What do you do when your calendar takes a sudden unexpected hit? That happened to me last week. I had an upcoming project that was going to take big blocks of uninterrupted time. Luckily, I was looking at three days with absolutely nothing on my calendar. Visions of putting my shoulder to the wheel for those three days danced through my head.

And then the phone rang…

One of the judges for an upcoming school band contest canceled. I was being asked if I could take his place. The dates? As you might guess, the contest was scheduled on the exact three days I had planned for the “big project.”

”Every time management consultant will tell you to learn to say “no.” For that matter, that’s the same advice I give! The only problem was this: I really wanted to say “yes.” Judging band contests keeps me relevant in the area where I began my teaching career 35 years ago. It puts me around wonderful friends who I don’t see often enough. Finally, it’s something I enjoy doing.

How do you say “yes” when logic demands “no”?

Do you think of the “organized person” as being rigid and sticking to a plan no matter what? In truth, organization requires flexibility. It’s realizing when you look into the future, you can’t see past the horizon. You never know what’s coming your way. Sometimes the surprises are good. Sometimes they’re bad. Either way, we have to be ready for the predictably unpredictable.

Three principles can help us be ready when the unexpected hijacks our calendars:

1. Leave yourself some margin

Take the deadline you are given and back it up. The IRS says your taxes are due April 15. If you plan to put the check in the mail on the 15th, you’re asking for trouble. Your accountant will come down with the flu. The dog will eat one of your W-9s. Your best buddy will offer a free ticket to Vegas. You would love to go, but you can’t. You’re up against the tax deadline.

Make your own deadline, one that is comfortably in advance of the one being imposed on you. If all goes well, you finish early. You now have “found time.” But should a surprise turn your calendar upside down, you still have time to make the hard deadline.

2. Plan what you can do in spare minutes

Even though the calendar looks full, you will have small pockets of time. In the example of judging a band contest, there was dead time between each band. A couple of bands canceled, leaving a half-hour of “found time” each. I always like to arrive early in case traffic is heavy. That early arrival gives me more discretionary time.

Little pockets of time meant being able to return a phone call here or there. I could answer important emails and even outline the article you are reading now. That’s why I put everything on my task list. In a few minutes the evening before, I can pick the things which will “fit” into those spare minutes. The next day, I work the plan.

3. Plan your catch-up time

When the surprise event is over, the backlog of tasks can be overwhelming. Perhaps you want to spend a few hours handling all the “little” things. Maybe you need to dive into one major project and put off those little things for another day. Either way, begin the day with a list of what you want to do in the order you want to do it.

Tomorrow’s opportunities are not always apparent today. Organization is about giving yourself the freedom to seize the opportunities in life, to make the day count, and to enjoy the journey.

If this post resonated with you, tell me about it in the comment. Please also consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter. It just might help someone you know survive the next time they are slammed.