How to Create More Margin in Your Life

The last five weeks have been incredibly busy for me. My new book, Platform, launched on May 22. My daughter Madeline got married the next weekend.

Businessman in a Meadow - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/toshimself, Image #6378441

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/toshimself

Since then, I have done seventy-three radio, podcast, magazine, and newspaper interviews. I have also had eight speaking engagements.

To be honest, it has been overwhelming, especially because I am committed to keeping up with my blog and podcasting. It finally came to a head last week.

I realized that if I didn’t take action now and regain control of my calendar, the train was going to come off the tracks.

So, I went back and reviewed my Ideal Week (see image below). I learned a long time ago, the best way to change anything is to start with the end in mind.

I didn’t worry about how I was going to make it happen; I first needed clarity about what I wanted my calendar to look like.

In a word, I needed margin.

In his excellent book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D. describes margin like this:

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.

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.

If we were equipped with a flashing light to indicate “100 percent full,” we could better gauge our capacities. But we don’t have such an indicator light, and we don’t know when we have overextended until we feel the pain. As a result, many people commit to a 120 percent life and wonder why the burden feels so heavy. It is rare to see a life prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that God sends our way.

Margin is not something that just happens. You have to fight for it.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of you. And no one seems to appreciate the fact that you are a finite resource. (Perhaps you don’t even realize this.)

That’s why creating or re-visiting your Ideal Week is so important.

I was first introduced to this concept by author Todd Duncan in a series of audio recordings he made that eventually became the book, Time Traps: Proven Strategies for Swamped Salespeople.

The idea is similar to a financial budget. The only difference is that you plan how you will spend you time rather than your money. And like a financial budget, you spend it on paper first.

My Ideal Week

My Ideal Week—the week I would live if I could control 100 percent of what happens—is divided into a simple grid (see image above). Each day has a theme. In addition, each day is segmented according to a specific focus area.

Last week, I discussed My Ideal Week with my wife, my assistant, and my two managers. I realized that I didn’t have any hope of implementing it unless all of us were aligned on my intentions. I then updated my Ideal Week spreadsheet and distributed it.

Here’s how it works:

My themes are listed on the very top row:

  • Monday and Tuesday are devoted to my blog and podcast. This is the foundation of everything else I do.
  • Wednesday and Thursday are devoted to Special Projects. This will vary from season to season. For the next few months, I will focus on media interviews and speaking. When I get ready to write my next book, I will focus on writing. If I have a speaking engagement, it has to come out of this allotted time.
  • Friday is my day for appointments. Taking a page from my friend Don Miller, I am relegating all of these to one day a week. It is very difficult to write when I have any meetings on the same day.
  • Saturday is for personal chores and recreation.
  • Sunday is for worship, rest, and planning the next week.

My focus areas are listed in the left-most column:

  • The early morning hours are devoted to self: reading, praying, and working out. I usually listen to audio books or podcasts while running.
  • The middle of the day is devoted to work. I start at 7:30 a.m. and finish promptly at 6:00 p.m. If I don’t, Parkinson’s Law will become operative: “Work expands to the time allotted for it.” That is exactly what I have experienced over the last month. I have lost my “hard boundaries.”
  • The end of the day is reserved for my family, friends, and (on Sundays) planning. Currently, we don’t have any children living at home. Consequently, Gail I eat dinner together almost every night, taking time to connect and catch up.

Activities that contribute to my goals and priorities are shaded green. Those are not related to my goals are shaded red. Those that are grey are simply not scheduled. This represents “margin.”

This scheme is admittedly subjective, but it is helpful to me to make sure I am working on what matters most.

Does this sound like it might be helpful to you? Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Create a template. You can either download my Ideal Week template or start from scratch. It’s up to you.
  2. Identify your themes. This won’t be possible in every situation, but it is helpful if you can assign a theme for each day and then batch similar activities together.
  3. Schedule the important activities. These are the ones you will shade green—they contribute to your goals and priorities. Allocate time for these first.
  4. Fill in around the edges. Now schedule the less important activities. These are ones you will shade red. These items must be done, but they don’t really move you toward your goals.
  5. Tweak and fine-tune. I usually have to go through several iterations before I get it right.
  6. Share it with your team. If they are not aware of your Ideal Week, they may inadvertently sabotage your plans. But if you are aligned, they can help you stay on track.
  7. Don’t be legalistic. The calendar was made for man, not man for the calendar.

