Reclaiming Margin

I wrote about the importance of creating buffer in our everyday lives. Having reflected on it a bit, I felt I needed to go into some depth about how it affects us personally to go overboard with our commitments.

It’s not uncommon for most of us to bite off way more than we can chew when it comes to taking on new projects. In fact, this may have become the “new normal”. It’s easy to casually accept commitments all the time, but to do what we said is a different story altogether. We are not machines, but we insist on acting like one. We think we can do it all, but we can’t. When we fail to live to our lofty expectations, it leads to frustration, anger, and stress. Plus, it affects our relationships with both ourselves and those who matter to us.

Mastering the slow “yes” and the fast “no” has become a lost art. In fact, we do the reverse and feel guilty for saying no, because we feel so obligated to respond to others’ requests. We mistakenly think we can help others at the cost of our own well-being.

Sometimes we pay a heavy price for it because we have no margin in our lives. We fail to recognize the limits of our capacity even when the signs are clear and obvious. It’s easy to keep going from 80% to 100% (and beyond) because it feels totally okay at first—that is, until it’s too late and trouble ensues. This is not unlike the case of the boiling frog who realizes its situation far too late.

The other thing is, it’s ironic that we always expect things to go as expected in an uncertain world. When things don’t go according to plan (which is often the case), we react to those setbacks with frustration and a whole slew of negative, counterproductive emotions. In doing so, we forget it’s not the situations in our life that matter, but how we respond to them. We can only feel regret or be upset by the choices we make.

Author Richard Swenson describes Margin as the space between our load and our limits. He says it’s the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. He describes margin as the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. It’s the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits.

Today we use margin just to get by.

I think of margin as the gap between 80% and 100% (or beyond), assuming 100% is our actual daily limit for being our best. More specifically, it’s about operating at 80% of our capacities and treating it as 100%, while deliberately forgetting we have that other 20% of breathing room in reserve for when we truly need it.

We have limited energy to expend every day. It’s up to us how much of it we choose to use for the different areas of our lives. For instance, our bodies and minds don’t discriminate between how much energy to assign to our Work and Play.

Let me explain. I rarely work for more than 4–5 hours on any given day. That’s how much I can work and want to work. Here’s what happens when I don’t: One day early last week, I figured I’d put in some extra time and finish the thing I was working on rather than doing it the next day. I ended up working for a couple extra hours that day, which significantly affected the quality of my downtime later on.

Spending that extra time on work meant I didn’t have any energy to enjoy my discretionary time. While I had the time to do things, I didn’t have the space, which left me feeling somewhat resentful. I ended up sleeping late that night because I felt entitled to use my downtime even at the cost of affecting the morning after.

Here’s the thing: We can either show up every day and work for a few hours sustainably with ample renewal, OR we exceed our personal capacity in the short term and are left short of space while possibly experiencing stress, exhaustion, or even burnout sooner or later. With the former approach, we are able to do better work consistently and enjoy our discretionary time. With the latter approach, not only does our quality of work go down, it also affects everything else in our lives.

Regardless of the approach we take, let’s not forget, it’s always our choice.

Having margin is not a luxury to survive, but a necessity to thrive. It’s about saying yes to only a few things at any given time. It’s to remind ourselves that we can’t help others at the cost of our own well-being. We need margin in our life to account for the sudden and unexpected. Living without margin is a surefire way of burning out.

It’s quite normal for most of us to commit 120% of our capacities only to later realize the heavy toll it takes on us. Even when we learn and recover from it, we continue doing things the same way, so we never learn.

Swenson writes:

Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.

Here are some signs that indicate we need margin in our lives. We are doing things mindlessly without asking why we are doing it. We take on more work than we can do justice to. We learn many different things together and spread ourselves thin. We are constantly rushing through our day from one thing to the next, forever in reactive mode. We are always thinking ahead rather than being in the moment. We schedule back-to-back meetings without any time for reflection or renewal. We are always running late. We overeat out of emotional hunger as a way of living in denial. We go for an afternoon caffeine binge when our energy dips rather than acknowledging it and having a nap instead. We live hand-to-mouth with no financial savings for contingencies.

This is when we let the small things sweat us; it’s when we get easily upset or frustrated from the setbacks in our lives. When we say yes to everything by default and try to do it all, we only end up frustrated and mad at ourselves—but we forget it was our choice to begin with. No one put a gun to our head. We become our own slaves.

Here are some signs that show we have margin in our everyday lives.

We do a few things better. We live our lives with intention. We have everything we need and nothing we don’t. We take our time to do things well. We live in the present without rushing from one moment to the next. We feel in control of ourselves and our time. We aren’t reacting to inputs throughout the day, but being super intentional about anything and everything we do. We are mindful of how we use our attention.

It’s when we do things with awareness and intention. It’s when we are eating right most of the time and exercising consistently. It’s when we feel well rested from a good night’s sleep. This gives us energy to show up at our best.

Here are some ideas for reclaiming margin in our lives.

We all have limits. Let’s learn to recognize them. Let’s treat 80% of our capacity as 100% and leave the extra 20% margin for contingencies and unanticipated situations (akin to savings in a bank).

One of the things I know from experience is, if I don’t get my daily nap, I may get somewhat grumpy and won’t feel as renewed, which will significantly affect the remainder of my day. It behooves me to have that nap as a daily renewal so I can show up at my best throughout the day. When I’m traveling during the day occassionally, I miss having the nap, and though I get by without it on those days, I can feel the lack of renewal.

Practice the principle of moderation. Just like how we eat until we are 80% full is how we show up in the rest of our lives. For some, this could mean having only a couple of work and personal projects at any given time.

Like I wrote in the last draft, let’s commit to fewer things at any point. It’s only when we have said yes to some things that we can say no to almost everything else. We learn to master the art of the slow “yes” and the fast “no”. I learned this the hard way; I’ve stopped saying yes to things without thinking them through, because when I don’t, I often regret it later.

Make margin a part of your decision-making process. One thing that has helped me consistently is to plan my week the weekend prior with plenty of renewal and downtime. Schedule guilt-free Play on your calendar first. Figure out when you’re going to work and then work sincerely during that time.

We work best when we alternate between effort and renewal, so have plenty of built-in renewal during your day and week. Use the in-between time wisely. Avoid scheduling every minute of your day. This will only create unwanted anxiety and stress. Suddenly you’re simply doing things as per schedule, and as a result, you are in “compliance mode” rather than acting with intention.

There is no denial that we need energy to do anything worthwhile—be it the time we give to ourselves, the work we do, or the relationships we have in our lives. Of the three, we usually tend to go overboard with our work, which is when trouble ensues.

We only have limited time and attention. We can’t do it all, nor should we even try. We can choose how we want to use it in the different areas of our lives. When we try to use more energy than we have, it’s not going to go so well. But if we can set reasonable expectations for ourselves and for others in our lives, we can consistently show up to be our best every day.

The greater the margin in our lives, the more chaos we can handle. Let’s be stronger than we need to be, and leave room for the unexpected, because it’s not a question of if, but when it’ll happen. The best we can do is be prepared for it.

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