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Living in the margins

  • June 1, 2021
trust yourself

I recently shared on Instagram that I still manage my own calendar. Yes, I’m a CEO and yes, I have an executive assistant and an agent. But I’m incredibly sensitive to energy expenditure, and no one else could manage my own time and energy as effectively as I can.

One of the rules I have for myself is that I don’t book two calls back-to-back. If a call ends at 3 PM, my next call doesn’t start until 3:15 PM at the earliest. This allows me time to follow up on critical tasks from the last call, digest my notes, prep for the next meeting, or grab a snack. I call this “living in the margins,” and it’s a strategy I’ve been employing for many years now to transform my previously chaotic existence to one of (mostly) stability and peace.

Before living in the margins, I’d schedule myself silly, allowing any open space in my calendar to be “available.” I’d try to fit self-care tasks like working out or eating around my other commitments, instead of carving out specific time for them. I worked late and rose early, often jumping straight into whatever came at me on my phone first. I accepted most professional invitations whether or not I had capacity, as I was anxious that any “no” could be a huge missed opportunity. I’d squeeze in doctor’s appointments, lunch with friends, and acupuncture where and when I could… which often meant “not at all.”

And this was before I had a child. I can’t imagine what my life would look like now, with play dates and sports, summer camps and school projects, if I wasn’t living in the margins.

A “margin” is defined as the blank border on each side of the print on a page. It’s also defined as “an amount of something included so as to be sure of success or safety.” Read that last part again.

Living without margins means you have little to no blank space. I’m not talking about “free time,” like we’re taking naps or learning a TikTok dance. I’m talking about buffers. If a task goes sideways (traffic jam) or a new challenge inserts itself (mom, I forgot my project at home), does your entire day fall apart? Do you constantly feel brittle, fragile, reactive, or short-tempered?  Are you one tiny catastrophe away from a mental breakdown? Do you spend all day running from one thing to another, only to wonder at the end of another long day, “what did I even DO today?”

Maybe you need margins—little blocks of blank spaces you purposefully build into your day to be sure of success.

Start with time at work. Are you booking meetings back-to-back? Try inserting a 15-minute break in between. Ask, “Can this meeting be an email?” or “Can we get a head-start on this meeting by sharing the project plan ahead of time?” or “Could someone else handle this and fill me in afterward?” Have one day a week that is a dedicated “no meeting” day,  or at the very least,  have a “no calls on Friday after noon” policy. Set clear boundaries around communications before or after work, and during time off.  (I have an IG Highlight that can help.)

At home, are your kids scheduled within an inch of their lives (which means you are too)? Talk to them about whether they’re feeling tired, over-scheduled, and anxious. Build in margins, adding blocks of time that are purposefully UNSCHEDULED so if something fun comes up (or nothing at all) you’ve got capacity. Commit to Friday nights or Sunday nights at home, recharging or pursuing your hobbies. Block out parts of your day just for you, even if it’s just 15 minutes when you wake up (no phone, yoga, or coffee outside) and 15 minutes before you go to bed (a book, podcast, or creating a gym playlist for the next day).

Now think about energy expenditure. Are you giving, giving, giving without ever refilling your own cup? Are people asking of you consistently but not showing up for you in return? Are people offering to help, but your reflexive response is “no, I’m fine?” Build in small moments of self-care, whether it’s a 10-minute walk while your family cleans up after dinner, using school pick-up time to listen to an audiobook, or putting the good sheets on your bed instead of the guest bed. Set some boundaries where needed. Remember that paying yourself first isn’t selfish, it’s a necessary step so you can be the mother, partner, friend, and employee who so generously gives to others.

How about your home and office? Is every surface full, every drawer stuffed to the max, closet full of stuff you no longer wear? (Don’t feel bad, you should see how many drinking vessels are on my desk right now.) Start one small space at a time—as small as one drawer, or one section of the counter. Build in margins for new beautiful things, or just allow that space to exist empty; a beautiful metaphor for the breathing room you are creating in your own life.

Turn to your social life. Do you say yes even when you really don’t want to? Do you have “standing dates” or regular obligations that you dread week after week? Do you let people run over your personal boundaries (or are you failing to set them in the first place)? Are you reserving blocks of time just for you, or you and your partner, or you and your family? Do you purposefully fill your “down time” because you don’t know how to just sit and exist, or feel unworthy of treating yourself during quiet moments? Talk to a therapist, experiment with sitting in stillness or even “boredom,” and start off small—maybe that next dinner invite is a “no thank you?” and ordering take-out at home?

Look at your capacity as a whole. Can you outsource certain tasks (bi-weekly house cleaning, once a week meal prep,  grocery shopping to Instacart, yard work to Task Rabbit)? Would hiring a part-time assistant buy you back valuable time to grow your business and enjoy your success? Can you spend less time mindlessly scrolling (I know it’s numbing, but you also hate how much time it sucks) by setting limits or putting it away after before 8 AM and after 8 PM? Where can you buy yourself five minutes, 15 minutes, an hour, a day?

I quickly realized eleven years ago when I founded my business that without margins, my life was reactive instead of proactive, chaotic instead of grounded, at the mercy of everyone else’s demands instead of being driven by my own purpose and goals. I slowly started building in blank spaces around my time, energy, physical presence, and mental capacity. The more buffers I created, the more comfortable, happy, and (surprisingly) productive my own life felt.

I forgot stuff less. I was on time almost always. I stayed better organized. I was more effective at work and at home. I was regularly exercising, sleeping deeply, and enjoying my space more. But the most unexpected benefit was what would happen when I would unexpectedly run out of margin.

On those days when nothing went right, all my plans went awry, and my margins disappeared… I WAS FINE. I had the mental and emotional capacity to handle what came up. Yes, I was stretched thin, and yes, it was stressful. But it no longer broke me, because I had spent the last week, month, three months building my resilience and refilling my cup. So when it came time to overextend, I could show up and get it done, knowing as soon as the crisis was over, I would return to life with margins.

Build them in. Start small. Create space. Live in your own margins.

XO Melissa