If you are like me, not everything can be shoe-horned into the template. However, having this document will better enable you to to create the margin you need to get the important things done while still enjoying your life.

Question: Do you feel like you are out of margin too? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to self-hosted WordPress? Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

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  • Medithi

    Wow, I like it. I only disagree with one thing in your schedule: You say lunch and eating aren’t  part of what really move you toward your goals? In my experience, eating is first priority, because to reach my goals I need to be healthy, and because one of my goals is to enjoy life, and good food is part of it. I’d like to dedicate more time and money to cooking and eating delicious meals, nutritious, fresh, that give me the energy and mood, and joy in life I need for everything else. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.lyde.98 Michael Lyde

    Thank you for sharing these ideas Michael. Your material helped me to simply my work life and impose time limits. Most importantly, I “discovered” time to simply think and write again. I’ve been working on blog entries, writing scripts for a few podcasts and videos, and outlined three eBooks. My latest blog posting is available at: http://wp.me/1sxgq   
    I hope to post those other materials soon. Thanks again.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Wow, Michael!  That’s finding margin!  Congratulations!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jacob.a.hughes.1 Jacob A. Hughes

    Thank you for sharing about your “Ideal Week.”  I read about it a few weeks ago, and this past weekend worked on adapted it for myself.  I started it yesterday and have been very pleased with the results.  It has helped me create that margin as well as focus on the things I need to get done.  I prefer to sit down and do everything at once, so working on things day by day is difficult for me.  Using your “Ideal Week” has helped me to set up a pattern to give me a larger block of time for some things and work on them consistently, even if it isn’t every single day.  Thanks again!

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  • http://twitter.com/DonyaDunlap Donya M Dunlap

    I’ve really been struggling with prioritizing my time. Some days I have so much to do that I’m overwhelmed and end up wasting my time avoiding what needs to be done. Ridiculous, but true. I just read this again and decided to give it a try. It feels good to have a plan.

  • GradStudent

    The question is does this apply for someone in graduate school? I have found the graduate school process overwhelming at times with days full of class and activity and then followed by late nights of studying and completing assignments. What do you do to balance these important things with only a finite amount of time and the pressure to perform. 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I think it does. Honestly, it won’t get easier after you graduate. You have to figure it out now.

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  • Joanie Simon

    Thanks so much for this post.  I completed a first draft of my ideal week this weekend and am going to be walking my sales team and management team through it tomorrow along with a fun goal setting energizer.  Thanks for all you do!

  • Mary Lu Saylor

    Michael, Thank you again for offering a great tool for all of us to use.  You have no idea how much I need this!  I work full time, I go to college full time, I am involved with a mission organization helping with marketing, I also am working on a special project to help people find their purpose, and by the way I’m a wife and mother. Thank you so much for all you do!  Keep it coming we are listening!
    Mary Lu Saylor, Boiling Springs, SC

  • Brian Jaggers

    Thanks Michael, 

    This is perfect timing for me to read this post! Business is booming for me right now which is playing havoc on my margin.  I was just telling my wife that I really need to make some major changes to my “Ideal Week”.  I took a 5 minute break to catch up on social media and what do I see??? This post!  What a great reminder that my “Ideal Week” needs to be reviewed more than once a year! HUGE THANKS for the reminder!!!

  • http://www.judiholler.com/ Judi

    I loved reading this. I do feel I’m out of margin sometimes … even though I feel like I am pretty darn organized and have a pretty detailed (and color coded) Outlook calendar which keeps my world in order.  However, I know all too well how easy it is to fall off track.  And to “over” committ. 

    My work life balance totally blends all over as I have a busy career, new website / blog, I’m VP of Membership in an industry association, I do Improv one night a week (part of my research as my writing / blog is inspired by this) and then there is of course my social life and friends / family.  It’s hard to balance and do it all … on top of it,  so much of my work bleeds into my personal life as my industry friends have become my social life and visa versa.  I feel pretty blessed for it all b/c I truly love what I do.  Just need to make sure I honor myself in the meantime. 

