(Pursuing) Life with A Broad Margin

I’ve talked about minimalism a number of times here on the blog and embrace a number of minimalistic tendencies. That said – I still have plenty of excess “stuff” and certainly couldn’t fit all my possessions in a carry-on suitcase. Perhaps Joshua Becker (a prominent “minimalist”) clarifies my view of minimalism best when he defines the pursuit as: “the intentional promotion of things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from them.

A few weeks ago I went for a walk. Just a walk. No headphones. No companion. Just a walk with my thoughts. Usually, my mind darts off in a dozen different directions and I spend the whole walk untangling them. But this time I ended up with a singular focus – the concept of simplicity.

While in other seasons I might have been (perhaps subconsciously) aiming for adventure or challenge or achievement, right now, I realized, I’m craving simplicity.

I looked up a definition of simple (remember dictionaries?) and here are some of Google’s suggestions (I remember dictionaries, but don’t actually own one):

  • plain, basic, or uncomplicated in form, nature, or design
  • without much decoration or ornamentation
  • easily understood or done; presenting no difficulty
  • free of secondary complications; not limited or restricted

Life isn’t always going to be uncomplicated or easy (Twer that it was so simple; Hail, Caesar! anyone?). People I love will get sick. Tragic things will happen. Life will be hard and heartbreaking and frustrating and confusing. But for now – and hopefully in the middle of future challenges – I can try to approach life with a mind for simplicity.

I have done without electricity, and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps. There is no running water, I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple.

Carl Jung

Sometimes complications and states of busyness are out of our hands. But, much of the time, our to-do’s and limitations are, at least in part, self-imposed.

I have a relative who fills virtually every minute of their life with something (including some very intensive hobbies) but is constantly bemoaning how busy they are. This person has purposefully built a life with no margin, but then complains about having a life with no margin.

Counterintuitively, achieving “simple” – be it for a wedding cake or in our weekly calendar – can take a lot of hard work and intention. It is difficult to be simple. Why? Perhaps because it doesn’t leave us anywhere to hide?

When we strip away the excess, are we happy with what is left?

I’m also coming to realize that if I want margin, I’m going to have to pursue it. I have a way of filling in all that white space with messy scribbles of things I could/should/have to do and that margin I want and need…poof…vanishes.

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.

Richard A. Swenson

As I went through a brief Thoreau kick last year, I realized he has a lot to say about these subjects.

I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life.

Henry David Thoreau

Why does it feel shameful to admit I love a broad margin to my life? To say with confidence I need some a lot of white space around my to-dos and calendar reminders.

Why do I feel bad admitting I enjoy nothing more on a Saturday morning than to spend it…puttering?

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to–day to save nine to–morrow.


Finding the right balance between a full and contented life and an overfull life can be hard. And I also know it’s going to change – likely dramatically – as our family dynamics shift. Simple will almost certainly look and feel different from year to year.

To the relative I mentioned, my preferred margin would likely be far too liberal; for others, my margin would be too small.

But, overall, regardless of the margin we want or the level of simplicity we’re pursuing, I think the following thought is a good place to start:

Less but better.

Greg McKeown

Your turn. Are you in a season of adding responsibilities and hobbies and adventures or, like me, are you craving simplicity and a broad margin to life? It can be surprisingly difficult to define – and achieve – the idea of “simple”. Thoughts?

Header photo by Evie S. on Unsplash

23 thoughts on “(Pursuing) Life with A Broad Margin”

  1. Oh, Elisabeth… yes, yes, yes!
    Margin is key, isn’t it?!
    I’ve wrote about the days I have at home puttering and how they are some of my favourite times. A relaxed morning, maybe an errand to run, a trip to the library… but everything feeling leisurely and slow.
    I’ve started grabbing some margin where I can. A leaves for school at 8am, and usually I would head straight off to work… arriving at least 30 minutes earlier than I need to. Lately, I’ve started lying on my bed after she leaves and reading for a few minutes. It feels so decadent!

    1. Decadent! What a great word.
      It does feel “indulgent” to create margin, but I think that’s a modern construct. We’re designed to feel guilt if we’re not a) doing something or b) feeling miserable.
      It does feel like we need a giant permission slip to get off the treadmill of “adulting.”
      Again, I 100% know there are MANY people who thrive on being very busy – and I consider that to be true for myself as well, but only to a point. That’s where the concept of margin comes in!

