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Margin. Do You Have It?

Published August 27, 2013

Over the last year I have been thinking a great deal about the concept of having margin in my life and how important it is. Several years ago I heard a talk about the topic of creating margin in our lives and it really resonated with me. I wanted margin, but I didn’t have it, and didn’t know how to create it.
When you think about margin you typically think about a page of notebook paper and you think about the space that is left after you’ve filled up the page. That space is the margin, protected from any intrusion so as not to create disruption in the flow of writing. This space is reserved so that you can focus on the body of work you have just created on the page. When we leave margin on the page we allow what we’ve written to live and breathe.
If this is true when we write, it is exponentially more true in how we live our lives. In this always “on” world we live in technology has given us the ability to stay connected more than ever before but that is not a good thing. Because we are all more accessible than in any other time in history we rationalize that this gives us the ability to get more done, to get ahead, to make our mark, to _____ (you fill in the blank). In reality when we are accessible to everyone 24/7 we are accessible to no one because we have left no margin, no room to breathe.
We think that just because we can return that email at 9:30 when we are sitting down on the couch with our spouse, we should. We think that because we can get more done early we should sacrifice getting the rest we need and sleep 3-4 hours a night and get up and get after it.
When you sacrifice margin in your life the things that are really important are neglected. When you have no margin in your life relationships with family and friends grow cold, your health begins to suffer due to lack of downtime, exercise and nutrition.
Create margin in your life to focus on what is MOST important to you. Create margin to feel like you are achieving everything in a way that respects the priorities you have in your life. Create margin to be able to shut it down at night and enjoy some downtime to recharge your batteries, get rejuvenated and refreshed. If you have more margin in your life you will be able to focus better, get more done, and feel better about what you’re doing in every area of your life.
This hard driving, hard charging, ultra-competitive way we live our lives is not healthy, and whether or not we admit it, we all know it. CNN just published an article today that highlights the tragic death of an investment banker intern from Germany last week while working in London.
The article discusses “extreme” work and the challenges the high powered business of investment banking faces in this area and that many interns feel the need to outdo each other for the approval of the decision makers offering jobs. Many other kinds of businesses struggle with this type of “extreme” work expectation for their teams and leadership must take an aggressive stand against employees working too much for too long of a period of time. We have to quit glorifying the worker who works every waking minute, and making those who don’t feel poorly about themselves. We need to encourage our teams to take their time off. They will be better for it. We will be better for it. While everything may appear to be fine in operating in these extreme conditions, being this far out of balance will result in higher levels of stress, more absences, lower levels of productivity, and depression. In extreme cases death can result from not having enough margin in your life.
So, if margin is the issue, how do we create it?
Here are a few things you can do to get started in creating more margin in your life:

  1. Check your email once a day. Never in the morning and never before you leave for the day. Check it once after lunch. The reality is you already have your plan for the day. Don’t get derailed by the urgent but not important. If someone needs to get a hold of you they can pick up the phone and call or text.
  2. Do not take your laptop home if you office outside of your home. If you work from home shut it completely down when you are done for the day, and don’t reopen it. I know this is a big ask, but believe me you and your family will appreciate it.
  3. Schedule actual time in your calendar where there is NOTHING to do. This time is reserved for YOU. Read, meditate, clear the mental clutter. Start with 30 minutes. Then do an hour. Then do two hours. Your best thinking will come from these times of solitude where you can just be alone with your thoughts.
  4. Establish personal non-negotiable calendar items for your schedule and let everyone on your team know what they are. (i.e., date night with your spouse, date nights with your daughters, sports, activities, etc.) If you don’t schedule them, and make sure they are on your calendar there is a high likelihood they won’t happen.
  5. Take every single day of earned vacation you have. According to a July article in Forbes, the average American leaves 9 days of vacation on the table every year. And we wonder why more leaders are suffering burnout than ever before. While vacation isn’t solely the answer in creating margin, it certainly gives you and your family a head start on setting some personal goals and having some fun together.

There is no one size fits all approach in creating margin but by having more margin in your life you will be a better, more productive, and happier individual. You will feel better about what you are achieving personally AND professionally and most importantly you will feel good about HOW you are achieving it.