Dear Me: It’s about Margin

The above artwork is from my daughter, Annabelle! I asked her for something that might reflect what I talk about here. I love it!

This is part 3 of my Dear Me series, see the first one here.

Ironically, or maybe just bad timing with COVID-19, this post is very late due to me not practicing what I preach. This is a hard one, something I’m still working on, daily.

Take a breath. Breath in… and out…

In my last post, I told my younger self to work hard. This post stirred up some conversations around burnout. I am most definitely not supporting, advocating, or promoting working so hard that you burnout. That’s just crazy talk. Instead, when I say work hard, I do also include margin.

What’s margin?

margin /ˈmärjən/ noun

“the edge or border of something.”

The edge, between this and that. Margin is the space between your text and the edge of the page. In school I remember getting many red marks on my papers due to my margins being too tight, and then in college my margins being too wide. A margin is the spacing between this paragraph and the next paragraph below.

Margin is the space allotted between things. Most of us are probably thinking it’s about money, like sales margin or how much am I making on this product/gig. It’s the space between how much something costs you and how much you charge others.

In life, we need to build in margins with our time. We need space between the things we do, the activities that are hard work physically and mentally. We can’t work 24×7. We can’t always be on the go, go, go, go… We just can’t. We may try, we may want to, we may enjoy always going, but the reality is we are finite beings, with limitations in energy, both physically and mentally. Due to these limitations (having this limitation is not bad, I promise) we should be building in margin to rest, recharge, and reenergize, to power up to take on the next task.

In my early years, I didn’t have margin, I worked a lot. As I mentioned before, working hard is a good thing, it makes us better at what we do. But not having margin in life can lead to burnout, poor performance, exhaustion, and depression. That’s not fun.

When we’re young, we think we can take on the world! And you can! You’re at your prime, you have more energy than you know, your old self will get envious of your younger self pretty quick. But you’re still finite, you don’t have endless energy. Getting into the habit earlier to build margin will benefit you later.

Treat your time as sacred. As amazing as you are, you and I have the same amount of time. No one has more of it, there are no cheats (healthy ones anyway) that can get us more time. We can be smart about our time and our energy to maximize the time we do have for our benefit. Margin allows us to hold our invaluable time as sacred.

Margin allows us to hold our invaluable time as sacred.

Tips to add margin to your life

Start small

Start small. Right now, just go look at your week. Scan your calendar and find small windows of time where you can unplug from the rigor of hard mental and physical work. Find opportunities to take a small break this week. Block those times on your calendar.

For me, I block my lunch hour 3 times a week. It’s too easy to book meetings during lunch, and sometimes that’s the only time we have to actually meet with others. So I block that to ensure I have time to unplug, enjoy a lunch, socialize with others, and simply get out of work mode mentally. It is very refreshing in the middle of a busy day.

You can build margin, during work, and work during it. I also will block a little bit of time around larger meetings. If I have a large meeting coming up that I have to prepare for, I make sure I add a 30-60 minute block on my calendar a day or two before it so I can prep. I’m working during this time, but it allows me to focus and get that work done without having to prep after hours, or feel pressure to work during lunch or after hours. I will also add a small 15-30 minute window after large meetings to ensure I have time to decompress, review my notes, and update my to do list. By being proactive and adding these small windows of margin, I don’t have to overwork and burn through extra hours to get work done.

Commuting is awesome. I spend about 2 hours a day, driving to the train, train ride, then walking to the office, then there’s the return commute. I will not work during my commute, I refuse. I rarely take a call. This time is my time and the biggest time I get for real margin. I get to read, think, exercise, prep for work, decompress after work, relax… I love my commute and something I’ve lost during this pandemic. I’m beginning to figure out how to get that back working from home, I can’t wait to get that back.

What can you do today? What small wins can you bring in to start bringing in a little margin with your time, and begin reaping the rewards?

Go big

In addition to the above small achievements, start to find larger windows of time you can take off to realign and refocus on your work.

I have 1 hour every Monday morning, before I talk to anyone, where I get into the right mindset for the week:

  • I review last week’s events, notes, aim for Inbox Zero, review my to do list, confirm what I got done and what still needs to get done
  • I review the next two weeks of events, put due dates on my to do list, adding small margins, and making sure I am leaving time open to work. If a week looks overly busy, I’ll add even more blockers in my calendar to make sure I can get work done around the meetings.

