on margin

I recently painted my room white. Being between jobs, I had time to take care of the things that had shaken to the wayside. I listened to TED Radio Hour and Limetown, sat down to pet my dog here and there, and took as many breaks as I felt like. Occasionally I took a step back to look at a wall I was working on; maybe a spot or two was still conceding to the light beige I was covering up. I'd taken everything off the walls and was migrating a pile of it all to different spots on the floor.

I ended up not putting much back up - what was on my wall. In fact, I left a lot of it in the closet or the garbage. So many things had been on the wall that it was stifling and prohibitive, and what was left was a breath of fresh air - an easing down into a soft chair of clear headspace. 

A clear wall is like an open schedule or empty dance floor. There's available space, which is possibility. It could be called margin: that which is extra. It's the thing my microeconomics professor was describing when he wrote down 'x = revenue - cost.' It's the few hours at the end of the day to kick off your shoes and enjoy a meal with someone; a savings account, the leftovers, any energy you have left to get back to your car after a long run. 

I know what it's like to not have margin. That time I was between jobs, I was strapped for cash. My costs exceeded revenue, because there are so many worthwhile things to spend money on out there, right? Right. You can count on me for a reason to make a meaningful purchase.

That thinking had branches into every space in my life, even down to how I ran miles outside. No run is complete until you look like a wet dog off a treadmill, I'd say. I shaved my pace down as far as I could, paying all I had until I smacked the finish line, completely burnt out. Unsurprisingly, running wasn't that appealing to me. I'd wake up, but the plan would never execute. I'd identify doing something good with depletion, rather than a long term benefit. 

It's the same in any way someone can spend their time. Ever felt overbooked, spread thin like butter across too much bread? Take a hike, because I've felt the same way. Weary and heavy laden are absolutely two words to describe how I feel after a long day of spending more time than I have available. Ever felt like you've overcommitted, and can't follow through on what you said you'd do? I can empathize. John Maxwell in Developing the Leader Within You says, 

We are all faced with conflicting desires... Integrity establishes the ground rules for resolving these tensions... [it] allows us to predetermine what we will be regardless of circumstances, persons involved, or the places of our testing... When I have integrity, my words and deeds match up. I am who I am, no matter where I am or who I am with.

Margin = room for integrity. You can't do or be who you say you are without the space to do so. You can't even commit to yourself who you wish to be without the freedom given by 'that which is extra.' Stefan Sagmeister is a designer in New York, and he takes every fourth year off from work to reestablish his bottom line - another Maxwell point - for his business and himself as a person. That's a 25% margin on his time, and it takes a big commitment. 

Good margin also means good money. Everyone's heard of the margin you have to have: the 6-month-expenses-covered emergency fund and the college savings account, but what about the sort of financial margin that allows you to give? I recently listened to The Wisdom of Success, an interview of Andrew Carnegie by Napoleon Hill, and remember that Carnegie told Hill that the end goal of his money was to cultivate change in the world - to give it to the things, people and places that mattered. On a recent podcast with Donald Miller, Dave Ramsay said the same thing, that the goal of good finance is to return it to others - to give. 

I worked at a cafe once, and part of my income was through tips. It was fantastic, in fact it increased my hourly wage by a decent amount. About a month in, though, I noticed myself becoming agitated with customers if they didn't tip. Coffee is an emotional industry on it's own, but the gloves come off when a making a soy latte with an extra shot at 130 degrees isn't followed with that dollar. I realized I'd built so much of my planned expenses on the assumption I would receive tips, which perpetuated a cycle of contempt for customers when they didn't give me money, which I allowed to develop into a bad attitude, which decreased even further the tips I would receive. See the cycle?

I decided to cut down costs and develop spending habits that created enough margin for no tips at all to come in. Instead, I decided I would buy as many people I could coffee or lunch during the month with most of the tips I received. Instantly, everything changed. I wasn't nearly as agitated, the customers were happy with a smile and a great latte, and I had the margin to buy people who mattered to me a meal, investing in time with them. 

Pico Iyer, a travel writer, has a TED Talk called 'The Art of Stillness.' "One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it... I found that the best way I could develop more attentive and appreciative eyes is by going nowhere - just sitting still." Margin in space, kind of like the blank walls I was painting, cultivates an environment of growth further than what is possible when going at full speed. Iyer decided to, years ago, move to a small two bedroom apartment in Kyoto, Japan. He describes that there is nothing to do there aside from exist and do the work he needs to do, and it's been a regret-less experience for him and his family. 

I started a vegetable garden with my grandpa this summer. One thing about growing vegetables he's taught me is that vegetables don't grow well in crowded space. There has to be a margin of space in between seeds and different plants; carrots can't grow right next to corn, because they'll probably get no sun. When's the last time you had margin in the space you exist? Do you have enough space for growth, or have you crowded things and commitments around yourself so that you're overwhelmed? 

Creating margin in your life is a hard thing to do. Conserving as opposed to spending seems like it'd be something for people who have nothing to do or care about, but have you ever seen what happens to a toddler who has ten dollars? After margins, my microeconomics professor described how efficient his grandson was at spending his money down to the penny. When he'd walk into a candy shop, you can bet that kid found every piece of candy he could buy, working that Hamilton down to the bone.

Jesus ran into a man who had everything, and asked him to get rid of it, so he could develop margin for the real things in life. Jesus said, "'You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.' Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." 

