Living with Margin

Let me tell you about a morning in my life…

I had 3 short meetings scheduled at the office, and then I had an hour to run an errand one direction before back-tracking across town to a reading group at our local library. It fit beautifully on the calendar. But then, of course, things happened. After the meetings were done, I filled a request to help with something. It wasn’t urgent, but it was better to take 5-10 minutes right away than to come back to the office. I knew it’d be tight, but willed it to work. After that was done, I raced out to the school to take care of the next thing, scattering brief greetings along the way since I was running late. Then back on the road again to head to the library.

Of course, again, all of those things brought more delays, so by this time I was running even later than my revised expectation. I know some people thrive on that challenge — but I am not one of them! My state of mind was not peaceful as I headed to the discussion group. My driving was not necessarily calm either. I had worked myself into some kind of fit when I pulled into the parking lot (along with two others from the group). But when I looked at the clock, I realized I was actually exactly on time!

Leaving aside the tremendous waste of emotional energy and needless rushing I had just committed, let’s talk about why the morning worked out without me realizing it. I typically schedule margin. It’s a good rule of thumb for calendars, but also helpful from a big picture life perspective. In this case, I have been doing it for so long, I didn’t even realize I had so much margin subconsciously built in and could still get to the library on time. So what habits support margin as we seek to honor God by managing our time and schedules well?

Extra Unassigned Time. When you look at your calendar or schedule for the day, don’t assume the best possible scenario. How often does that happen? Assume you will need slush time scattered throughout to deal with unexpected things or to finish up something that takes longer than you thought.

Conservative Estimates. When you figure time needed for an activity or task, assume a longer time (i.e., should take 20-30 minutes = schedule 30 minutes). I automatically assume travel times longer than best case (i.e., normally a 10-minute drive — 15 minutes in your plan). In the scenario above, since I had 3 separate drives in my timeline, the extra minutes added up even more.

Round Backwards. When you are meeting someone at ten til, mark it down as quarter til. If you always round forward, you are more likely to be late. My reading group meets at 10:40 (no, I don’t know why the odd time), but I think of it and schedule it as 10:30. Thus I had an additional ten minutes I hadn’t considered the morning I panicked.

Realistic Expectations. When you look at your to-do list, be honest about what can be done in a day. Take into account your energy level, your distractions, your desire to have time to chat with the neighbor and enjoy moments with your children, etc. Unfulfilled expectations are frustrating! You help yourself by being realistic about what you can do. If it would be ideal to get to 10 places in 2 hours while you’re running errands, but that would required no lines and all green lights, let something go before you go crazy trying.

So as you wisely steward your time, think of your day as a string of parallel parking spots. How much room would you like when you pull into one?

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