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.
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  • http://www.charlielyons.ca/ Charlie Lyons

    I started using your Ideal Week spreadsheet more than a year ago and it has been terrific as a reminder for what’s important. I learned early on in its use, however, that it is a living document and have made a couple of adjustments along the way (new child, etc.). Thanks so much for your help in this and so many other areas. Blessings!

  • Connie Foster

    Thanks for sharing your Ideal Week calendar. It’s just what I need, especially with my husband’s hospitalization while I conduct training out of town (yes our train went off the tracks). Thankfully he is home now, but I’m still on the road. I look forward to returning home and using your tool to help restore some margin in our lives.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Connie, I hope your husband feels better quickly!  You bring up a great point that this is one of the best activities we can do to adjust to our “new normal” when the train of life “goes off the tracks”.

  • http://caroldublin.com/ Carol Dublin

    What a great reminder. It’s past time to update my Life Plan (thank you for your ebook), and in the process, I need to develop my Ideal Calendar. I’m trying to be more intentional, but my calendar seems to get away from me. Love the idea of blocking out the important things and creating hard boundaries to personal time. I am losing 9 vacation days this fiscal year because I didn’t plan time to take off. That is not acceptable. Awesome blog, and Happy Birthday!

  • Paul Caris

    Mike,

    Thank you for this. I’m excited to put it into practice in my life, I need more margin!

  • SUZANNE RYBMAN

    HELLO I HAVE A CHILDREN ‘S BOOK TO PUBLISH, MY UNDERSTANDING IS YOU
    CAN HELP ME  WITH THAT. MY BOOK IS READY TO PUBLISH, MY NAME IS SUZANNE RYDMAN. MY E-MAIL IS wpmom@live.com

  • http://ignitechange.net/ Craig Morton

    Such an important topic Michael.   Success doesn’t happen by accident and neither does down time.  Thanks for taking time to address this. 

  • http://www.thegeezergadgetguy.com/ Thad Puckett

    I love the concept of margin so much more than being rigid in a schedule. Margin pictures flexibility. Fits better in the real world of life and living.

  • Barbara McDowell Whitt

    Two things in your post stood out for me:

    The author Richard Swenson, MD’s comment, “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.”

    and

    “Currently, we don’t have any children living at home. Consequently, Gail and I eat dinner together almost every night, taking time to connect and catch up.”

    My responses:

    Frequently, God seems to be unacknowledged in people’s lives. I trust him completely.

    and

    I am thankful that my husband and I have the same privilege that you and your wife have – to eat our evening meal together.

     

     

  • racheal1998

    This is *fantastic*!  I was literally putting some thing together like this last night for myself, because I might have *too* much margin. Lol.   I’m doing a self-aduit this week to see exactly where all my time is going, and where I need to reallocate it.
    Thanks for much sharing your schedule and Ideal Week!  It’s so helpful.

  • http://www.SevenPillarsOfSuccess.Net Louise Thaxton

    I love the tool you shared for the week.  I read Todd’s book several years ago and it was excellent.  Thematic scheduling is what I really like – which I took from Daniel Harkavy’s book “Becoming a Coaching Leader” …..but even when I have planned and planned – and did my best with priority management – there are times when it all seems overwhelming – too many projects left undone at the end of the day! 

    I have to remind myself often that at the end of the day, Jesus rested.  There were still people to heal and to teach – but he is the ultimate example of balance.  

  • http://sidekickgraphics.com/ George Gregory

    What a neat concept! I find that if we don’t plan, things do indeed find a way to creeping in – urgent rather than important gets done first. As a visual person, I find the grid idea quite useful. 

  • @petebillingham

    Michael – very interesting blog post and eye opening on the amount of productivity you fit into a working week, thanks for the insight in to your organisational life. My thought is, what about spontaneity? I recently read Psalm 90:12 and was challenged by the words to “number my days” so I did just that! I had been alive for 18,948 days and if I lived to 77 (which a handy calculator on the web told me I had a 75% chance to reach) I had 9,148 days left… it didn’t seem too many! I try to be organised (though not as well as you) but am challenged because when I look at the events in Jesus’ life it seems quite often he was “interrupted” on his way from one place to another and thats when the most amazing ministry took place. How do you deal with spontaneity? “Gail, it’s a beautiful day, I now work from home, lets go for a picnic” kind of special moments?  Or a friend calls and says, “Michael I am struggling today with some issues, can we get coffee?” I know that you can’t do that everyday, but do you ever allow margin for those moments that create memories?   

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I totally allow for spontaneity. See point #7. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I want more margin in my life.

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  • andersgerdmar

    I really like your transparency and this inspired me to be more transparent to people I lead. I fully agree with the basic concept. The difficulty I see is of course what to do when one is less free to steward one’s time?

