left after finishing your must-dos and no unexpected things popped up? Great, then you can get to all the less urgent items on your second list.

Buffer Time: The Missing Ingredient of Pacing with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

3. Add white space to your calendar

Another strategy to add buffer time is to blank out one morning or afternoon a week in your schedule. That guarantees you have a few hours to deal with unexpected things that pop up over the week, like small repairs and finances.

Obviously this won’t cover pressing things like picking up sick kids from daycare, but having white space does make it easier to handle daily hassles without getting overwhelmed and burnt out.

When it comes to planning, I also prefer to make a weekly to-do list instead of a daily one for several reasons. First of all, a weekly to-do list gives me a good overview of what’s in store, reducing a lot of last-minute stress over packing gym bags and buying presents.

What’s more, it helps me deal with the fluctuations of living with health problems. On bad days, I can still tackle tasks that require little focus or effort, plus it’s easy to move high-focus jobs over to a different day of the week without messing up my planning.

4. Have a back-up plan for bad days

Even with the best laid plans, there will always be days when everything goes haywire. On those occasions, it helps to have a back-up plan. Knowing you have a healthy meal in the freezer and an extra set of clean clothes when you’re too exhausted to cook or clean after a hectic day, will make it a little easier to pace your limited energy.

What your back-up plan looks like depends on your personal situation and health condition. Stocking up your medicine cabinet and refilling your prescriptions on time is always a good idea. And maybe your illness requires you to have a hospital bag ready to go. Or perhaps a list of ideas and supplies to keep your active toddler busy is what you need to get through sick days – whatever works best for you.

Buffer Time: The Missing Ingredient of Pacing with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

5. Use your buffer time wisely

Ok, so you’ve added white space to your schedule. But what if you don’t need to use your buffer time that day?

It’s easy to use up that ‘extra time’ by refreshing your social media timelines and watching YouTube clips, but that’s probably not the best choice in the long run. Of course, you could use your buffer time to tackle one or more items on  your ‘would-like’ list. But also don’t forget two other strategies:

  • Really recharge. It’s ok to have some energy left at the end of the day! What’s more, by focusing on deep restoration, you support your health and may reduce the amount of buffer time needed in the future.
  • Do things that make your heart smile. Don’t make the mistake thinking that having fun when you’re sick is a luxury. Enjoying yourself with a good book, art project or mini adventure keeps your mental health up, reduces harmful stress and distracts your mind from painful symptoms.

Thankfully, there will be plenty of days when everything runs smoothly. But for those times when life throws you a curve ball, make sure you have some buffer time to help you cope.

How do you deal with unexpected events? Have you ever tried adding buffer time to your pacing routine? 

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