Building Margin Into Your Life

Building Margin Into Your Life
Building Margin Into Your Life

Do you ever have a stretch of time where you are so busy it feels like you can’t even pause to catch your breath? If so, you need to look at building margin into your life. Such a pace is impossible to maintain in the long run, and can lead us to both burnout and poor performance on the tasks we are trying to get done.

I can get frantically busy. These days it is generally only for a day or two at a time, but there have been times when that busyness stretched into weeks. It’s so busy that you don’t even have time to consider what you need to do next. You just pick up the next thing and keep going. Sometimes these stretches are caused by over-scheduling, or an inability to say no, or forgetting that I can ask for help; but they all have the same result: exhaustion, burnout and frustration. The really ironic part is that I do it to myself, because I know that scheduling in margin will prevent it.

What Is Margin?

Margin, on paper, is the white space around the printed text. It gives a visual break to the printed text, and allows our eyes to rest as we read.

Margin, in our lives, is the space around our activities in which we can pause, reflect, and consider what is going on. It is very much like the reading type of margin, in that it is a built-in way to ease up.

(BTW, don’t google “margin” to get a more specific definition unless you have an interest in finance. Otherwise you’ll be treated to pages of economic definitions that will bore you stiff.)

Margin Between Appointments

If you take any electronic calendar as your guide, you will find that the default meeting length is one hour, and that it is OK to schedule back-to-back meetings. Electronic calendars don’t take into account the time that it takes to travel between physical locations, much less the mental space that is needed to get your head in the game for the next meeting.

And sometimes we don’t take that into account either. I am still surprised, years into working with the productivity space, how many people don’t build travel time into their appointments. It seems common sense that if you have an appointment at 10 am, and the place is 20 minutes away from where you are at 9:30, that you need to leave at 9:40 in order to get there on time. Being late is disrespectful to the people you are meeting – it sends the message that they are not important enough for you to be prompt.

I see the more subtle problem of the lack of mental margin often with those who have lots of meetings. The people will sit down, and inevitably someone will ask for a recap of the situation or a summary of what has been talked about (if they are late). Again, this is disrespectful. It sends the message that the subject of the meeting is not important enough for you to think about when you are not in the meeting.

That’s the standard view of margin. We can build both physical and mental transition time into our appointments and meetings so that we are present and focused on the task at hand.

But there are other places we can build in margin – and this is what will combat the feeling of task marathons that we get ourselves into.

A Broader View of Margin

We can build more time into our schedules to build a different type of margin. Rather than being between appointments, we can build margin into our days and weeks so that we have more mental space. This in turn leads to a more relaxed and focused approach to the tasks you have in front of them.

Here are some places you can build in margin:

  • Mornings. I know that getting up early is a hot thing right now, and it’s really hard to do when you’re not a morning person (believe me, I know!). But even 15 minutes to get up and write or read can make a big difference in your outlook for the day.
  • After work. After work can be crazy busy with all the activities and bustle around a family. Spend the commute time before family enters in quiet, reflecting on your day. This may mean wearing earphones on the train, or turning off the radio in your car.
  • Sundays. I’ve always scoffed at the idea of the “day of rest” my great-grandparents observed. But I have found that taking Sunday off from the task lists, the demands and self-inflicted must-dos really does set me up for a better week. I have spent the last few Sundays reading for pleasure and napping, mixed with time with my daughter and cat. It’s been a great way to relax – and I find myself more able to focus come Monday morning.


Margin is a time and space where we can reset and think about what is coming at us. By building margin into our lives, whether by buffering appointments or by finding time in our week, we can up our focus and be more effective.