When I was in college I was a TA for a class called Profiles in American Enterprise. Every week the CEO of some large corporation (Nissan USA, Flextronics, etc.) would come talk to the class, and the TAs would get to grab dinner with them after.

During dinner the subject of work/family balance often came up. And it wasn’t pretty. Divorce was common. Missing kid’s events or games was the norm. Men who prided themselves on their ability to move mountains got sheepish describing the fissures and faults in their home lives.

They had constructed their lives in a way that lacked margin.

The Danger of Lacking Margin

One of the more common problems with driven people is a lack of margin. They cram their schedules so full of activities and busyness that their emotional, physical and spiritual health suffers.

These folks are constantly around other people but find it difficult to cultivate deep relationships. They rarely spend time alone to reflect or meditate or pray. They get so used to their frenetic pace they don’t know what to do with themselves on the rare occasion they have time to themselves.

The pace of their lives is unnatural and ignores the toll it takes on their bodies and minds. They convince themselves their unrelenting schedule is a badge of honor to be proud of. They think wise management of energy doesn’t apply to them.

Every year you read profiles of successful people claiming the secret to success is their willingness to always be on. They only need four hours of sleep, they work 130 hours a week, they spend rare 10 minute break between meetings responding to emails and voice mails.

The truth is you can be wildly successful and still be delusional.

It’s not hard to find people who lived this life a while but eventually burn out. They rapidly move up the ladder but decide the path they’ve been killing themselves for isn’t for them.

They face a quarterlife or midlife crisis, and after all that work decide to throw their it away and start over. On their way out, they convince themselves it was the nature of the job or industry that’s the problem, not their lack of margin.

This can be all avoided. By being more deliberate and making simple changes, the risk of burnout drastically goes down, and a greater feeling of balance and engagement is possible.

You don’t need a ton of margin, but it’s likely you need more than you have right now. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Become aware of your energy and your seasons

The first step in creating margin is to pay attention to your energy levels. Our energy waxes and wanes throughout the day. Even if you can stay up and push through your periods of low energy, it’s likely you aren’t doing your most productive work. Becoming aware of when you have a lot of energy and when you don’t will allow you to make smarter decisions about how to structure your day. Some people do their most creative, high value work early in the morning while others are at their best late at night.

Similar to your energy during the day, your energy rises and falls during the week and during the year. I have a pastor friend who’s found December is a period where he expends a tremendous amount of energy. For many people the holidays are a difficult time and he needs to be more available to them. Come January, he’s spent. Rather than plowing through and convincing himself it’s just the nature of the job, he uses January as a time to be with his family and to recharge.

Many industries have similar cycles of activity. Understanding and planning for them can help you sustain your energy over the long term.

Get More Sleep

Around 1-3% of the population truly can get by on less sleep. It’s probably not you. Sleep helps you make smarter decisions and makes it more likely you’ll accomplish your goals.

Exactly how much sleep is necessary does depend on the person, but for most people the range is between 6.5 to 8 hours. Make this a non-negotiable in your life.

Listen to Pareto

The 80/20 rule is your best friend. The majority of your results and effectiveness come from only 20% of your activities.

There will always be more meetings to have, more people to hang out with, more opportunities to pursue than you can realistically take on. Before taking on another commitment, ask yourself whether it is likely to be high impact. If it’s not moving you forward in your goals, remove it.

You’re better off spending time with your family or doing something that recharges you than attending another low-value networking event.

Take an extra 15 minutes

I historically have been terrible at getting up in the mornings, waiting as long as possible to drag myself out of bed and get started. I started to notice how this habit led to a more stressful morning, and an immediate frenetic feeling.

15 minutes can make the difference. It’s enough time to stretch, make a cup of tea, read for a few minutes, pray, write down my most important tasks, or do something else leaving me feeling more peaceful and focused.

I’ve started applying this 15 minute habit in other areas of my life with similar results:

  • Showing up at the airport 15 minutes earlier than I otherwise would makes checking in and going through security less stressful.
  • Getting to church 15 minutes early is enough time to drop my son off at Sunday school, grab a drink and get settled before the service.
  • Showing up for meetings 15 minutes early (even if I’m waiting outside the building) gives me one last opportunity to mentally prepare and ensure my first impression is a good one.
  • We have a lot of dinner parties at our house, and it always takes longer than I think to make everything. By tacking on 15 minutes I’m able to be more present with our guests instead of hurriedly trying to get everything finished.

I have a good friend who blocks his day out in 90 minute increments. He has 60 minute blocks for meetings or focused work, buttressed by 15 minutes at the beginning and the end.

When he has a meeting, the 15 minutes in the beginning give him the time to mentally prepare and visualize the outcome he wants from the meeting. The 15 minutes at the end give him the chance to process his notes and distribute follow-up or action items.

When he has a focused time for work, he finds the 15 minutes in the beginning give him time to get centered and eliminate distractions he’s in a state of flow as long as possible during that hour. And the 15 minutes at the end give him a chance to wrap up and tie things off.

