Sean Johnson

Why you need more margin in your life

Why lack of margin is hurting you, and how to fix it.

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:

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:

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.

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.

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