Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. But how often do we actually plan with that truth in mind? Not often enough, in my case.
I am a man rich with mistakes.
Yet, one of the bigger mistakes I keep making is that when I plan things, I go about it as if I can pull everything off without any mistakes.
Not just mistakes — but I used to have a bad habit of planning without any margin of error. My plans had no room for the unplanned — changes, surprises, accidents, unseen opportunities.
My budgets, for example, used to have no money allocated for unexpected expenses. My family’s monthly budget is still structured that way, though we now have a bucket under savings called “the buffer” — a wiggle room for any and all unexpected spendings.
I’m still having a hard time implementing the same principle to my schedules. I don’t leave enough time for catch-ups and didn’t-think-about-its. It makes my days appear constantly underachieving, as there are always items that are left over for the following day because I had spent some time dealing with the unexpected.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal — after all, I’m still productive most of days — but it does make a significant difference in my mindset. Instead of celebrating my productivity or my control over my finances, I am constantly monitoring nervously, making sure there are no mistakes or deviations.
It’s a very rigid and inflexible way to live.
Expecting the Unexpected
Before we finally realized our mistakes, we used to have a tight budget that rigorously listed every expense we could think of. Consequently, we had budgeted for only known expenses.
But 9 out of 10, we wouldn’t break even at the end. I recall lamenting how it would have been fine if this or that unexpected thing didn’t happen.
Then it finally dawned on me. Unexpected things always happen.
Every month we spend money on something we didn’t plan on. Everyday I do something I didn’t know I was going to do.
The unexpected is a very expected part of life. Instead of ignoring it, we should have opened our arms and welcomed it like family.
3 Ways to Accommodate Margin of Error
So, how do we factor in the unexpected, when they are just that — unexpected?
By leaving room for it. More specifically, here are 3 fundamental ways to accommodate the unexpected:
- Set up right expectations. This is the biggest and most basic, and everything else will flow from it. When you’re making schedules, know that it will not go exactly according to it. The same thing with when you’re estimating how long it takes to do something or how much it costs. At the end of your lists, make several empty bullet points that say “unexpected.” When you talk to people, communicate the right expectations.
- Have a spare. There is a reason why most cars ship with spare tires — because tires break. Instead of waiting until one of them breaks unexpectedly, cars have a space dedicated for carrying spares, so it’s there when you need it. But to what extent do we carry this concept to everything else? From toilet paper to ink cartridges to salad dressings — if it’s something you use, don’t get in the habit of waiting until you run out. Have an extra, and when the extra ends up getting used, that’s the time to go buy replacements — and you have time to do it.
- Budget extra. This goes for both time and money. Let’s say you’re traveling to a foreign country. You do your research and book events, sight-seeing trips and transportation. But you know that airplanes can get delayed. Jet lag may be surprisingly hard to overcome. Whenever I go visit Japan, I try not to schedule anything the day after I arrive — in fact, I try to leave the first two days unbooked. Similarly, happy is a budget that has money assigned to unexpected — I don’t know about you, but I would say at least 20-30% of our monthly spending is on things we didn’t plan on spending (and we’re not impulse buyers!).
Pitfalls to Watch out for
As I write this, I am well aware that all this is very basic, common-sense pointers. I wonder why I or anyone else did not see this and plan accordingly. Yet, I keep discovering corners of my life that still don’t have any margins of errors built into them. In today’s efficiency-obsessed climate, it’s hard to leave some wiggle room that appear “empty” on the surface. Below are particular scenarios I can think of that tempt us to unexpect the unexpected:
- Tight budget, tight deadlines: part of the reason I fell into the financial trap I described above was because fundamentally we were trying to make the most out of our tight budget. We’d try to squeeze every dollar and use it efficiently — and in the process forgot to leave room for the the unexpected.
- Control-freaks: if you suffer from the illusion that life is what you control, then it’s hard to live with the fact that surprises do occur. Ease your reins a bit and allow life to surprise you. You may be surprised how pleasant some of them turn out to be.
- Task-orientedness: if you’re like me and live off of the pleasure of checking off lists, it’s hard to make a to-do item called “unknown.” Life can become too focused on the known tasks and you have a hard time being flexible for ones that show up without making appointments first.
- Rigid routines and structures: from early days, we’re drilled to live a structured life — schools being a prime example. I’m not against structures, but it can become suffocating if it’s too rigid. Remember, we used to have “study halls?” An empty time slot here and there is a good thing, not a sign of inefficiency.
- Overachievers: you’re making the most out of your time/money/life, but always stretching your limits will sooner or later catch up with you — sometimes with serious consequences. Don’t fill your days to the gills. If you have enough things on your agenda for 75% of your day, that ought to be enough.
- Becoming a machinery: from automobiles to computers, we have machinery that provide us the expected — and we buy into the misconception that that’s how life should be always. We expect people to behave the same way, too! Yet, computers, for example, are getting so human-like now that they throw tantrums, have nervous break downs and fry its own brains. 😉 Allow life to be a living, breathing organism that it is, instead of a cold and calculated machine.
Conclusion: Margin of Error Gives Us Breathing Room
When we breathe correctly, our abdomen area expands and contracts. If a pair of pants that doesn’t accommodate this movement, it’ll feel suffocating to you.
To me, that’s how accommodating a margin of error feels: like having breathing room. Instead of being rigid and avoiding all mistakes, diversions and surprises, I am able to welcome them. My sense of security enhances, because I was expecting the unexpected — they no longer break my fragile system simply because they show up.
Precisely when you’re overwhelmed, driven by tight budgets and deadlines, is the time to examine what’s on your table and make sure you left some empty spaces. Life does not need to accommodate our idea of efficiency.
But we need to accommodate life.
Have you ever made the mistake of not having a margin of error in your plans? Or in what ways do you make sure that you have room to accommodate the unexpected? Please share below.