Refresh: Living With Margin

Let me tell you about one morning…

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!

Putting 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 which 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 met at 10:40 (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 on 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 require 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?

Refresh: Calendar Tips

Although a few minutes of mapping out your day will benefit everyone, there is more that can be done. Some of us depend on calendars — paper or electronic — for a daily schedule, and calendars or planners can be a valuable tool in time management. Using your calendar to define your path forward can help you cover all the bases and be proactive with your priorities. Planning ahead pays off.

How does that work?

Well, if you block time on your schedule on a monthly and weekly basis, you are making sure you stumble over what you need to do. Some of us need that extra help! Often distractions consume our days, but if your calendar simply reminds you that you need to spend an hour paying bills today in spite of those distractions, you have a helping hand.

This can work in different ways.

  • For instance, if you have regular tasks that need to be completed, like paying bills or a medical treatment, you can schedule that time out a few days before the deadline each month. Scheduling it a couple of days early gives you margin if a need comes up to push it back a day. No worries; you planned for that possibility. 
  • If you have something on which you want to spend regular time, i.e., walking with a neighbor or meal planning for the week, blocking that time out for the next month will protect that time slot and activity.
  • If you have a larger project or goal, you can break it down into smaller chunks and schedule time to work on it. So if you have a book to be read for a reading group at your local library, and you know 1) the book has 9 chapters and 2) they will take about 30 minutes each to read and 3) you have three weeks until you meet, you put time to read on the calendar 3 times a week. Remember, don’t put the last block of time on the last possible day; give yourself margin to succeed.

Sample Calendar

If you are using a paper planner, you often have space to list your priorities and to-do list on the same page as your calendar. This helps keep these front and center in your mind. It also helps you double-check that the priorities are reflected in your schedule.

Regular reviews are also crucial for calendar management. If you have planned out the next month, you will still need to look at your calendar each week to see what has changed or what may need to be changed to adjust to new requirements. Things come up. The basketball schedule was laid out for the season, but games and practices get rescheduled. This doesn’t change the goal, it just changes the plan to get there. Remember you are in control of your calendar, so take care of conflicts and holes as soon as you can. This keeps your schedule running smoothly even with multiple adjustments.

Even with a weekly review, you will still need to look at your calendar at the beginning of each day to make sure all is still well and that you know what you are doing in the short term.

Color-coding can also be helpful. Visually, your brain will have clues to immediately categorize tasks and appointments. You can choose one color for each specific arena or goal. Paydays could be marked in green and school vacations in red. Each family member could have one color, to keep all the karate and dance lessons easily seen.

However, if multiple pens and the effort to switch and maintain the system is too much, don’t let it hold you back from a successful schedule. One pen works well — as does one of whatever writing instrument is handy at the moment! It is better to have it planned than pretty.