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  • http://jeffsnewlife.wordpress.com/ Jeff Little

    That “work will expand” concept is absolutely true.  I find that constantly, which means I need to become more diligent in creating the margin necessary to complete all important tasks, take time to build my relationship with God and my family and serve my home church.  Thank you so much for providing this .xls file for our use.  I downloaded it and will plug my days in as well.  God bless you.  And thanks for all the other great info too.  PLATFORM RULES!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/73D7HN524T6LQZYTM7PCRB6A7Y tmabie

    Hi Michael,  No margin?  Absolutely.  In fact, I’ve been meaning to comment on a number of your blogs and podcasts, but haven’t had the time.  Talk about no margin!!  I really appreciated you blog and specifically “my ideal week”.  I know that this comes from Building Champions, which I’m familiar with.  I really liked the themes and focus.  I’ve shared it with several friends vis the Forward to a friend from the email as well as printing it and sharing it.  BTY, I wrote before with a question about a “printer friendly version” of your blogs, etc.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/73D7HN524T6LQZYTM7PCRB6A7Y tmabie

    Michael, sorry, I just saw your response to my earlier post re: printer friendly version.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-G-Nderitu/100000894576885 Anthony G. Nderitu

    Hey, thanks for the tips. These will definitely aid me in developing a more targeted, and therefore more productive life.

  • Sdmadd2

    Great post.  This style of electronic calendar would be great for me to use.  If I can effectively implement it now it will keep me from wasting so much time now, and help me set boundaries later when my schedule is more busy.  Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-G-Nderitu/100000894576885 Anthony G. Nderitu

    Hey, thanks for the tips. They will be helpful in developing a more targeted, and therefore more productive life.

  • http://doublehockeysticks.com/ Susie

    I love this!!  Thank you so much for sharing it.  I felt like email was taking over my life.  I now have blocked out times when I’ll do e-mail and created theme days.  So helpful – thank you so much!

  • Reader

    Dear Mr. Hyatt,

    Thanks for these insights.  It is very kind of you to share what is working for you.   If we lose our physical and/or emotional health, how can we be effective to others or in ministry?  Your website is a valuable resource to many people, myself included.

    Blessings,
    Yetunde

  • http://www.irunurun.com/blog/ Travis Dommert

    The post about your ideal week has to be one of those that hit me hardest…because I knew I needed to do it and yet kept putting it off.  Client demands just seemed to vary so much that I wondered when it would finally work to impose my will on them…as a result, I wasn’t planning my ideal week and the whole thing was like to-do spaghetti.

    I recently took a major step forward…I blocked time on my calendar throughout the week for my most important recurring actions…the stuff I track on irunurun.  I figured if it was important enough to make my iu dashboard, it deserved a spot on the calendar.

    Then, to maintain flexibility, I made that same time (as well as any open slots) available to clients.  The result, if clients want that time, they can have it…but the activity must go somewhere else on the calendar.  When there is no where else to put it, clients can no longer have it.

    Now the only challenge…work the plan!!  (smile)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Good for you, Travis!

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  • http://twitter.com/Jon_Wilburn Jon Wilburn

    Michael – I have recently discovered that I need to start saying no to unneeded things.  I think Steve Jobs said something like, ” Focus isn’t about saying yes, its about saying no to 1000 good things”  

    Isn’t that true with our schedules too?  I appreciated your post today. Thanks. 

  • Jonelle

    Great article!  I have used time blocks for years and teach my clients to do the same.  However, I lover the concept of the Ideal Week with themes.   Thank you for sharing!

  • JaysonFeltner

    This post really inspired me, so I just posted an extension to this article! I titled it “How to Preserve Margin Time in Your Life.” I think the MichaelHyatt.com readers will enjoy it.

    http://jaysonfeltner.com/2012/06/27/preserve-margin/

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Very good, Jayson. Thanks.

      • JaysonFeltner

        You’re welcome. Thank you for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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  • http://www.loisturley.com/ Lois Turley

    Michael, your blog is one of my favorites.  This post came just as I was working toward getting a more efficient schedule set up.  Thank you.

    One thing I’m wondering: Where does social media fit into the schedule you’ve shown us here?

  • Pedro Alexandrino

    Hi Michael. Great post. I do this with my calendar as well. Now the question I’ve always had is this: What do you do when the most important things for you don’t get enough time and you just don’t have anything to trade in. For example: I’m reading Stephen Covey’s ” First things first ” now and adapting some concepts, but on my personal pile, I’ve always had the perfect world as: God, Family, work, everything else.

