Do You Expect the Unexpected?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. I am a huge fan of keeping buffer for everything I plan (am a total risk averse person). The buffer usually takes care of all the unexpected stuff. But planning for life is a totally different matter. Life keeps throwing so many unknown things your way, it’s really difficult to think of all possibilities or even stick to your plan. “Expect the unexpected” is the norm in such cases. Just have grace to accept what life throws and make best of it.

    Avani-Mehta´s last blog post..Top 8 Productivity Hacks – #6

    1. Hi Avani,

      You do seem like a smart, controlled person who has no trouble building buffers into everything you do.

      I don’t think the point is to think of all possibilities. It’s just to leave unknowns as unknowns — and leave room for them.


  2. “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.”

    I think this says it all.

    I also think there is a spiritual component here. We should constantly be strengthening our mind and spirit when things are good. Because we never know when things might get tough. And it is then that what we have worked so hard at may really come into use.

    1. Hi Sean,

      Well, this is a rare pleasure to see you here! I’m amazed that you still have time to comment, with all that you got going on.

      Pavlina talks about this in his book — when you increase your alignment with the Truth principle, you get better at estimating and being in touch with reality.


  3. Hi Ari – One thing to mention: if you are constantly planning for any and every eventuality, no matter how remote the possibility, it keeps you from doing anything except plan. We see this all the time with our franchisees, and I believe it is fear-based. They are afraid to go out and make relationships with prospective customers. They are afraid to commit to a marketing plan, etc. They want to be prepared. They think if they plan, they’ll not make a mistake.

    “Winging it” is difficult, but you have to get past the simple fact that not everything you plan defensively for has a chance of happening. I think this is the flip side of what you posted. 😀


    1. Hi Betsy,

      “They think if they plan, they’ll not make a mistake.”

      That’s true, isn’t it? I can see that. But what I wanted to say was that preparing for the unexpected is an important part of planning. Not to think of every possible thing that can happen, but simply just to know that there will be something, and that you can deal with it when it comes up, because you left room for it.

      Winging it is difficult for some people, while others have a hard time with planning. 😉 As with everything, I think the sweet spot is in balancing.


  4. Why are the hardest things to learn so simple when we see them from the other side? What you are saying is simple and profound at the same time.

    I have a rule of thumb. When I start making lists to keep track of the lists it is time to slow down and remember to breathe.

    This time of year is uncomfortable to me, because I don’t like deadlines, and the holiday season is full of them. Got to get the presents by X, got to put up the decorations by X, got to send the Christmas cards out by X…We can take the X out of Christmas but it still manages to re-insert itself. 🙂 G.

    Grace Kleppin´s last blog post..Reframing the red roof

    1. Hi Grace,

      Yeah, as I was writing it, I was struck by how simple and common-sense it seems. I feel kinda dumb for having to write such a post. 😉 But while I’ve made lots of improvements on creating space for the unexpected, there are still a lot of places where I really assume that things go my way. It’s a habit that I’m still unlearning.


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