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Why You Need to Make Space for Margin in a Busy Life

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I’ve always been a list maker and a planner at heart, but there came a time when I was totally overwhelmed and stressed out. It wasn’t so much that my planning was failing me or that I was trying to cram too much into my day (although that sometimes happened). No, my problem was that I was struggling with managing the time that I had.

We all have 24 hours in a day, but how we choose to use those hours is key. Even when my day is planned well, things always crop up, making me feel stressed and like I’m failing at life.

I finally began adding margin time to my day, and it made all the difference in the world.

Why (and How) to Add Margin in Your Day

What does margin look like in a busy day?

Have you ever felt totally overwhelmed by 10:00 in the morning? Or those days where you feel like you’ve run a marathon but haven’t actually accomplished anything?

Margin can be a breath of fresh air in your day. As you’re struggling to get from one thing to the next or cross a million things off your to-do list, margin gives you that extra time to get things done.

In a jam-packed day, margin gives you a chance to play catch up if things take longer than expected. Also, if you’re notoriously late for everything (raising my hand), margin helps to give you a fighting chance at being on time.

How do you create margin in a busy day?

As glorious as margin sounds, including it in your day (and using it wisely) is the trickiest part. There are a couple different ways to add margin to your day so that you’re setting yourself up for success. After all, there’s no point in adding one more to-do item to your list.

1. Use time blocks in your planner

I use time blocks to get through my day. Every evening (or as I schedule appointments in my planner), I block out chunks of time to get my tasks done. For example, if I need to take my son to the allergist at 11:00 a.m., I would block out time from 10:30 until 12:30 for his appointment and the time it takes to drive to the appointment.

Time blocking not only helps prevent me from double booking myself, but it also helps me see exactly what I should be doing at a glance.

I use this planner to time block my day.Time blocking is effective in both a paper planner and a digital planner. I used time blocking in my email’s calendar at work, and I have continued to use it in my paper planner at home. At home, I found that using reminders for every task was overwhelming (and every time I checked my phone, I would end up pinning something on Pinterest instead of doing my next task), so I made the switch to a paper planner. That said, use whatever method (digital or paper) and add time blocks to make your day more efficient.

2. Include unplanned time in your schedule

I first came across the concept of adding padding to my schedule in Crystal Paine’s Make Over Your Mornings course. While I had been time blocking my day for years when I was working, I never made a point to add margin. If I didn’t finish a task within the allotted time, I would “borrow” time from the next task. At the end of the day, that left me tired, stressed out, and overwhelmed.

In addition to time blocking my tasks and activities, I still leave extra time for margin throughout my day. This means that even though I have a list of time blocks available in my planner, I don’t schedule them all. That’s my time to play catch up. If I’m having a productive day, then the margin time is extra time to snuggle with the kids and read, play a game, or have a spontaneous popcorn party.

The concept of extra blocks of margin time can be useful in both the workforce and in the home. Unscheduled time is a wonderful thing to add midmorning when you need a break, in the early afternoon when everything seems to need attention, or even after dinner, when you really want to vegetate instead of beginning your bedtime routine.

3. Allow for extra time to get things done

Another trick to create margin in your day is to allow for extra time for each task. I make sure to budget extra time for each activity. If I think something will take me five minutes, I plan for 15. If I know I’ll need to cross a set of train tracks to drive across town, I’ll plan on getting stopped by the train.

When I was working, I tracked my “billable hours” in 15-minute increments. If a conference call was scheduled for 30 minutes but only took 20, I was able to use the margin time to catch up on other things, like sending an email.

Add margin around each task to give yourself some breathing room.

In the home, time blocking and adding margin to each activity isn’t so cut and dry, but I still use it to my advantage. Trust me, there are mornings when it’s much easier to lay in bed for those extra ten minutes instead of planning on a train or the baby’s wardrobe malfunction. However, preparing for the inevitable has saved my sanity on more than one occasion (and sometimes I wish I would’ve planned for two trains).