  2. I love this post! I’ve never hear it described as a “broad margin” before, but it’s perfect.
    I have to say that Covid really helped me understand how to have a life with a broad margin. I used to spend my “free” time running all over the place- I can’t even really say what exactly I was doing. The pandemic got me out of the habit of thinking that I needed to constantly go somewhere, and this year I’ve been trying to have one day a week where I can be home and putter. It’s a completely different feeling, and it’s so much easier to go back to work after a day off that was truly relaxing.
    I will say that life circumstances also dictate how possible this is- my son is a freshman in college now, leaving just my daughter at home. My son was the one who seemed to bring a swirl of chaos into our house, with all his activities, laundry and food needs. I’m realizing that my daughter lives a much quieter life, which makes my life quieter as well. My life definitely wasn’t quiet with broad margins when the kids were little. So… I’m learning to appreciate it now.

    1. There is definitely a “seasonality” to these things!
      It felt like there was no margin when the kids were little. There was just always a need. For someone. For something. And basically 24/7.
      I guess right now I’ve reached a point where could have a life with no margin, or a life with the right amount of margin, but ultimately the decision is up to me.
      We’ve taken a pretty unusual step of having the 6-month sabbatical which, obviously, is going a HUGE way in allowing for margin. But even here it requires a lot of intention. Somehow life just seems to fill in so quickly, without me trying. So in that way I guess I want to chose what I’m scribbling into the margins, too? If I want to encroach on the white space, I might as well make it a high-return activity?
      Lots to think about and, again, I think the fact that the kids are getting older (and COVID restrictions are easing – I felt like I had NO margin during lockdowns with the kids home all the time, part-time work for me, full-time work for John) is making a big difference in being able to make this feel possible.

  3. I love this post, too! It’s a reminder that there isn’t one “right” way to do it, but you need to build the life that is right for you. So if you have little to no margin and hate it, change something. Having kids has helped me feel justified in seeking more margin in my life. Pre-kids, I way over-committed as I had the hardest time saying no. The pandemic added more margin to my life than I have probably ever had, so now I am working on figuring out the “right” amount of margin. But there shouldn’t be any sort of right or wrong way to approach margin. So much of it comes down to personality preferences. I am an outgoing introvert so I think I enjoy social plans more than the average introvert, but I need ample time to recharge, and one big thing for me is margin in my daily schedule, meaning I need to be able to go upstairs at 8:30 so I can read for an hour before turning my lights off around 9:15-9:30.

    One area where we really think about margin is in financial terms. That’s probably the #1 reason we chose to pay off our house aggressively. I recognize the privilege we have in being able to do so, but we also were intentional about buying an affordable house. Phil and I sometimes talk about the lifestyles of others/financial decisions they’ve made and it seems like we have more need/desire for financial margin than others. I’ve wondered why exactly we ended up this way and we both grew up middle class/upper middle class and we never really wanted for anything. But Phil did lose his job during the financial crisis as the hedge fund he worked for blew up. And I had to relocate for a job shortly after I started dating Phil. I did not have ample savings to withstand being unemployed for awhile so I agreed to the relocation for financial stability reasons even though I knew I would not be happy in North Carolina. So after those experiences, I think our need for margin really really changed!

    1. Definitely not a “right” way and it’s a moving target of sorts. Kids, especially little kids, both REMOVE a lot of natural margin in parents lives, but also drive us to find margin in other areas. And sometimes that’s a really good thing. Kids can really help us focus more on relationships and enjoying things around us.

      Also: an “outgoing introvert” – I am stealing this description. That is me! Some people would think it absurd that I classify myself as an introvert because they’ve only seen me engaging with others/being outgoing. But I need a lot of charge to unwind and would almost always choose quiet/solitude over noise/a crowd.

      Financial margins are another great point. Some people tend to live at the edge of their “means” where I want to live well, well below that. Fortunately, this tends to come relatively naturally to me because of my background (my parents had very little money when I was growing up, and were very, very big on saving whatever they could, and I’ve definitely inherited those tendencies).

