Five Reasons You Need to Build Margin Into Your Schedule

The secret to flexibility, spontaneity, and productivity.

A friend once asked me if I was doing anything that weekend. I replied that I wasn’t. Concerned for my social life, he then asked if I’d like to him and a few others in their plans for Saturday.

I thanked him for the offer and explained that after a couple of intense, demanding weeks, I was going to spend the weekend doing intentionally nothing. No external commitments, no set schedule, no tasks to work through. I was going to rest and do whatever sounded good at the moment, which ended up being a mélange of sleeping, reading, cooking, watching a handful of movies, and taking a hike.

It was wonderful, and just what I needed. I had let myself go too long without any downtime. I needed to carve out an entire weekend to put some margin back into my life.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Andrey Burmakin

Packing an entire month’s worth of margin into a single weekend isn’t what I would call Plan A. It was a period of voluntary temporary imbalance—a pace that wasn’t sustainable—followed by an overcorrection. Sometimes, that’s inevitable. Wherever possible, it’s better to build margin into your schedule. This way, the pace is more sustainable, and you get more done over the long run.

Here are five reasons you should build margin into your schedule:

  • You need time to sharpen the saw. When we get busy, the first thing to go is usually the time we spend taking care of ourselves and increasing our capacity to do work. If we’re going to grow and develop ourselves, we need to take time consistently and regular for ourselves. This gives better results when we take a little time each day instead of lumping it together into one weekend a month.
  • You need downtime. Like an engine, you can push yourself and redline for short periods, but you also need to completely switch off and rest. Time where you don’t need to be anyplace or do anything specific.
  • Tasks take longer than we think. We tend to be terrible at estimating how long a task will take. What should have taken five minutes will take half an hour. What should have taken an hour will fill your afternoon. Only fill in about 80% of your day to leave yourself room for tasks to slip.
  • Priorities can change throughout the day. Similarly, we may not spend our day working on what we set out to do. We may adjust to the changing landscape by setting aside a smaller task for a larger task, and margin helps make sure there’s room to respond appropriately.
  • Give yourself room to be spontaneous. The purpose of being productive isn’t to create and check off as many little boxes as possible—no matter how good that feels. It’s to get the things we have to do out of the way so we can spend more time and attention on living. Margin gives us room to rearrange the pieces. A full schedule locks us in—we either go through the week exactly as we planned and miss out on the opportunities that come up, or we risk jettisoning the big rocks to make room for gravel.

It may be tempting to leave some empty space and call it good. The problem with empty space is that we want to fill it—nature abhors a vacuum. We see room on the calendar and in the back of our minds, we start looking for ways to fill it. Empty space is not wasted space!

Protect your margin by filling it. Block it out just like you would for any other important Q2 activity. Schedule Meeting Overrun for half an hour after that meeting that runs long. Every day from the time you get home from work until the kids are in bed, Be Dad. Like starting your weekend off with a Quiet Saturday Morning scheduled until noon.

Scheduling margin means you’re that much more likely to honor it. Empty space on the calendar is a lack of commitment that can be filled up by committing to something else at the last minute. When you put it on your calendar, you’re telling yourself you are already committed. It’s the difference between not doing anything and intentionally doing nothing.

Question: How can you build margin into your schedule? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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