Did you wake up this morning with more on your to-do list than you could accomplish? Each day, we rise with the desire to do more with less, squeeze in one more thing, say “yes” one more time. The pressure comes from all around us – work, family, home, friends, faith organizations – and, (drumroll) ourselves.

At a recent company offsite, I was honored to share an “Inspiration of the Day”. I spoke about margin. The impact of what I shared was palpable in the room. Many connected with emotions that were sitting just beneath the surface. The content gave people permission to know they were not alone in their need for margin. Neither are you. My hope is that you might also become curious about how to implement more margin in your life.

What Lack of Margin Looks Like

This talk was rooted in my own personal need to evaluate the speed of my life. Or really, the velocity of my life that I allowed to happen. I was hearing the same message from my coaches, my peers, my team, and my family. The pace I was working, by my own decision and will, was not sustainable.

I enjoy working. It gives me energy and drives me. I love to learn, strategize, and deliver. But I was finding that with back-to-back meetings, self-induced and unrealistic deadlines, and the pressure to always perform at my highest level, I hardly had a chance to use the restroom let alone give my brain space to think outside the urgency of the moment. I had no margin. None. It was not sustainable.

Dr. Richard Swenson, author of the book Margins, shares this comment about the lack of margin.

“Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the hairdresser because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from a gas station, and you forgot your purse. That’s marginless”.

Dr. Swenson continues to say, “We must have some room to breathe. We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions.”

According to Webster, the broad definition of margin is “a spare amount or measure or degree allowed or given for contingencies or special situations.” Quoting Dr. Swensen again with his more refined definition, “Margin is the space that exists between ourselves and our limits. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations.’’  

Figure 1 illustrates the typical execution of margin:

  • Margin is the space between our load and our limits that allows chosen things “in”
  • Boundaries (our limits) are established to keep things ‘out’
  • But the transition lines are firm and don’t leave room to be human
Figure 1

But what if margin looked like Figure 2? What if we sprinkle margin into our load space, not just right outside it? Wouldn’t it make our work time more sustainable? Might we choose to have an important conversation with someone that we normally would not have the time for? Margin makes room for things to come into our lives in even the busiest times. But if we have no allowances for this to happen, they won’t or can’t.

Figure 2

What is Margin?

I want to be clear about the difference between planned rejuvenation time (like vacation) and margin. Rejuvenation time is planned time, even if it’s planned time to do nothing like sitting by a lake staring aimlessly for hours. Margin is time that is planned, but it is undetermined how you might use it. It’s held in reserve for the “what if” or “what might be”. It sits in your calendar as void to do with it what you choose, when you arrive at it. When the time comes, you have the space to decide what to do with it based on what would serve you best at that time. You might need to clear your head, check in with a peer or teammate, call a parent or child, stretch your legs, step outside and breath some fresh air, prepare for an upcoming meeting, decompress from an earlier meeting, straighten up your desk, grab a cup of coffee, write a note to someone who needs it. I’m guessing you are picking up on the need for margin – even if you never realized it before.

Man sitting on a bench in a park on a sunny autumn morning.

But it isn’t that easy. Why wasn’t I planning margin into my life already? The truth is, there are many false beliefs about margin. One might believe that if our schedules are not packed full, we are not important or valuable to the organization. We might think that if we build-in margin, we are perceived as lazy or entitled, not working hard enough. We might fill that margin with things that are a bad use of our time. Or, even worse, we might have time to discover something within ourselves that we really don’t want to deal with.

But there is truth about margin that is greater than those voices in our heads. “If you yearn for relief from the pain and pressure of overload, take a lifelong dose of margin. The benefits of good health, financial stability, fulfilling relationships, and availability for (greater) purposes will follow you all your days.”

You can’t remember special times if you aren’t present. You can’t pour out if you are not filled up. You can’t breathe deeply if you can’t catch your breath. You can’t expect to have friends if you fail to be one. (Ouch.) If I were to take myself down by being marginless, that would be one thing, but I have a team. A good leader models margin for their team. The power of leaders modeling margin drives home the declared importance of our mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

How to Build Margin into Your Life

Here are some practical ways to build margin into your life and allow margin in other’s lives.

  • Plan your calendar a month out and insert unprescribed margin. Schedule it for the morning or late afternoon. Plan to have unplanned lunch hours three times a week that you will not work through.
  • Schedule 50-minute meetings (allow time to walk, use the washroom, switch gears).
  • Give yourself grace, the practice of margin take time to develop.
  • Give others grace when they are protecting their margins.
  • Say “no” to meetings when they contest your margin, (yes, you can do that.)
  • Name, out loud, what things are allowed to fill your margin – then only fill margin when you are certain that it will help you, not hurt you.
  • Bury your social media apps in your phone. They don’t belong in your margin. If anything, they suffocate and stifle mindfulness and clear headedness. But if they are in your margin time, use them wisely and with control.
  • When you realize you’ve abused your margin, identify what caused that and make a note of it. The next time it happens, you’ll have a mental note from before.

There is an old Zen saying that emphasizes the need for the practice of margin. “You should sit in nature 20 minutes a day. Unless you are busy, then you should site there for an hour.”

I encourage you to take a few minutes today to simply mark out a few margin spaces in your calendar. And call them that. Be honest with yourself that to be your best, you need these opportunities to breath, reset, or touch base. Maybe it looks like a five-minute walk or a call to a check in with a friend. You will find the value of margin to be 10-times more beneficial in your life than the time you actually allocated for it. One final thought by Andy Stanley, “Priority determines capacity.” You can prioritize what matters in your life.