Give Your Day Some Breathing Room

As we continue with this month’s focus on margin, today we’re going to talk about getting and keeping margin in your schedule.

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I love how David Allen says that you can’t actually manage time. If you start with 5 minutes, there’s no way to manage it well enough that it will turn into 6 minutes.

What you can do is manage how you spend your time. Which is more like time stewardship — because you alone are responsible for taking care of the time you have in the day.

And this is why margin in our schedule is so important. It gives us the breathing room and the wherewithal to steward our time and manage ourselves in how we spend it.

In his book, Margin, Richard Swenson states that there are four main areas of life that we most need margin in. They are our emotional energy, our physical energy, our finances, and our schedule.

And I would add one more area to that list: We also need margin in our mental energy — our thoughts, and with it, creative energy.

You can’t pit any of these against one another when looking for one that is more or less important. They overlap and intertwine with one another so much that when we have margin in one area, it helps open the door to margin in the other areas. And, conversely, when we lack margin in one area, it puts a strain on the others.

Over the coming weeks, we’re going to dive in to each of these. Today, let’s start with how to get some breathing room in our schedules.

When We LACK Margin in Our Schedule

When there is margin in our life, it brings with it a sense of contentment, simplicity, balance, and rest.

Consider this with your current schedule… do you feel content, balanced, and rested?

  • Is your schedule simple enough that you control it? (Or does it control you?)

  • At the end of the day, when you look back at how you spent your time, do you feel content? Or do you feel frustrated at all the things you didn’t and all the fires you had to react to and put out?

  • At the end of your day, do you feel that your day was balanced? Were you Meaningfully Productive? Did you spend your time on things that matter most to you in more than just one area of your life? Is there an area of your life that dominates your schedule and causes other areas of your life to get out of balance?

  • At the start of your day, do you feel rested and prepared to do awesome things? Or do you feel behind before you even begin?

Your answers to these questions can help you determine if there is any margin in your schedule. But my hunch is that you don’t need much self-assessment to know if your schedule has breathing room or not.

When We HAVE Margin in Our Schedule

Imagine waking up in the morning and being able to spend time doing what you want to do.

Perhaps it’s going to the gym or going on a walk. Having time in quiet to read, think, and/or journal. Being able to make a healthy breakfast and still have time to prepare for work and begin your day doing the things that are most important.

Margin in your schedule means your day has breathing room.

And that breathing room means two things: (1) that you can set aside time for doing the things that are most important; and (2) that there is space to account for the unexpected. That’s what Margin is all about: it’s space left over.

Conversely, when our schedule lacks any breathing room, it’s like waking up just minutes before having to rush out the door. Grabbing a Pop-Tart without even having the time to put it in the toaster. Then, getting to work and spending 8 or more hours putting out fires and responding to multiple urgent issues.

The difference between a schedule with and without margin is far more than just one of getting up earlier. It’s an internal choice. The choice to take ownership of our time and attention.

The person with margin has taken ownership of their time and has slowly established a routine that allows for health and breathing room. The other person is, honestly, a bit out of control.

Out of Control

I love how Dan Mall replaced the phrase “I don’t have time” with “it’s not a priority” for his internal dialog:

Recently, I’ve tried to stop saying, “I don’t have time.” It insinuates that I’m a helpless victim to the all-powerful stream of hours that mightily passes me by. It’s easy to adopt an “Oh well” attitude to what you’re giving up. It authorizes my apathy.

Instead, I’ve replaced it with the phrase, “That’s not a priority.” Suddenly, I’ve taken control of my own decisions. I’ve taken responsibility for what I do and don’t do. I’ve added clarity, condemnation, and encouragement, all in 4 short words.

How many people do you know who “don’t have time,” who are “so busy?” Everyone, right? We’re all so busy. None of us have any time.

This has kind-of become the standard answer we all give when people ask us how we’re going. It’s a badge of honor, even.

I used to think that the busier I was, the more important I was. The more people who wanted me to do stuff for them, the more meetings I was invited to, the more projects I was in charge of — all of it was proof that I was important. Each additional commitment was another badge on my uniform to display to those around just how important and responsible I was.

But there’s a difference between having a full schedule and being busy. My schedule is still very much full. But it’s full with all the things I am choosing to do. Such as three meals a day with my family. Time in the evening to read. Time in the morning to write. A whole day of the week where I build trains with my boys and don’t even look at email. A date with my wife every single week.