I had a conversation with a leader who blocks a half day every month, away from work and family, to focus in on his goals and accomplishments, to realign, and refocus his vision. I’m not there yet but this does sound like a great idea.

How can you go bigger? What can you do to find a bigger pocket every so often for you to recharge and refocus?

Expand outside of work

Building margin within work is important and can help you succeed. It’s just as important outside of work. I’d be willing to bet, however, most of us are decent at managing our free time, but if we’re working hard, feeling burnt out, maybe we’re not managing it well. For me, during this pandemic, I don’t feel great, as I noted in the opener, this has been hard for me. It’s too easy to go from bed to work to dinner to bed to work to dinner… I have to be intentional to make sure I’ve built margin in across my life.

As we expand the idea of margin outside of work, let’s make sure it’s really outside of work. Taking a break during work, at work (your home office) and not stepping away, is a win but not as effective as not being in work mode.

Start to find areas you can add margin outside of work, entirely. What helps YOU recharge, refresh, reenergize? Where is that best done? If reading is helpful, don’t do it at work, find other times outside of the workplace to really let yourself recharge. Being away from work helps you adjust your expectations on your time, and will let you rest a little better.

Here are some ideas to consider, these tend to work for me:

Prayer and meditation. As a Christian, I do this a lot. Being able to slow down, even for 15-20 minutes in the morning, to pray and meditate on something other than myself is very uplifting and energizing. If you’re not a Christian (you should consider it) there are many other forms of meditation. The idea is to not think about yourself, or your problems, but let your mind wonder and imagine, let it play. As a Christian, this is more than a mind game, but rather a life giving activity from our Creator.

Family and friends. By the time I’m done with work all I want to do is spend time with my family. I love coming home (or walking out of the home office) after a solid day of work and just vegging out with my 4 kids. They’re fun to be with and it helps also alleviate them from my wife, who can then find some time to herself to recharge. Spending time with others helps us think about others, helps us engage people in a new way than our brain may have not been engaging for the last 9-10 hours at work.

Be creative. I love to cook. I find that cooking allows me to recharge because I’m exploring the creative side of my brain, more than I do at work. I get to do what I want, how I want. Cooking is fun. I can have great rewards as my family shares their love for the meal. I also love to work on my house, building things, crafts with my kids; anything I can do to be creative is a great space for me to recharge.

Exercise. I love to ride my bike. When I ride my mind is all in on the ride, it’s very difficult to be thinking about anything else other than the road in front of me, the cars around me, and the nice weather. I’m also a big fan of hiking. Any form of exercise is a great option to allow yourself to wind down, let your mental capabilities recharge and gain some physical strength.

Don’t go for fake stimulation, like screens: TV, phone, video games. These are enjoyable and great for fun, but they don’t work nearly as well a non-stimulating activity. These screens stimulate your brain, something about the blue light, yada yada. I know from experience, I am more recharged and refreshed after doing a non-technology activity vs staring at a screen. Give it a try and find out for yourself.

Vacation, for real

Building margin includes vacations too. If you’re taking a vacation, THEN TAKE A VACATION! STOP working! Don’t offer to be available if needed, then you’ll never get out of work mode. Being able to get away for a few days is priceless, IF you can do it without thinking about work. You have to set yourself up for success on this, I talk a more about that in this post: How to take an effective 2 weeks off.

For vacation to be real, it has to be longer than a few days. I have found it takes me a couple of days to break the work cycle in my head. Those first few days I’m still thinking about work. I find vacationy activities, like some mentioned above, to get me out of work and into vacation mode as fast as I can. I don’t call a long weekend vacation, it’s just not enough time.

Margin really is important

Let yourself breathe.

Try this: Breathe out entirely. Exhale. Exhale again. It’s really hard to live without inhaling. We need to be inhale, to breathe, to continue to give the best of ourselves. Allow yourself small breaths in, and large breaths in, and continue to be the rockstar you know you are as you exhale all over the rest of us (with a face mask on).

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