How To Create Margin In Your Life

Every Sunday I sit down with my calendar and to-do list and schedule out my week. I pencil in project work time, meetings, exercise, etc. with each task bumped up to the next in iCal. Sometimes I get a little too specific- scheduling everything from when I’ll eat dinner to when I’ll take a shower. When I’m done, the upcoming week looks like five towering stacks of color-coded blocks with no gaps- no margin.

After the routine wave of panic, I convince myself that I will stay on schedule and get it all done.

Sometimes this happens. But more often than not, I find myself scrambling through the week trying to catch up to my ambitious schedule- watching things like sleep, meditation… and sometimes showers fall through the cracks. The flaw: my lofty schedule assumes everything will go exactly as planned, and nothing ever goes exactly as planned. (Trust me, I got married outside in a thunderstorm wearing the most expensive article of WHITE clothing I’ve ever purchased. That wasn’t on my iCal.)

Why Margin Is Important For Your Health

Margin is all about time, and time is the #1 reason people give me for not prioritizing health

From meal planning to grocery shopping, from meditating to exercising, everyone seems to be lacking time for these scientifically-proven healthful activities. You can’t make time, but you can make room. If you want to be healthier, making room (a.k.a. creating margin) is one of the first steps you must take.

A margin-less life is a stressful life

Stress suppresses immunity, accelerates aging, and is linked to other chronic diseases like heart disease. Margin combats stress in two ways: more margin means your schedule is less hectic AND more margin means more time for stress-reducing activities like sleep, exercise and meditation. Still think a margin-full life is unattainable for you? Keep reading…

The average American spends SIX hours per day of leisure time staring at a screen

About 2.7 of that is television watching. Whether you spend a little more or a little less than that amount of time, you are part of this statistic. So, next time you say that you “have no time” consider this: screen time is a fairly new leisure activity for humans unlike other time commitments like career and family. When screens came onto the scene, we somehow “found” time to watch reality TV, scroll Facebook, and fill our Amazon carts. So, before you say you don’t have time to exercise, cook, etc., look closely at how you spend your leisure time. Is the latest episode of Scandal worth heart disease?

How To Create Margin In Your Life

Get clear on your essentials

How many times have you said “yes” without even thinking about it? Probably a lot. Before you know it, your time is bound to an endless list of things that don’t bring you joy. The first step in creating margin is to get really clear on what is essential to you. Your children? Planning and cooking meals that align with good health? Writing? Walking? Get out a piece of paper and make a list of as many of your essentials as you can think of. And then cut that list in half (essentialism is ruthless) and write what’s left on a new piece of paper. Notice the physical margins on all sides. What’s left is a list of the things that make you feel alive, that makes you you, with room to spare for new endeavors, unexpected life events, and the “have to’s” like paying bills and taking out the trash.

Trade “and” for “or”

The people I work with are trying to make monumental changes to their health- completely overhaul their diets, learn to cook, and start exercising (maybe for the first time in their lives). Cultivating new habits and learning new skills takes time, energy, and (you guessed it) margin. Most of us want to add, but we forget to subtract. To create margin, you must replace “and” for “or”. In other words, you must make trade-offs. If you want to start cooking healthy meals, that might mean you trade Sunday afternoon football for meal prep. If you want to start exercising, that might mean you go for a walk instead of turning on the TV after dinner. If you want more “me time”, that might mean you delete your Twitter account. Every time you are faced with a new addition to your life, pull out that piece of paper from Step 1. Is there room? If you add, what will you subtract?

Schedule generously

This one is simple: when you schedule tasks and activities, give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. By building mini margins into each activity, you set yourself up to feel ahead of the game and give yourself cushion for inevitable mishaps. Scheduling generously also makes it easier to say “no” to non-essentials because there’s no physical room to squeeze them into your schedule.

Take a break

The topic of margin is especially pertinent for me because I recently returned from 10 days of travel. Although part of the trip was for work, changes in time zones and routine forced me to liberate my typical regimen. When I returned and pulled up my iCal, I viewed it with a fresh perspective. I noticed that my true essentials came in to focus more easily. Just like a one beloved but now forgotten sweater buried in the depths of my closet that effortlessly finds its way into the donation pile, many of my once thought to be “essential” commitments became easy to abandon. Living differently for a short time makes you realize what you can live without and, more importantly, what you can’t live without. Although a physical change in your environment helps, you can also take a break in the comfort of your own home. Block out unstructured “free” time in your schedule, turn off push notifications on your phone, or ban social media one day per week. You’ll realize that, contrary to popular belief, you are not missing out by logging off of Facebook for 24 hours (when you log on again, everything will be as it was: someone had a baby, someone’s on a beach vacation, and someone is still ranting about politics).

Never give up

You know that feeling- the sinking, weighty sensation of resistance when someone asks you to do something that is not in line with your (now clearly defined) essentials. Before you blindly agree, stop and think about it. Maybe even ask for time to think about it (novel idea, eh?). If it doesn’t serve your essentials, then the answer is “no”. Creating margin in your life is an ongoing, difficult practice (it does get easier once you experience the spacious rewards!). It’s counterintuitive to mainstream practice (much like a plant-based diet), but you must not give up. Your health, happiness, and wellbeing depend on it. The wellbeing of the rest of the world depends on it too because something magical happens when you carve out margins. You will have the energy and space to give your highest contribution to yourself, your family and friends, and your society.

There’s a reason why graphic designers and resume experts advocate for ample “white space” on a page. White space allows the actual content to exist in a clear, organized way. Without white space, the page looks cluttered, chaotic, and hard to read. How do you create white space in your life when you know you could easily cram the page full of tasks? Be ruthless, be relentless, and always, always, always stay true to your essentials.

Originally published at on October 11, 2015.