Ok, I have to be honest. I have been thinking about this one for a while. I have also been struggling with just writing what I want. I’m afraid it may come off self-serving. But, the reality is, many people need to hear it for themselves. And my approach is very personal. So, yeah, I’ve been struggling with with just putting this out here. So… here goes nothing.
Margin matters. It really does. It serves a purpose. There’s a point. It’s NOT wasted space. It’s there to provide space for freedom, rest, creativity, safety, and so much more. Living your life without margin, or working without margin, or pressing your teams to their limits consistently without margin is dangerous and leads to very bad things. Let me give you a real example.
Have you ever been to a back country paved road and noticed there’s no shoulder? I have. Many times in fact. I have also been on those kinds of roads in and around mountains where the lack of shoulder means the road edge sits on a drop-off. Scary stuff. I have to admit, I hate the shoulder-less roads. I have a very specific reason why. My mother died because of one. Well, at least in part. Over a decade ago, when I was at an age where someone shouldn’t even fathom losing a mother, she was in a car accident. She topped a hill, her tire caught the edge of the road because it didn’t have shoulder. The combination of no shoulder, excessive speed, hill top, and lack of seat belt led to her demise. Yes, there were certainly other factors involved, but that lack of a shoulder was a significant player in her death. When we were at the crash site after the accident, the owners of the property nearby said many people had topped that hill and caught the edge of the roadway the same way she did. That road didn’t have a proper shoulder. It didn’t have margin. And because of it, my mother died.
That’s heavy. I know. But it stresses the point I’m trying to make. I’ll say it louder for those in the back, margin matters. Look, I know you have stuff to do. I know you have demands and expectations. Maybe you don’t feel like you have control over your margins at work. Send your boss this post. Maybe your spouse doesn’t allow you to have margin. Same response, share this post. In my example, it’s extreme. Yes. But it is all subjective. Maybe a lack of margin in your life or your workload or your team won’t lead to literal death (depending on what you do, it might). But a lack of margin will lead to fatigue, burnout, exhaustion, and some sort of end sooner than it should. It may be the end of a relationship, a job, a team, or any combination of all of the above.
I want to take a moment and talk about literal margins. Like, the ones on a piece of loose leaf paper or a notebook. Why are they there? There’s lots of things people say, but the most common answer if you Google it: rodents. Mice may not be as much of a problem for modern households, but they used to be. And mice love paper. If you’ve ever found a mouse nest, it’s usually loaded with scraps of paper that the little beggars have shredded. If you were to have written all the way too and from the edges of the page, you’d probably lose some of your writing because a mouse would have helped himself at some point. So, the margins were invented to save you from losing what you had done. Another good tidbit, why are the margin marks red (usually)? Red means stop. Don’t go there. That’s not for you. Leave it empty. Do you see any connections yet?
Teachers often write in the margins of students’ work to give them feedback or notes. They use the margins to help shape and guide the student to success. They make underlines and connect them to their notes in the margin. It provides opportunity to grow and get better. On some paper, it’s where the holes are punched so that you can bind the pages together. What would happen if those margins didn’t exist? Well, you guessed it, less feedback, less instruction and correction, not as many things bound together. Paperclips or staples? Well, paperclips can often catch other pages that it shouldn’t and now you’re just messed up. Staples… maybe I have just had defunct staplers, but I don’t like getting my finger caught on a loose staple end. Ouch.
I have my Bible on an app, but I always prefer a printed Bible so I can take notes. I do the same with my books. I despise books that don’t have good margins. I don’t read for entertainment, I read with a purpose. Yes, I’m one of those. I love a good leadership book. If the book doesn’t have margins, I can’t do that. And then I get less out of the book. A note written and placed in the book doesn’t do the same. Too easy for it to fall out and become lost or disconnected from the source. Small margins mean I can’t write my thoughts and reactions or responses well. That also means when I go back and look at them later, it may not make as much sense. Margins matter.
Margin is the space between our load and our limits.
I love this quote. I have no idea who said it, but I love it. I’ve spent all this time putting imagery and a terribly sad story about margin. I want to put the practical stuff on the bottom shelf. If you’re constantly working or living your life at your limits, you’re cooked. You’re going to be done much sooner. Yes, it’s redundant for me to say it, but it means that you’re going to burnout, fade away, crack under the pressure, or worse. Don’t do it. You have to have margin in everything. Don’t be a workaholic. Don’t be the parent that tries to go to every single thing and make every single thing including work, kids events, marriage time, social time, church, practices, rehearsals, games, etc. without making sure you have some margin.
What if I don’t have control over my margins? This could very well be true. It could be the case for your work life or your personal life. Maybe even your social life. You have to speak up. You have to help whoever has control over your margins understand that you’re running ragged because you don’t have any margin. My team is often asked to do a lot of extra things. Unfortunately, we often run without any margin. I find it difficult to explain that. But I have to try. It’s my responsibility to help insure margins for my team. As creative members of our organization, and support members of our organization, we are in a bizarre conundrum. We need to have both structured workloads (tasks) as well as margin to complete additional things outside the normal task list or come up with creative new ideas. Sometimes that means there will be blank time in our week. Just like the blank margins on the paper.
For an employer (and for me as a supervisor honestly) that’s a struggle to accept. But we must. We want to reduce the amount of “blank time” to almost nothing. Depending on what your team is doing, that may be ok. But in my teams case, it isn’t. We have to allow that time consistently. Otherwise we are asking our people to work beyond their load, too close to their limits consistently. In our case, we have time here and there and usually have some half day margin on a Thursday. That’s not much though. If I am really honest, that gets eaten up too often by something that comes up or some failure and then the purpose for the margin is neglected. Then frustration builds because we aren’t doing great extra things, but the truth is, we struggle because we don’t have the margin built it to succeed. I have the difficult task of trying to juggle the team and cover things in order to try to give margin as best as possible. Sadly, it usually means we aren’t as productive in the extra areas or we are slow to deliver in them because of a general lack of margin available for us to rely on. Eventually, so many other things eat away at what we do have that we are left with little to no margin and we start getting tired and cranky, feeling overwhelmed, and you guessed it, burned out.
I know I used a work reference to not having control. It can be that way in any number of areas. So, please, do yourself a favor. Speak up. Tell whoever needs to hear it that you’re not getting the margin you need. Explain the margin you need. Explain the time you need or the space you need or whatever the need is you have that’s causing a lack of margin. Don’t run off the edge of the road and kill yourself in the process, figuratively or literally. It’s not work it and ultimately it’s a failure of not recognizing that margin matters.