It means making choices that create space, instead of constricting what space you have left. It's like the two paths that Jesus describes: the narrow, less traveled path, and the wide, well traveled path. Ironically, the one with the least space creates the most margin. Go down the wide path, and you may spend what you don't have. Take a look around you; who actually owns their homes, cars, even their TVs? Take the narrow path - the one that takes the short term sacrifice for the long term reward (read: margin) - and you won't be stressing out about that bonus at work. Instead, you'll be fine without it, and joyful with it. A friend of mine and I just had a long day doing landscaping, and the owner usually gives more than what he promises. He has the margin to do so. We decided to take anything we didn't expect to earn and sit down for dinner to rest after a long day. We really enjoyed having the freedom to do that. 

Here are a few ways you can create margin:


    Create margin in time:

Creating margin in time is similar to what I was saying with growing vegetables; a garden with space will grow more produce. Similarly, when we take the time to rest, we commit to investing in things that will bring us growth, or increase resources, as opposed to depleting them. Go to a museum, have an Alejandro Iñárritu marathon.

You can create margin in your time anywhere between one day a week, like God commands in the old testament, or a year every four years, like Stefan Sagmeister. 

I was listening to Chamath Palihapitiya on an episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, and he finished by saying that he thinks the next society changing development (ex. Facebook, Google, et al.) will be something that saves time. You don't have to wait till someone makes an app, you only have to commit to not commit, and to make the choices that get you space.

If you don't have a calendar, chances are your time may be overcommitted. Try out TeuxDeux or even your operating system's standard calendar. Apple is as good at organizing time as they are making iEverything.

    Create margin in money:

I knew a man once who had a big turnaround in life, and decided to start giving 10% of his annual income away. That number went from there to 50%, to 75% as he kept learning what it meant for the people around him who had access to his margin. Andrew Carnegie, like I mentioned, gave away most of his money by the time he died. There are two libraries within 15 minutes from me that were built on his endowment, and I just listened to a program this morning that had received a donation from that same endowment, almost a century after he'd died. 

Thinking about purchasing a house? Why spend yourself dry on something brand new when you can get a home a few years older, and commit to taking what you would have spent on a more expensive monthly mortgage payment and putting it towards dinner with one person a month who you wish to learn from? Thinking about purchasing a car in a one time payment? What if you purchased an older car, and paid for a student to go to school for a semester, or gave a micro loan to someone in a developing country? 

Don't have a budget? If not, it's hard to even know if you actually have margin. Try out Mint or YNAB (my personal favorite). 

    Create margin in health:

35.7% of Americans over the age of 20 are classified as overweight. Some have resolved to consume more than what they need, overspending in that they take more than what they require for nutrition, absorbing excess often only for the sake of indulgence and how something tastes. 

I've also experienced what it's like to consume in excess, and still do. Put a free burger in front of me and there will be no questions. What would happen, though, if we created the space to function with portion control, conscious intake of nutrients, or even using what we eat as an investment for better wellbeing? How about spending the same money you would have on a big meal of pizza and soda on something that's going to taste fantastic, while being a smaller portion? 

The great thing about margin in time is that you can spend some of it on a run, cycling, walking, swimming, gardening, or anything else that puts to use one of the best resources around: the human body. Who knows, maybe you even have the margin in your budget to get a gym membership. 

    Cultivate marginal keystone habits:

Charles Duhigg wrote a book about habits, and I'd really suggest reading it. In it, he talks about how habits affect what we do in life, and he also covers what are called keystone habits. Keystone habits are practices on which other habits rest. For example, he cited a study in Australia that selected a group of 'self professed couch potatoes,' in which the lab performing the study put the group on an exercise plan. The results in the participants was that they lost quite a bit of weight, most quit smoking, and there was a high amount of average money saved between all the test subjects. 

Marginal keystone habits are as simple as conserving in one area as incentive for conserving in another. Saving money may mean saving the cake for never; saving time to run may mean saving energy by going to bed soon enough to do it again tomorrow. Start small, take steps to cultivate a snowball effect that will carry on in the times it's more difficult to take the narrow path. 


Margin lends freedom in a world of constriction; stability through conservation. However, there's a line that can be crossed in the fields of control. Coming to you from a recovering addict to it, control doesn't birth peace. While planning for margin and operating in the 'space left over,' a danger lies on the other side of grabbing freedom with two hands and abusing it. Relying on God is always Plan A - relying on your prowess to conserve down to the good things in life is worthless. Margin is a gift, and one to be cultivated. Like any other plant in the garden, it should be watered, but the dirt it grows in is someone else's. 

The reason for all of this is that we were put here for more than to spend ourselves dry, to eat ourselves to sleep and to send another, "I'm sorry, I triple booked 2:00 today." text. God's given you the freedom to identify as a 'living temple' and one who is 'content with what they have.' To be honest, taking margin at face value, utilizing it as a tool to only help yourself will not work. 'Love God, love others' still applies here, because without love for God you will not have the margin to love those around you. Go for a run tomorrow because because He's gifted you with the lungs to heave air and the legs to lift you, and because you're going to me more capable to serve, to help when your soul is occupying a healthy body. Go and love someone because you were meant to, and because it's okay to keep your calendar spacey for some delicious coffee with them. I mean, come on, isn't that where God is? Coffee?