Buffers: A Key to Working at Your Most Effective

I’m on an ongoing quest to be more effective with my time. This means — among other things — doing more with less: finding ways of being more productive in less time.

One of the most important principles I’ve learned is that my cognitive abilities vary throughout the day: Some times my mind feels fast and sharp while at others it feels slow and dull. Effectiveness requires the ​presence of mind to recognize when I’m in one state versus the other. Trying to get things done when I’m feeling dazed will lead to either taking longer, being frustrated, producing poor wor​k or — more often — a combination of all of them.

Knowing I’m not always available to do my best work, I batch tasks to focus on the ones I’m ready to work on at any given time. This requires creating buffers: parts of my information ecosystem I’ve set aside for “parking” things I’m not ready to deal with yet. Some of my buffers include:

Once every week or two I’ll go through each of these and “process” it — go through items in the inbox and do something with them, one at a time.

For example, I use one of my DevonThink inboxes to keep links I may share in my newsletter. I capture these throughout the day; perhaps I’ve read something in my RSS reader or through Twitter that may be of interest to my subscribers. I send that link to DevonThink, where it will wait until I start building my next newsletter.

I edit the newsletter every other Saturday. I’ve blocked time to sit at my computer and review all of the stories I’ve collected over the past two weeks. I decide which will make it into the next newsletter, and create short summaries that give readers the gist of the story. I’ll also write short posts, often inspired by what I’ve learned from reviewing the things that are going into the newsletter.

The process of editing the newsletter takes anywhere between two and four hours every two weeks. I consider it an effective use of my time. But this only works because I have a buffer; it’d take much longer if I had to deal with the materials I’m sharing at the moment I’ve found them — often with varying degrees of cognitive ability. Saturday mornings are less hectic for me than at other times of the week. I’m also usually rested. This gives me the necessary cognitive bandwidth to deal with this task.

The old Delphic maxim to “know thyself” is even more relevant today when we have so many sources of distraction. Knowing when you perform your best — and setting up places to park work until you’re able to deal with it at your most productive — is essential if you want to maximize your effectiveness. Setting aside buffers is a key component in an information ecosystem that’s structured to let you do your best work.​​