Why the Rush? Add Margin to Your Life

Don’t Give 100% at Work
Reader Case: Pension vs RRSP

Apollo 13 - Add Margin to Your LifeAre you that guy zig-zagging through traffic, gunning it off the light in the hopes of making it across town a couple of minutes faster? (I’m ashamed to admit that that’s me sometimes.) Constantly checking emails on your phone even when you’re eating dinner with family or friends? (Definitely won some awards on that one.) Growing irritable and packing on the pounds due to a lack of sleep and exercise? (Ditto – at least until biking season returns.) Are you always 10 minutes late?

Perhaps you need to add some margin to your life.

We’ve all been there at times, and hopefully just for self-contained, short seasons. I think about exam time back in school or in the lead-up to significant customer presentations at work. And that’s OK. It’s called “hustle”, and it’s good for you. It promotes growth and learning and widening your perspective. But if the seasons all blend together into a blur of nonstop busyness, then, well, Houston, we have a problem.

(Actually, Apollo 13 Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” But who’s nitpicking?)

On the one hand, if you’re always running late, almost missing the bus, palms sweating while you wait at the red light, that’s probably more of a surface-level time management problem. Just leave a bit earlier. I would rather be an extra hour early for that flight than a minute late…! I hate being late for anything. And though that’s perhaps a good idea, today’s post is not about time management techniques. I’m more interested in discussing meaningful life-changing margin that we should all strive to embrace.

Balls in a Jar

Balls In JarYou’re no doubt familiar with the analogy of spinning plates, or of juggling things in the air, or of the whitespace margin on any page of your favourite book. But I like the balls in a jar analogy better.

When a family member was heading off to grad school for working professionals, they were told by the faculty to think of your life as a jar. In it, you can keep only two big balls (please don’t laugh), a few medium balls and some sand. You had to first decide which two big balls you wanted, then fit in the medium ones around the big ones, and then finally you could top it off with the sand (or really tiny balls). Seriously. Please don’t laugh.

In the context of continuing education grad school, the obvious three big balls to pick from were school, work, and family/friends. You would be unsuccessful if you tried to do all three. You had to pick two.

But I’d like to extend that a bit further. I think you should deliberately not fill up your jar. We all need to leave that air pocket at the top to allow the contents to expand when they heat up, or when the jar shrinks under pressure. (Do jars shrink? Maybe just the lids of canning jars… I dunno – that just sounded neat.)

I think that we all need that margin in our jars. Before I get into why and how, I’ll start with a simple but effective definition of margin from Rick Warren: “Margin is the space between my load and my limits.” That’s the space between the amount of stuff in the jar (your load) and the amount of stuff the jar can hold (your limit).

“Margin is the space between my load and my limits.” – Rick Warren

So here are some of the benefits of having a healthy amount of margin, but it all really just boils down to time and stress, which are inversely proportional to each other. (More time = less stress.)

Be Prepared

First off, Mr. Murphy loves to come knocking. Things will go wrong, break, and need extra attention at the worst possible time. If you don’t have margin, you will have to trade something to take care of the emergency. Usually the stuff traded off is less urgent but still important like relationships, sleep, and exercise.

Live Better

Of course, if you have more time then you can focus more on those very same things: relationships, sleep, and exercise. A great example of this is walking your kids to school or having regular family meals together. With that time, you can really pay attention to kids and your significant other, focusing on them and building into the relationships.

You can get more sleep, so that you’re well-rested and not grumpy. Besides, the right kind and amount of sleep is a known contributor to our overall health. And on the topic of health, it’s a lot easier to exercise when you have that margin in your life. You can either have special “exercise time” or you can spend more time getting places by walking or biking. Win-win!

Live Better

Save Money

If you have more time, you can shop for deals and discounts. Comparison shopping is far easier and less annoying when you’re not under the gun. But don’t take it too far! When I was a struggling student, I remember driving to a gazillion different grocery stores to find the best price on mushrooms. Yup. True story.

I probably spent far more on gas (and frustration!) than I ever recouped in the discounted mushroom aisle. And perhaps I wasn’t struggling that much if I was actually driving to all these places. Or maybe I could only afford to drive because I was obsessive-compulsive cheap? Maybe I should put my shovel away before this hole gets any deeper…


Earn Money

There is one more reason I’d like to touch on. Having margin allows you to pursue opportunities to start a business and/or generate passive income. Keep in mind that this could become another big ball in the jar, but you can start by dabbling if you want. The margin will allow you to deal with the inevitable ebbs and flows of such ventures.