    This post was great and tomorrow I’m going to sit down with my calendar and try out the “theme” idea. Thanks!!

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  • Kimosphere

    Boy do I need this! I was just talking with my business coach yesterday about how I needed a “time budget.” This template is perfect for where I’m at! Thank you so much.

    My biggest challenge is that my work involves both people ministry AND writing/social media. So I’m constantly feeling pulled in teo different directions. I think I’ll assign a different color to each in My Ideal Week, so I can learn to find a balance. Thanks again!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shajal.mahamud Shajal Mahamud

     
    WOW – not at all what I was expecting to hear back, am so relieved to be so wrong! I do wonder
    though…how many women are these organizations able to meet with one on one? The ones that
    do have such wonderful learning opportunities (from your description) but it must be difficult
    to reach every women in need, no? Were you able to get info, by the numbers?
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts, and your photos are beautiful!really are very nice
    and best of the one in the great institute.
    are very sensitive and knowladgefull.

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  • Lisa Barton

    This was great information because I just started school, working full-time as an senior executive assistant and my company’s event planner and more, a licensed minister and new grandmother. I am definitely going to sit down and put it on paper. I won’t be effective if I keep trying to catch-up.

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  • http://twitter.com/roopakdesai Roopak Desai

    Thanks a lot.very timely since I was thinking of it..and planning to do same to help manage learning, bloging, creative projects, work and reading blog articles..

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  • Michelle Lee

    Michael, your blog and podcasts have been such a blessing to me! I am currently working in a non-profit agency and trying to make a difference, but I feel I am spreading myself too thin at times. My biggest concern right now is my local travel, as I live in a fairly large county and need to travel at least an hour to a few appointments. What bothers me is having to travel at least an hour for personal activities, such as visiting parents, going to church, participating in orchestra, spending time with friends, and other career activities such as supervision, each requiring an hour for travel. At the end of the day, or even the beginning, there is little energy for my studies, and I am studying for two major exams that I will take in the next 3-4 months. During particularly busy weeks, these are the things that go on the chopping block. Any suggestions on how to create some balance and margin into a schedule such as this?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      The only thing I know to do, Michelle, is to triage your calendar.

  • http://www.alessiobresciani.com/ Alessio Bresciani

    Great post Michael with excellent advice for us all. I’m a big fan of scheduling two times a day for email, so that email does not consume me. I will be sure to reflect more on your 7 steps as I tune my method.

  • Craig Garcia

    This was on point Sir. I plan on using this calendar system to help me stay focused on the important tasks. Also, I appreciate your blogs. Thanks for all you do.

  • Dr. Deana Murphy

    Michael I have been a silent admirer of your blog for sometime. I enjoy your wisdom and insight and use what I can to enhance my private and professional life I also use some of your concepts and templates to help my clients. You are such a blessing and inspiration.

    Showers of Blessings!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thank you, Deana. I’m so glad I can be helpful to you!

  • justmerach

    Michael,

    As I was redoing this exercise, I’m confused as to why you have any “red” categories? Either they are serving your goals in some way, or you would stop doing them, surely, especially in an ideal week. Is it a level of granularity to represent busywork – e.g. most email is spent filtering out the ~%5 that actually does feed into your goals?

    I’ve ended up with an ideal week with no red. Am I being overly optimistic about my activities, e.g. considering “cleaning” as part of my goal of offering hospitality? Or is it simply a question of granularity – lesser ‘support’ activites for bigger goals?

    Thankyou again, your material certainly helps me plan my life with more deliberate choices.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I just don’t think you can eliminate all red time, even in an ideal week. Sure you could reframe it, but that is not helpful to me. For example, some emails do move me toward my goals. But in other situations, I am responding to help someone else move toward their goals. In the end, I don’t think it really matters as much as just batching the activities so you can focus on the stuff that is indisputably green time. Thanks.

      • justmerach

        Thanks Michael, I appreciate your redirection of my focus from the colour to the batching.