Personal Margin Positive Outliers

When Work Speeds Up

When We get busier, unless we give up, we work faster. We get more productive. But then life seems to speed up more. There is another way.

Often, at its best, comedy is incisive, describing aspects about ourselves that we might be too afraid, or busy, to think about. Such is the case with this classic comedy moment, from the I Love Lucy, TV series of the 1950s and ’60s:

Why is this comedy moment from over 60 years ago still so funny? 

For me, it describes a dynamic in my life. I get productive. I develop skill at it. And then life speeds up, making a fool of me.

Unless we are living as victims, most of us who attempt to self-manage our lives respond immediately by getting busier, sometimes by learning to be more productive. If there’s more work to be done, we learn how to speed up.

Productivity is the lure, but it is a dangerous one. 

When we are too busy, productivity is the lure, but it is a dangerous one.

There is a road less travelled.


How about doing the opposite of taking on more, but build in margins into our lives? Rather than becoming more productive by speeding up, how about taking away a few commitments? 

I was taught by a great coach that if I say Yes to something, what are the other things I am saying No to that this Yes will displace?

Saying No to one’s own appetite to embrace multiple roles is crucial for the Portfolio Creator. I used a farming metaphor to illustrate our lives as portfolio creators. The farmer is frequently letting some fields lie fallow, clearing some ground for fresh crops or for allowing for storage. They manage their farm’s capacity that way. This is thinking with margin in mind. All the land does not need to be productive at once. It can’t be.

The same holds true in our lives.

Three Margins

In my book, Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out, I cover three areas of my life where I must build in a margin:

  • Time
  • Space
  • Energy

There are others, of course, such as financial margin. It’s not wise to live without savings. We need something for when the unexpected arises,  a rainy day, as we say. 

The best kind of project manager always allows a time margin. So should we. When I was a project management consultant, it was easy for me to see how the optimism bias worked in teams, where people always estimated the best-case scenario. So, when some unexpected problem arose, there was no time available to deal with it. The project slipped.

Also, I’m feeling very virtuous as I was in the gym this morning. Time in the gym is building my energy margin, as does healthy sleeping and eating patterns. I do better work when I have energy margins to draw upon. And it’s not just a trade-off between time spent in the gym for energy; I find I am hugely more productive and alert when I exercise.

As for spatial margins, I work best when there is not a lot of clutter in my way. There is a need for physical space that is clear to work, as is the electronic space. I was assembling an IKEA coat rack last week, and I needed adequate floor space to do this. This kind of spatial need presents itself all the time our work, but we do not always recognise it.

So try this…

Over the next week: 

  • block out time, not to do more, but to provide for the volatile and uncertain and complicated life we all lead. Leave your calendar or diary with space in reserve.
  • Instead of adding in tasks, begin to prune existing ones; take them away.
  • Go deeper, ask yourself: Which projects, roles or areas should I step down from, at least for now?

Then write to me in the comments below and tell me what happened. (You’re welcome.)

Make your margin call. 

Did I hear someone cry, “Speed it up!” 

Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash

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