One of the key tenants of becoming financially independent and retiring before 65 is having passive cash flow or multiple income sources. Think rental real estate, or getting started with investing, or firing up an online business. It’s pretty hard to do any of that when you’re so exhausted at the end of the day that all you want to do is plop down in front of the tube.

What Now?

Ok, let’s just say that you buy my arguments. “Thanks for the pep talk, Chris, but you don’t know what my life is like! There is just so much going on! I don’t know where to start.”

Well, here’s a place to start: Just say NO.

Just say NO.

Yes, say no. Figure out what you really want to focus on and what you want to not focus on. Then trim back on the latter and everything else in between. Cut out some of your kids’ activities, navigate to a career that allows you to work sane hours (this was a big one for me), explicitly schedule empty space in your calendar, and spend time with the people you love and the people you love to help.

“But all of those other things are important to me!” Perhaps, but you can’t do it all unless you wear your underwear outside of your pants and have a giant “S” on your shirt. Which leads us back to Rick Warren: “You will be more effective if you figure out what you’re not gonna do, as well as what you’re going to do.”

You can’t do it all unless you wear your underwear outside of your pants and have a giant “S” on your shirt.

In other words, do fewer things and do them really, really well; don’t try and do a little bit of everything. You can be Superman at a few things or you can be some combination of mediocre and sucky at a lot of things. Make a choice.

This change in attitude and commitment has to be deliberate and set up in the right sequence. Remember that if you try to put the sand or medium balls into the jar first, then you won’t fit the big balls in. Pick the big stuff first.

Time for Change

Are We There Yet?

I’m going to wrap up by going back up to why you should be fed up having insufficient margin.

Having margin will allow you to be present in the moment. Life is a journey, not a destination. I’m a planner and future-thinker by nature, and I struggle with being content in the here and now. But because I know that, I can deliberately try to focus on enjoying all of the moments, big and small, that come throughout the day. Cuddling on the couch with a book and my kids. Going for a nice walk on a warm winter day. Feeling the vibration from the pavement as I ride my bike. Appreciating the beauty and ingenuity that went into making my little Honda Civic such a smooth piece of machinery.

Be present in the moment. Life is a journey, not a destination.

I think the idea of really being present finally hit home at our Engineering Department All-Hands meeting back in November when guest speaker Mark Gasparotto reminded us: “We as engineers tend to live in the future, but it important to spend time in the present.” Bingo.

And as a final bit of irony, I saw this quote on a reusable shopping bag at the arena Saturday: “Creativity is maximized when you are living in the moment.”

So be creative. Spend time in the present. Say no, then say yes. Make your deliberate change and live your life of purpose.

Pencil with ShadowYour Turn Now!

Have you said no? How did it turn out? What will you say no to next, and what will that allow you to focus on instead? There is so much potential, and we’d love to hear your story!

Don’t Give 100% at Work
Reader Case: Pension vs RRSP


  1. Great post Chris! I can certainly relate to the struggles of fixating on the future while the present flies by. To your point about work, and as you know, working at 80% in a high stress job has really helped me balance family time and a career – highly recommended when there is the opportunity to do so! It has also helped create a nice margin so the little things don’t seem so insurmountable.

    • Chris Urbaniak says:

      Thanks Brent! I’m starting to see more and more people such as yourself taking that approach, and I congratulate you and them for having the guts to remove some balls from your jars! (That could go downhill rather quickly…) So much of our society is fixed on the “Almighty Dollar”, and it can be hard to say no sometimes.

  2. Stephen Mitchell says:

    Really great post Chris!!!! There is really substance here and the application isn’t difficult at all. Wow, simply say NO to some of the activities in your life. Who would have thought that simple action can prevent one from sweating the small stuff, elevate stress, add more time in your life for the important things: 1) time for love ones, 2) time to do the important things right (just like Superman) and 3) time for yourself to exercise and get proper rest.
    I really loved your comment about being “Superman at a few things or you can be some combination of mediocre and sucky at a lot of things”


  1. […] March 8, 2018 by Chris Urbaniak Leave a Comment Why the Rush? Add Margin to Your Life […]

  2. […] yet I go and write a post about adding margin to your life while simultaneously signing up for yet another volunteer commitment. And then I go and pay someone […]

Your Turn Now! What's On Your Mind?