So much to do and so little time to do it! That seems like the cry and experience of our day and age. With such an explosion of choice there is no limit it seems to what I can, have, do and fill my time with. But where do I put the limits? Should there be limits? How do I decide what is really important or trivial? What should I do now or leave for another day or time? That is why the concept of margin is so vital.

For me with a recent fracture of my wrist, and needing to take time off work, I have had to slow myself down considerably.  What seemed urgent and essential on one occasion feels less so now. At the same time I have started to slowly appreciate the importance of having margin or space in my life. It is something I find myself continually having to remind myself about. As my pace gradually begins to pick up I am reminded of the words of King Solomon (who certainly had a lot to occupy and distract him!), “Better one hand with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

So what is margin?….
Margin in this context is the edge or border of something. When I went to school, the margin was that perpendicular line in your notebook that separated your writing from the side of the page. The earliest Bible documents were written with no margins and even no spaces between the letters! Presumably that did not matter much then. Most people were illiterate. There were no other books to read and the Scriptures were read out in public to a captive audience who were not so preoccupied by time as we are.
But when it comes to choices our world is very different.

As we have technologically advanced and the pace of life has exponentially increased we have become more and more concerned about margin. It’s an indication of our busy frenetic world that there is far more available to us in terms of what to do than there is the time to do it. Just look at any subject or activity and there is a never-ending explosion of choice. While on the one hand that is great, it also means we can easily become overwhelmed and feel we are forever chasing our tail just to stand still. There is also the rise of that modern term – FOMO or fear of missing out! Again I am so often guilty as charged in this area – taking on way more than I could handle even in a lifetime.

David Allen in his book, Getting Things Done helpfully defines three kinds of work. He uses the word ‘work’ in the most general sense of the term, but it can easily apply to any form of activity we choose to do. Defining work in this universal sense means anything you want or need to be different than it currently is. Using this broader definition that makes no distinction between my ‘personal life’ and what I do when I am at ‘work’ is useful in our increasingly technologically driven and inter-connected world. With such a definition going for a walk with my dog is just as much work as seeing a patient or writing this blog post. They all have to be slotted into my calendar sometime somewhere!

Using this broad definition then these are the basic three kinds of work:

Planned defined work or activity: this is what I tell myself I intend to do on any given day or time.

Unplanned work or activity that arrives unannounced: this could be a sudden crisis or emergency or an unexpected request. It could also be a spontaneous opportunity. I have to make a choice as to whether I respond in the moment (react) or leave it for another time and place.

The work of defining your work: this is a third activity we have historically tended to overlook, but is becoming increasingly important as there is so much continually coming at us in so many directions. Its actually the space in which we stop to capture all the different potential choices out there coming at us, clarify what each means and organise what is done when and where. While we are doing that we need to review everything else in our world that may be changing!

Margin is essential to ensure we stop being human doings and remember what it means to be a human being. It is the place to stop for silence and solitude. It is also essential to take stock of our priorities and ensure the urgent does not get in the way of what is truly important to us. (For more on this see Where Do I Find The Time? and Podcast #024: Making Sense of Time).

We will continue to explore this subject of margin, but for now what questions do you have about margin? How do you ensue you have enough margin in your life?