Limit Social Media – Cut Off Your Hands If You Have To

Many people fill up whatever precious “down time” they have checking their Facebook and Twitter profiles obsessively. While the ability to connect with friends and colleagues is certainly a wonderful thing, too many of us are literally addicted.

Last year, I did an experiment for two weeks where I tracked how many times I checked Facebook or Twitter. I also tracked my level of focus and anxiety at three times throughout the day. Not surprisingly, I found a direct correlation. I found a number repercussions to spending a lot of time on social sites:

  • I get less done during the day. Because I primarily follow people who share interesting links and articles, I would routinely go down a rabbit trail and emerge an hour later having accomplished little.
  • My level of concentration was considerably worse, particularly with Twitter. It’s difficult for me to read compelling linkbait headlines and not have a portion of my brain wonder what lies behind the link. When I return to work my brain is a jumble, and I’m completely taken myself out of my flow.
  • I feel inadequate. After 5 minutes of reading interesting articles I end up thinking of a dozen things I should do to improve my life in some way. But I’m not in a position to do anything about it – these thoughts don’t get captured and turned into action items. I don’t truly have any plans to do anything about these ideas, which leaves me feeling more down than before I started.
  • I don’t feel recharged at night. When I check social media during the hours I’m winding down before bed, I don’t end up feeling recharged or refreshed. My brain is a mess. Almost all alternatives left me feeling happier and more peaceful – exercise, spending time with my wife or friends, reading my Bible or a good book, stretching, writing.

Limiting social media has been one of the biggest ways to add margin to my life. But it’s not easy. The following are some things I’ve done to make it work.

  • Schedule it. I try to check Facebook and Twitter on my way to and home from work. Doing this for 15 minutes and doing nothing else has helped me stay up to date, and provides a change of pace from work to home.
  • Don’t read the links right away. If there’s something that catches my eye, either mark it as a favorite, or add it to my “tuff to read” list. Then, when I have an hour or two of uninterrupted time (usually on a Saturday during my kids nap) I read the stuff on my list. This helps me avoid the rabbit hole during the week. I can take notes, decide if I want to turn any ideas into action items, and make better use of the material.
  • Don’t check at night. My evenings are my time to enjoy my family and friends, to reflect on the day and monitor the state of my heart.
  • Unfollow some of the people you envy. There are people who are successful and use social media to share information that can help me become better at what I do. But there are other people I follow for no other reason than I envy their lives in some way. If I find myself reading someone else’s content and thinking unproductive thoughts about myself as a result, I unfollow them. It’s not that they’re bad people – it’s just that I know how my heart reacts to it and it isn’t good. This might only be my problem, but I doubt it.

Margin must be created

Unless you get laid off, you’re not simply going to find yourself with margin. Being successful at work is usually rewarded with more work and responsibility. And the constant tendency of driven people will be to fill up every available moment.

Even if you stay at home, it’s very easy to find yourself overcommitted. The responsibilities of kids, the pressure to make sure they’re getting all the benefits of having a parent at home, the self-imposed stress of keeping a home spotless and organized can quickly create more stress than a typical desk job.

Margin has to be cultivated. Spent time every three months looking at your schedule and how you spend your time. Is there anything that can be removed? Are there 15 minute opportunities that you’re missing? Are you using your down time to truly recharge? By being honest with yourself and ruthless about your priorities you can increase the likelihood that you stay happy and engaged at work and at home.

Do you have any other ideas for creating margin? How do you create margin in your life?

Thanks to Rishi Shah and Danny Debelius for reading drafts of this post.

  • http://www.traeblain.com/ traeblain

    I had similar thoughts and spent most of last year neglecting my ‘margin’. It’s crazy, but I posted about this actually yesterday. http://blog.traeblain.com/2013/2012-the-year-of-no-escape/ How I basically lost my 2012 because I never allowed my mind to disconnect from my work.

    Many of your suggestions are great, I’ve done many of them before, but I also found I needed some time that forces my mind to escape. I’ve often found my mind dwelling on things–even late into the night–long after the workday is done and interrupting my sleep, time with my kids and wife, and more. It would basically be my home life became a semi-attached extension of my work. So I needed to force my mind to fully break.

    I’ve done things like listening to audiobooks (specifically fiction and biography) on my way to and from work. The listening on my way home is the best, by the time my commute is complete, my mind could care less about the regular workday (if it was especially trying it might not be completely out of my mind). This allows a better evening with my wife and kids. I’m beginning to feel this is one of the best choices I’ve made in providing margin. Maybe it’s just me needing something more than 15 minutes on my own, but letting my mind escape into another world or someone else’s life allows me to dust of my work and jump into my home balance much more effectively.

