Why Margin is Critical for Doing Your Best Creative Work



The past few weeks we’ve been talking at length about margin.

Margin is so important because having that breathing room in your life is healthy. You need margin in your schedule, in your finances, and in your relationships. You need breathing room for your creative energy. Margin helps you show up every day to do and focus on your best creative work. And much more.

Sometimes, it’s easiest to see the importance of Margin when considering what life looks like without that breathing room. Consider:

  • When you have no margin for your finances, there’s baseline level of stress. You can be prone to making irrational choices about how you spend your time and energy, and it’s difficult to keep the long-game in mind.
  • When you’re overloaded in your schedule, it’s difficult to get the time you need to focus and do your best work.
  • When you’re emotionally on edge, it puts a strain on your relationships and your work. And you don’t feel free to dream and create without inhibition.

In short, margin is liberating.

A healthy dose of margin in your life gives you the space you need to think, dream, strategize, wrestle through complexity, focus deeply, and, ultimately, do your best creative work. For those Wildly Important Goals you have, margin will help you accomplish them.

Margin helps us to push through the fears we face as creative folks. It gives us get the breathing room we need to come up with ideas and to create solutions. It helps us get the energy and motivation to show up and do the work. And it helps us to stay mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy so we can rest well and be recharged.

Pushing Through Fear

In the five years that I’ve been writing for a living, there is at least one common thread in all of the work and all of the projects I’ve done: fear.

It’s usually in the form of a nagging question in the back of my mind telling me that “this might not work”.

  • When I quit my job to write shawnblanc.net full-time and started a membership drive, I had no idea if it would work or not.
  • When I launched my book, Delight is in the Details, I had no idea if people would be willing to pay $39 for it.
  • When I built Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, I had no idea if they would grow into sustainable websites.
  • When I created The Focus Course, I had no idea how many people would sign up for it.

This is, of course, not to say that I went into all of these endeavors blind. I spoke with trusted advisors and did much due diligence about what people were interested in, etc. But even still, for every one of those projects, I was afraid that it might not work.

I had no guarantees that any of them would survive first contact with the real world. For just about every step along the path as I was building each of those projects, I kept hearing in the back of my mind “this might not work”.

When you’re on a quest to do something that matters to you, fear is going to be right there. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of loss. Fear of the unknown.

Truth be told, there is never a time in the creative journey that we stop dealing with fear. The challenge, therefore, is to acclimate to fear. When you’re working on a project and thinking to yourself “this might not work”, use that as a signal to yourself that you must push through the fear.

And it’s in that moment of pushing through the fear that margin is your friend. Because margin in your life will give you the wherewithal you need to keep going.

Time to Think and Dream

In my recent podcast conversation with Corbett Barr we talked about how the indie entrepreneur has two modes: “CEO” mode and “Worker Bee” mode.

The CEO is the thinker, the dreamer, the planner, and the strategist. This is where you spend time mapping out the next day, week, month, year, 5 years, etc. What is the big picture? What’s the value you’re providing? How are you going to build your audience?

This is, by far and away, one of the most difficult states to get into on a regular basis. Because spending your time in CEO mode is rarely ever an urgent matter. There seems to be no harm in waiting another day or two or 30 before you plan out the contents of your next book.

It goes without saying the when you have margin in your schedule, you’ve got the time you need to actually sit and plan and think and strategize.

To do your best creative work, you’ve got to take the time to think and dream. Something that is much easier to accomplish without an overloaded schedule.

Doing The Work

After you’ve got your plan, it’s time to show up and do the work.

I strongly encourage you, that if you’re trying to do your best creative work, you’ve got to show up every day.

There are many reasons why it’s important to show up ever day:

  1. It helps you increase your skills.
  2. It establishes a consistency with your audience that leads to trust and reciprocity.
  3. It’s the most surefire way to keep making progress building your thing.

Without margin in your schedule and in your creative energy, showing up every day is an uphill battle. Well, it’s already an uphill battle, but, without margin, it’s like walking uphill, both ways, in the snow.

Resting Well

The average American watches 5 hours of television per day. We also spend an additional 2 hours on social media. Goodness gracious.

Not only does all that TV and social media eat up at the time we have available to do awesome work, it steals from our cognitive energy.

When you’ve got such a strong baseline level of noise and distraction in your life, your mind and creative energy never truly gets the downtime they need.

I love defining rest as an activity which leaves us feeling recharged and re-energized. I for one never feel charged up and energized after a 5-hour Netflix binge session. Neither do I feel energized after 2 hours of passively scrolling my Twitter timeline.

If the goal of resting is to be recharged and re-energized, what then can we do that will leave us with more energy than we started?

  • Reading
  • Encouraging and serving others
  • Physical activity
  • Quality time with friends
  • Focusing on a challenging task and making progress

Sometimes these activities leave us feeling recharged right away. While other times they contribute to our overall baseline level of energy and happiness.

So why don’t we read more often? Why don’t we spend an hour in the evening working on our side project? Because it’s hard to get started.

Watching TV is so much easier. There’s no activation energy required — you just plop down and hit the remote.

Whereas everything else — reading, serving others, having a deep conversation, going on a walk — requires a bit of energy to get started.

Which is why resting well is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. When you have breathing room in your life, it’s easier to spend your down time resting well. Also, resting well brings breathing room to your life.

Build, Maintain, Rest

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, margin gives us the space we need to think, dream, strategize, wrestle through complexity, focus deeply, and, ultimately, do our best creative work.

For me, these things all manifest in one of three ways. When I am “at work” I want to be doing one of three things: building, maintaining, or resting.

  1. Building is doing work with the future in mind. This includes coming up with new ideas (many of which we’ll never even act on, but that’s okay), clarifying plans for a current project, making tangible progress on projects that haven’t yet shipped, learning something new, etc.

  2. Maintaining is doing the work with today in mind. Such as checking my email, updating WordPress, writing show notes, etc. This is the day-to-day work that is vital to be done, but in and of itself usually isn’t a significant contributor to the growth of my business and my creativity.

  3. Resting is simply taking a break from the work. Albert Einstein said: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”

All three of these are important as well as cyclical. Each one needs its own attention on a weekly basis if not daily. And each one comes and goes as being the most important overall for a season.

And margin in your life helps with all of it. A little bit of breathing room — a little bit of energy — goes a long way.

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Want more resources on margin? Check out this page. It’s the central repository of links to each article and podcast related to margin that’s been published so far. I’ve also got a very spiffy video presentation you can get access to.