    Having said that, Because I’m naturally driven to the scholar side of theology, I need a lot of Time (Chronos) as well as quality time (Kairos) to really experience depth when reading the bible and spending time with God. But work takes so much of my day… Maybe I should read the book ” Quitter” by john Acuff which is already on my list anyway…

    Let me know your thoughts. Love your work

  • http://twitter.com/chuck_anderson Chuck Anderson

    Interesting to see your revised calendar now that you’re not at Thomas Nelson any longer. My question is about the start of your day. I have trouble when I start out with blogs, news, email, and such. It sucks me in and it’s close to lunch before I know it. How do you avoid that with those items starting your day?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      It’s a good question. Sometimes it sucks me in too. Mostly, it is about being clear with my to-do list and knowing what I have to accomplish for the day.

      • http://twitter.com/chuck_anderson Chuck Anderson

        Thanks Michael! I guess it’s kind of like the Apostle Paul who sometimes “kept doing the things he knew he shouldn’t do.”

  • sarahfarish

    Thanks so much for this post.  I end each week frustrated, feeling I have wasted the week.  But, I have never put anything in writing; it’s all in my head and dreams.  This how-to is exactly what I needed.  Thanks again.

  • http://twitter.com/Serial_Artist Diana Elaine Fadal

    Wow. I am so thankful for this post. I am an intern at Castle Media Group and recently listened to the audio version of your book, which was so good and clear, and helpful. 

    I love that you seek God first and schedule your calendar to be life-giving and beneficial to yourself holistically and not just in order to “get as much done as possible” in the week, which can often leave us dry. I want to start scheduling like this. 

    Big fan!

  • Mitacari

    I liked Step 7 because I was wondering how often the ideal schedule is accomplished.   I’ve made schedules for myself, but life seems to happen and my ideal plan is thwarted.  I feel like I am always behind, sometimes because I really am behind and sometimes because I didn’t meet my own expectations.  Can you address this?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      The Ideal Week is just that: an “ideal.” You will rarely achieve it, but at least you know what you are shooting for. If you have this in mind you have a better chance of hitting it. You might only get 80%, but that is better than 40-50%. Thanks.

  • G Aliceson

    Margin was a new concept for me and one I have not mastered.  This was was greatly helpful to me as I transition into my retirement from full-time teacher to full time writer.  I think a schedule such as this will also help with the people in my life who think I now have “nothing” to do during the day.

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  • http://www.jackiebledsoe.com/ jbledsoejr

    Awesome! I remember seeing your idea week when I was first exposed to your blog.  It must have been your ideal week when you were still CEO of Thomas Nelson.  I love how you have adjusted it…especially the nap!  I noticed this week that at around 12:30 everyday I get extremely sleepy.

    I hope as I continue to eat better and be more consistent working out, and getting better sleep at night that I won’t feel that way.  But that “nap” on your Ideal Week looks very good!  :)  Thanks for sharing!

  • JoshMann

    Couldn’t help but smile when I saw showering, dressing, and eating on the schedule. I’ve made a color-coded “ideal week,” too (didn’t have a name for it at the time), and included such things. Reminds me of Dave Ramsey’s categorization of ‘nerd’ for the spouse who insists on full-color detailed, complex spreadsheets for the budget. That would make me a nerd, I guess. Helpful post.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510957234 Adam Duguay

    Hi Michael,

    What would you suggest for leaders in the middle of an organization who aren’t in complete control of their calendar? How can you create margin with others have the authority to dictate your calendar to you?
    I’m sure you’ve been in this situation in the past, how did you deal with it?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Here’s the truth: you will NEVER be in a place where you have 100% control of your calendar (unless you become a hermit).

      When I was the President and COO of Thomas Nelson, I reported to the CEO. I naively thought, I can’t wait until I become the CEO, then I will have total control.

      Wrong.

      When I was made CEO, I went from one boss to seven! Plus, a ton of other people wanted a piece of me.

      The trick is to be faithful with what you do have control over. Do you have two hours of discretionary time a day? How about an hour? You can accomplish an incredible amount in even an hour if you are focused and disciplined.

      Hope that helps. Great questions!

  • Jenny Steinbach

    Hi Michael, I am learning alot from you blog, and here is my question.  What about Gail?  I am a wife, mother and leader.  Does Gail have a life plan? Or a career?  I am sure that she helps you, but i don’t have a wife.  I come home to a husband and 4 teens.  I want to use my gifts and grow but i need to be careful not to set my expectations too high.  If it really takes another person to make your ideal week work, than i would appreciate knowing that.  Is there a woman leader you would recommend that i learn from too?
    thanks,
    Jenny

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  • http://therabbitpad.blogspot.in/ MacBoy

    This spreadsheet is simply magnificent.