  • Lucas Rosada

    Awesome post, Sean! Lots of aspects you’ve listed are invisible to most of us and, if we give the proper attention, we could greatly improve the quality of the moments we live on. As one colleague said: “We have unlearned how to stay quietly with us. Even reading a book for an hour is difficult, because reading involves reaching you inner self and thinking about it. Sometimes its painful”.

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    I wish I could do fiction – I’ve heard from a number of friends that it helps them unplug at the ned of the day, but I’ve never been able to get into it. Biographies is a great idea though – I’ll have to give that a try!

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    I wish I could do fiction – I’ve heard from a number of friends that it helps them unplug at the ned of the day, but I’ve never been able to get into it. Biographies is a great idea though – I’ll have to give that a try!

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    You have a smart colleague – love that quote. I have a good friend who goes on a quarterly solitude trip for a weekend. He’s said that the first day he almost goes crazy, and tries to do anything to avoid examining his life. But by the second day he’s much more centered and able to do “cultivation of the soul”. I’ve talked with my wife about doing the same thing.

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    You have a smart colleague – love that quote. I have a good friend who goes on a quarterly solitude trip for a weekend. He’s said that the first day he almost goes crazy, and tries to do anything to avoid examining his life. But by the second day he’s much more centered and able to do “cultivation of the soul”. I’ve talked with my wife about doing the same thing.

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    You have a smart colleague – love that quote. I have a good friend who goes on a quarterly solitude trip for a weekend. He’s said that the first day he almost goes crazy, and tries to do anything to avoid examining his life. But by the second day he’s much more centered and able to do “cultivation of the soul”. I’ve talked with my wife about doing the same thing.

  • http://www.traeblain.com/ traeblain

    Be cautious and biographies different from your work though. As a mechanical engineer, I made the mistake of reading a book on Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse and spent the whole time relating it to my work. So now I keep it primarily to WWII biographies and interesting sports figures (as these tend to keep my interest).

  • http://www.facebook.com/kellyreid Kelly B. Reid

    I have been very conscious of this in my life, and as business grows and more opportunities present themselves, its easy to get caught up in the trap that success => more work. I find that I can get a lot done in a few hours, so some days I just do that. Other days I feel like a god on earth and write code for 30 hours straight. I have learned my seasons.

  • http://www.marcellachamorro.com/ Marcella Chamorro

    This is a great topic, Sean — one I’ve written about in the past plenty of times because I know how difficult it is to actually implement these changes in our day-to-day lives. Every few months, I fall into an overcommitment trap and flounder in a hectic pace — and every few months, I recommit to not accepting morning meetings (or some other way to create that margin you speak of). What has worked for you to avoid this cycle?

  • http://voxiemedia.com/ Debbie Weil

    Sean, thanks for this terrific post. Spot on and much appreciated.

  • Mark Wayland

    Sean, when people talk with me about climbing the ladder of success I tell them about the Principle of Elopement …. the ladder has to be propped against the right wall and below the right window. Activity should not be confused with Accomplishment

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  • Jeff Meunier

    Sean, excellent post and helpful perspective. Hope to meet you sometime soon in 1871 (missed you during the Nov Startup Weekend activities).

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Thanks Debbie!

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Thanks Marcella! The two best ways that have worked for me: 1) asking in the moment if this will move me closer to my goals. 2) Having a quarterly meeting to prune, as stuff will inevitably creep into your life. My dad used to tell me life isn’t about choosing between good things and bad things, but between good things and best things.

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  • tony.stark

    I saw this on LifeHacker but I just wanted to say thanks for this. I’ve been putting work over everything else with no real balance in my life since university – just 4 years out of school and I can feel the affects of those decisions. This article is a real eye-opener.

  • Natalie Currie

    We can all use a little more space in our lives. Great suggestions for
    a well-lived, productive and happy life!

  • Rich

    Brilliant- As a person that is struggling with balance at the moment. This resonated. Thanks

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  • http://twitter.com/JASONlowcs Jason Low

    I think the social media problems apply to everyone. We spend to much time on them, and become obsessed with them. I also feel envious towards those that shared their ‘wonderful’ with everyone. Thanks for all the tips. It’s really helpful.

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Thanks Jason!

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Thanks Rich!

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Thanks Natalie! Glad you got value from it!

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Glad to hear it’s helpful. Appreciate the kind words!

  • catherine siena

    grab. a. drink. ??? Before church? really????

  • Jess

    You should listen to Andy Stanley’s sermon series “Breathing Room”

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    Coffee or tea :)

  • http://twitter.com/intentionally Sean Johnson

    I’ll check that out. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • http://franklinchen.com/ Franklin Chen

    A very timely post, because I keep on going in cycles in my life during which I get overbooked and have to suddenly scale back. For this year, I’m planning to pre-empt this cycle by building in the margin.

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  • http://twitter.com/blissfully20 Medium Success

    Everything written under the heading “Limit Social Media – Cut Off Your Hands If You Have To”, was everything I should do, I know I should because I just am not working right now. Very precise and useful notes on managing online social life.

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  • Sandy

    You’re cool.

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