How to Restore Margin to our Schedule

There are so many ways you can restore (and maintain) breathing room in your schedule. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Give yourself permission to have some breathing room: This is what the book Fringe Hours is all about. You need margin in your schedule; it’s okay to make that happen. Give yourself permission to create some breathing room and to spend your time doing the things that are most important to you.

  • Automate, delegate, and eliminate: Are you spending time doing things that aren’t important or could be done by someone else? Cut those tasks out or delegate them to someone else.

  • Cut out baseline noise: When you got up this morning, did you check your phone right away? Email, social network timeline, news feed? Did that help you start your day? Do you even remember what you read?

  • Minimum and Maximum time blocks: Give yourself a minimum amount of time to spend on important things and a maximum amount of time to spend on less-important things. For me, this looks like a minimum of two hours writing and a maximum of 30 minutes doing email. I have a minimum time I spend with my family each day and a maximum time to watch Netflix each week. A minimum amount of time spent reading and a maximum amount of time spent on Social Networks.

  • Schedule your most important tasks: If you know what is most important for you to do each day, then schedule it.

  • Single tasking: I’m terrible at this one, but trying to recover. If you look at my computer, there are about 9,000 open windows and browser tabs. In an ideal state, there would be just one open window — the one I’m using to write this text right now.

Single tasking goes beyond just focusing on one software app at a time, it also goes for other activities. For example: don’t check your email when playing ball with your kids. If you’re scheduling your most important tasks, then it’s safe to assume you’ve planned when you’re going to do all the things that are meaningful to you. So, trust your commitments to yourself and single-task the activity you’re doing right now. (This also helps create margin for your mental energy, which we’ll get to in a couple of days.)

Your Daily Plumb Lines

One of the quickest ways to take ownership of your schedule is to know what your most important work is. What are the areas of your life that you want to spend time on?

As I mentioned above, set a minimum and a maximum time allowance for different things.

We’re going to dive into this a bit more in March when we talk about showing up every day and hustling to do our best creative work.

But, in short, urgent tasks will always find us, which is why we have to be proactive about making time for the important tasks and then protecting that time.

Urgent issues always come up. If they don’t align with your vision and values, then you can feel comfortable saying no. Like Dan Mall says, “it’s not a priority.”

For me, I have a few areas of my life that I want to spend time developing every single day. These areas are my work, my personal self, and my family.

I have just a couple of things in each area that I want to do every single day. They are my Daily Plumb Lines. They include things such as: pushing the needle forward on at least one of my current projects; spend time away from my desk; Learn something; encourage and serve my wife; give my boys my full attention.

It can be easy to get distracted by something interesting, exciting, or urgent and to not even realize that I’m actually just wasting my time.

Sometimes when I sit down to work, I will feel overwhelmed at all the plates I know I have spinning. I’ll feel unsure about what my next action step should be. This is not an ideal state to be in, but it happens. It’s not the end of the world, and there are ways out.

For the days when I feel as if I have nothing figured out, at least I have clarity about what my Most Important Goals are because the goals don’t change from day to day. Therefore, I can still make meaningful progress on my projects and have a productive day, even if I’m not firing on all cylinders.

Because one thing I can do for certain is to make sure that my next action is something that falls in line with one of my aforementioned Daily Plumb Lines. This way, when I’m feeling overwhelmed or prone to distraction, I have options other than to just zone out and check Twitter.

Moreover, by having these Plumb Lines, it gives me permission to say “no” to much more than distractions. It also gives me permission to say no to opportunities that would encroach on the breathing room in my schedule.

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It’s not easy to restore and maintain breathing room in our schedule. Especially at the beginning, when some of us may need time to transition out of a few current commitments and establish a new routine.

I mentioned some suggestions above, so if any of those sound awesome to you, then go for it.

If you’re not sure where to start, perhaps start by saying no to the next incoming opportunity that doesn’t excite you and line up with what’s most important to you.

Secondly, take a few minutes and do an audit on how you’re spending your free time. When you get home from work, what does your average evening look like? For most Americans, they’re watching more than 5 hours of television every day. Perhaps all you need in order to buy back a bit of margin in your schedule is to sell some of that Netflix time.

When you have margin in your schedule, it’s liberating.

You have the time to get enough sleep, go on a date, have breakfast with your kids, invest in your own mental, spiritual, and physical health, and do your most important work each day.

And best of all, when there is margin in your schedule, you can be available to help and serve. You can respond to the needs of others without it disrupting your whole life.

Give Your Day Some Breathing Room