The Focus Course

“Margin” as Part of Your Decision-Making Process

It was my first week working for Shawn.

“We’re going to take the month of January to focus on writing about margin”, he said.

While it wasn’t my first time hearing the word, it was the first time I remember becoming truly familiar with the term.

That was back in 2016. And while I still feel like I’m only in the beginning stages of knowing the impact of living life with margin, it has still been transformational.

I’ve come to realize margin is not a “nice to have” or “luxurious sentiment.”

Margin is essential for living a meaningful and fulfilled life.

There is a required amount of breathing room for life to run smoothly. Richard Swenson says it well in his book, Margin:

If starving or thirsty, we needn’t be told that food or water is what we lack. If sleep-deprived, we needn’t be told that sleep is what we yearn for. If exhausted from a thirty-mile walk, we needn’t be told that rest is what our body craves. If bankrupt, we needn’t be told that money is what we require.

Why, then, when we so desperately need margin in our lives, is it necessary to explain our need for it?

In a stressed-out society of epidemic proportions you would think the concept of margin would be embraced. But one of the challenges to getting a little margin back is that it is semivisible. Meaning, it’s not easily identifiable.

Breaking your arm is quite easy to diagnose. But, if suffering from emotional overwhelm, bordering on depression, where do you go for a diagnosis? Not to mention, it doesn’t readily present itself as needing to be diagnosed.

We all have limitations. They may vary slightly from person to person. But ultimately humans have a finite capacity. We can only be pushed so far before breaking.

Again, Richard Swenson writes that margin is the space between our load and our limits:

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.

Most become aware of margin when they run out. The load of life and it’s urgent demands will dominate until something in us pushes back and says, “I can’t live this way!”

You could think of margin as oil for your car engine. The oil needs to be regularly checked. While your engine can function on low oil, if you have no oil in your car there aren’t many faster ways to ruin your engine.

If you are living life with zero margin that’s a quick recipe for burnout at best, and it can potentially, permanently break a few things at worst.

If margin is a new concept to you, we’ve got a whole miniseries of resources that give more details as to what exactly it is.

In this article, I wanted to look at margin from a slightly different angle…

Is margin part of your decision-making process?

Decision-making frameworks don’t need to be complex. Simply put, it’s a filter to help make the best decision possible while aligning with personal values.

In short, decision-making frameworks help:

  • Avoid impulsive decision making
  • Reinforce a held value
  • Remove emotional cloudiness

More on that in a minute. First, let’s take a look at the five main areas of margin.

Five areas of Margin

We all have five main areas of margin. They are:

  1. Physical
  2. Emotional
  3. Time
  4. Financial
  5. Creative Imagination / Mental Energy

Each of these areas connect and inter-relate. When you lack margin in your time, you will feel the impact of it in your emotions. And conversely, when you have physical margin you may find yourself functioning at a higher creative output.

Day-to-day, your level of breathing room fluctuates in each area. Certain activities use more margin currency than others. And, it is possible to erode margin in more than one area at a time.

A bursting-at-the-seam workday of non-stop meetings will leave you with little time to spare. But is will also leave you emotionally, physically, and mentally drained.

That being said, it is also possible to restore margin in more than one area through a single decision.

Margin in Decision Making

When I began to connect the dots between decisions I was making and the effects it had on the amount of margin in my life, it was game-changing.

Greg McKeown lays out this concept so well in his book, Essentialism, in the section about trade-offs:

We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.

For every decision you make, there comes a trade-off. By default, doing one thing means neglect another.

This principle holds true in relation to margin in our life: In choosing one thing it may have a positive or negative effect on various areas of margin. Margin gained or margin lost.

Here are a couple areas to consider margin cost when planning.

Consider Margin When Setting Goals

This may have been obvious to everyone else, but it took me a while to realize that goal setting comes with a margin cost. Due to the fact that achieving my goals does not happen in a vacuum. The effort required to attain a goal is going to require margin in almost every area.

Only in the last couple of years have I made calculating margin cost part of my goal setting process.

When it comes to narrowing down my list and deciding which goals I will pursue, and which ones I will leave for later, I ask myself a couple questions:

  • How much will this goal cost me in terms of margin? Physical, emotional, time, financial, and mental?

  • Is the pursuit of this goal worth the trade-off in that area of margin?

Some goals have a disproportionate amount of margin they will consume. Which may cause me to rethink the goal in a smaller scope, or scrap it altogether.

Ultimately, these two questions help me quantify how much margin a goal is going to require. Which helps me make an informed decision about if that is a trade-off I’m willing to make.

Consider Margin When Planning Your Week & Your Month

Similar to my goals, when it comes to planning out the upcoming week or month, I consider margin.

Knowing that my to-do list and projects will require a certain amount, I begin to consider incoming requests for my time. Whether a social event, errand that needs doing, a friend that needs helping, whatever it may be… How much margin will it cost me and/or my family.

Given I work a normal 40-hour work week, I have set a few boundaries to safeguard my time with my family. In general, I’m not available Monday through Friday 5pm to 7:30pm. This is dedicated time to be home with my family. This single decision helps maintain a baseline of margin no matter what. And while there are rare exceptions to this rule, it’s a single decision that has removed the need to consider my evening availability on a daily basis.

Remember, margin is the space between our load and our limits. When I increase the load I am requiring of myself, I am eroding that margin and pushing myself toward my limit. When I am perpetually living at my limit, then let’s just say that I am not a very happy or fun person to be around.

Artifacts of Margin (Or Lack Thereof)

The visual analogy of an iceberg applies quite well to the concept of margin. By volume, the structure of every iceberg is the same: 10-percent sits above the water line and 90-percent is hidden from view.

With few exceptions, the effects of a lack in margin remain mostly unseen. Just because you can’t see emotional overwhelm does not mean it doesn’t exist. Mental overwhelm that leads to being debilitated in your work is very real, though it can often invisible.

Signs that you have margin

Here are a few signs that you HAVE margin in different areas of your life:

  • There is time in your schedule for work and play.
  • You have money in savings with no outstanding balance on the credit card.
  • You do not live from paycheck to paycheck.
  • You are not easily bothered
  • You have mental energy for creative solutions and new ideas
  • Your physical health is not in crisis; you’re physically able to do the things in life that matter.

Signs that you need margin

Conversely, here are a few signs that you LACK margin in different areas of your life:

  • From the moment you wake, until you go to bed, there isn’t a moment to spare. You are rushing from one thing to the next.
  • You are living from paycheck to paycheck.
  • You are easily bothered and annoyed.
  • You avoid new projects that require creating growing your skills and understanding — you’d rather do email or busywork
  • Your body is breaking down, unable to sleep well, and may be dealing with different health issues

As you can see from the above lists, when you have margin, then you have enough for what you need plus a little left over. But when you lack margin, then you cannot accommodate the unexpected — which becomes a recipe for disappointment and heart-ache.

James Clear says that “a margin of safety acts as a buffer against the unknown, the random, and the unseen.”

You need that buffer because you cannot live life without any breathing room.

Therefore, make margin a factor in your normal decision-making process. By doing so you will be able to protect that breathing room and ensure that you maintain margin in your life.

What's Your Focused Life?

Take our Focus Quiz and find out how to get back more time and do more with your day.

Start the Quiz