What’s Your Response Buffer?

Apr 23, 2012   //   by Gail Barker   //   Blog  //  2 Comments

Over the last several months, I’ve availed myself of the opportunity to pay closer attention to human relationships. It’s something I like to do from time to time as it affords me the chance to learn from practical, everyday interactions and line up whatever theoretical learning I might be soaking up in the moment, with real-life situations. For a while now, one of the things that I’ve been most intrigued by is what I call “response buffers.”

Response buffers are those blocks of time between questions and answers, between requests and responses, between action and reaction. In the context of human relationships, what I’m most intrigued by is the phenomenon that appears to be fairly widespread, in which you feel the need to respond to a request, a question, a situation, or an interaction IMMEDIATELY. I’ve seen it and experienced it over and over again; someone makes a request or asks a question, and you barely allow yourself time to receive the information before responding. Something happens and you jump into action before the event has even completely come to a stop. Do you know what I’m talking about? If not, perhaps a concrete example would help.

Consider this: you’re at work, and a coworker asks you to switch shifts with her. You agree without even checking your calendar, only to discover when you go home that you’ve got an appointment of your own on the day that you just agreed to work. Or, your child comes home from school and asks if she can “please, please pretty please go with her friend (who happens to be leaving RIGHT NOW) to the park to play for an hour” and you agree; only after she’s left do you remember that she was to clean her room before doing anything after school today. Or, you’re at a meeting and are giving a presentation as chair of a sub-committee; somebody raises a question to which you don’t have the answer, but since you don’t want to appear stupid, you make something up and hope to the high heavens that you’re at least on the right track. In each of these cases, there’s a way that your “response buffer” is so small that you’re creating unnecessary angst in your life. So, what’s the solution? Increase your response buffer.

This whole concept is something that is of particular importance, I believe, to anyone who tends to feel overwhelmed, overworked, underappreciated, disconnected or otherwise stressed in any way. A short response buffer – characterized by the tendency to provide immediate responses to queries and situations – can get in the way of you making choices that actually serve the bigger picture of your life. My guess is that small buffers are created out of a belief that you either don’t have time to think, or that you must have the answer now. Both of these beliefs are fallacies to some degree; I would assert that there are very few life situations in which you cannot afford yourself a buffer of at least 5 minutes. Very few. And, simultaneously, when you’re someone who works with a longer response buffer in the general scheme of things, then in a truly time-sensitive situation, your brain is actually capable of making a quick decision that is more solidly grounded, because you’re not overwhelmed overall, and can actually make sound choices. Do you know what I’m talking about? Can you relate?

In essence, what I’m suggesting is this. The time that is available to you between request and response is rich, fertile ground in which your power to choose, to create, to really align with what matters to you is available in abundance. When you act from constant urgency, you decrease this power of yours. Why do that? The power to choose is one of life’s greatest gifts. Experience tells me that the more you avail yourself of this particular gift, the richer your life is.

When it comes to response buffers, one of the structures that I’ve seen implemented in various organizations to great effect – which I have used with clients and in my own life – is what I call the “24-hour rule.” This rule basically states that no matter what the request, no matter what the circumstance, you will allow yourself 24 hours before you respond. Can you see why this rule might be a good thing? If not, let me give you 3 solid reasons:

  1. It allows for any emotion to dissipate, ensuring a grounded response.
  2. It gives you time to consider the circumstance from all angles, perhaps realizing some facets that you would have otherwise overlooked.
  3. It gives the situation itself time to resolve on its own – sometimes a request or inquiry doesn’t actually need your response; the 24-hour rule allows this to become apparent.

Granted, there are some genuine, emergency, need-your-attention-now circumstances in the world that you cannot hold up to the 24-hour rule. As I said earlier, however, these aren’t as many as you might think. And so, from my perspective, there’s something to be said for lengthening your response buffer.

Bottom-line: increasing the response time between request and response can go a long way to decreasing the amount of stress, angst and overwhelm in your life. If 24-hours feels too long, no worries; start with a smaller buffer. But build a response-buffer nonetheless. There really is very little that truly needs your immediate response.


  • Building a response buffer is one of the most important things I’ve done for myself. Thanks for the re-visit; I was beginning to slack.

  • You’re welcome Annis — glad to know this post was of value! I know that I find the building of response buffers helpful, and I do have to be conscious of them in order for them to get built and used effectively 🙂

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