4. Keep a running to-do list

On the left side of my planner, I keep a running list of my daily to-do items. If I have a few minutes in between time blocks, I can work on crossing tasks off my to-do list, but I can also use the spare time to take a breath and relax.

I’ve found that having a schedule and a wish list of my daily tasks is so helpful. Once I’ve established a routine, life is much more manageable. Even if I deviate from that routine (i.e. overslept), I still have a starting point and a plan to get through the day.

5. Cross things off your list

Some days, you won’t be able to accomplish everything on your list. That’s ok! You have two options: plan ahead and do everything early, like the night before, or accept that you won’t be able to accomplish certain things and cross them off your list.

I know that if I don’t get certain things done first thing in the morning, they won’t get done. Once the kids are in bed, the couch looks much more inviting than the treadmill. While you shouldn’t make a habit of crossing important items off your list (Forgot to thaw out dinner? No worries, you can just eat out for the tenth day in a row….), it doesn’t hurt if you occasionally skip a task (I’ve been known to leave a few fingerprints on the windows).

Since I started adding margin into my schedule, life has been much more pleasant. I follow a daily routine, but I also love knowing that I have margin available if I need it. The day runs smoother and life seems simpler!

Have you tried adding margin to your day? What worked (or didn’t work)?


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Donna Reidland

Thursday 21st of July 2016

Many years ago, our pastor preached a sermon on margins that impacted my life greatly. He talked about margins in many areas. Of course, time is one of the biggest ones for me and I'm still a work in progress in this area. One of the other areas he talked about was finances. He said most of us keep our money so tight that we have nothing to give to an unexpected need outside the family or to use for emergencies. It's easy to upgrade all the time to bigger and newer because we can "make the payment," but it only leads to more and more stress. Better to be content with what we have and have margins in that area.

Alison Lange

Sunday 24th of July 2016

That is such great advice. I love the idea of using margin in finances. Thank you for sharing!

Rachel @ Smart Mom Smart Ideas

Sunday 17th of July 2016

Hi Alison, I am always working to refine how I use my planner. I like the idea of time blocking. I think this really helps you see how much time you actually need to accomplish tasks. This also seems like a great way to maximize your time. Thanks for sharing at Mom-to-Mom Mondays.

Alison Lange

Sunday 17th of July 2016

Time blocking is a life changer!

Monique Dean

Thursday 14th of July 2016

Great ideas here - I especially love the tip of adding some padding to your schedule and crossing off to-do's. That's where I think my biggest frustration is...I don't give myself enough buffer time to complete tasks and then all my to-do's come crashing together at the end of the day and also trying to hold myself accountable for accomplishing EVERYTHING I want to EVERYDAY, when I know that it's impossible, so just crossing off some of those "non-essential tasks" and being done with it is really a sigh of relief. Thanks for sharing!

Alison Lange

Sunday 17th of July 2016

Sometimes knowing when to let go (and prioritizing) just breathe air into your day! And padding... I'm not perfect at it, like the day I was late to chaperone my son's field trip because a train was stopped on the tracks, but it's a work in progress. ;)

Stephanie Robinson

Tuesday 12th of July 2016

Great tips - the adding padding one is the one I need to do more of. I cram a lot in and sometimes you just want a cup of tea and a flick through a magazine. It's all about balance isn't it? Thanks for linking to #PoCoLo

Alison Lange

Sunday 17th of July 2016

So true!

Cathy Lawdanski

Tuesday 12th of July 2016

This post came along at the perfect time. I am re-evaluating how I spend my time and trying to focus on just a few tasks a day instead of 100. Thanks for the reminder to include margin! Thanks for visiting #overthemoon

Alison Lange

Tuesday 12th of July 2016

I just read somewhere that Warren Buffet asked someone to list his top 25 goals for the year, and then he advised him to cross off 20. I dread crossing things off my list without completing them, but focusing on just a few tasks means that you can actually give them the time and attention they deserve. I hope adding margin gives you the breathing room you need to complete your tasks!