  4. This sparked a lot of thoughts as to my current situation with all my fitness endeavors. I have acquired so many different interests… along with my standby, running, I’m doing a lot more cycling & cross-training these days. The “problem” is that I enjoy all these activities & it’s really hard picking & choosing which ones to “simplify.” I know, it’s an odd problem, and I guess it’s a good one, but it’s been weighing on me none the less.

    1. I am always amazed when I read how many different active pursuits you fit into a day! It’s all about what works for each individual. The relative I mentioned spends an incredible amount of time on physical activity but mentions the lack of margin. In that case, perhaps the only place to find margin (if every physical activity) is in other areas? This relative also works full time hours, but used to work part-time; I won’t dare mention this idea as I’m sure to get 100 reasons why that won’t work…but I think this is another important point too…if everything is positive in terms of one area (say, a range of physical activity) where can other things be cut?
      Maybe a book club you dread going to? Maybe fewer working hours (and finding some way to compensate financially so there is less money going out). These are all theoretical’s.
      OR…maybe in your case it’s reducing the volume of each activity? Which is your least favourite. Maybe trial cutting back 15-20% in that area (say indoor biking)…?
      Sigh. It can be hard to find places to “cut.”

  5. Another excellent frame! I am facing a tough weekend of solo parenting 4 of the kids AND hosting 7 little girls for a party and feeling VERY overwhelmed. I told myself I would approach the weekend like I am also a child— I meant staying in the present moment and not feeling the crushing weight of responsibilities— dealing with stuff as it unfolds and not worrying about it beforehand. To me, this is a simple life and a way to make a margin on an already full page.

    1. “How to make margin on an already full page” – what a great perspective. And so true in the busy years of parenting when margin can definitely feel relative!
      Love, love, love this perspective and wording.

  6. Yes, yes. I, too, enjoy having margins of white space in my planning, my life. Years ago when we had this house built as I issues evolved I asked myself [and the builder]: what is the simplest thing I can do here? The answer wasn’t as intuitive as you might think and from that I learned what you said: “I can try to approach life with a mind for simplicity.” Love the ideas in this post.

    1. I love your question: “What is the simplest thing I can do here?”
      Renovations stress me out like almost nothing else (can’t imagine doing a whole house build! So many decisions!). We have some more happening this spring and I’m writing down your question in my planner as a good reminder to look for the simple way through the endless decisions.
      I sometimes ask/tell myself: “What would make this easy?” or “What would this look like if it were easy?” Generally the “easy” answer is the best decision for me.

      I think I have a tendency to make simple things complicated sometimes – like my description of picking out a white paint colour. Either get the painter to choose…or just pick the stock white. It will save hours of time and I’m unlikely to notice any difference in the end.

  7. I think I have a lot of margin – my kids are not in any activities and most weekends we have no plans. The problem I run into though is that most other people have no margin at all. It’s so hard to plan a play date with another kid, or schedule a walk with a friend, because they barely have free time. Even when we schedule far out, it seems like things end up getting canceled anyway. It’s frustrating!

    1. Such an interesting point, Sarah.
      Like you, our kids are “under-scheduled.” They have one structured event A WEEK (+ church Sunday morning) and that is it. They have so many friends that are in lessons and extracurriculars constantly (and, I will add, most of the parents seem quite harried by all the shuttling around).
      Some of our closest friends also have “underscheduled” kids, so we can find people to meet up at parks after school etc. The fact I only work part-time is a huge reason for this white space and it isn’t necessarily margin for me since without childcare someone has to do things/be with the kids. But it gives THEM a lot of margin. And my kids really seem to thrive with having a lot of flexible time to be creative, spend time outside. I do think this will change as Levi, especially, is very athletic and now that things are opening up post-COVID and he’s older, I imagine there will plenty of sports in our future.

  8. I so agree that this not a right/ wrong type issue! I feel very strongly that people need different things in regards to margin. What might be a lot of margin for one person could be very little for another.

    I think my parents/ me are all people who generally do NOT need a ton of margin. We are kind of… “busy bee” type folks. Just sort of how we’re wired. My parents are retired and are still always doing a million things, are always “busy”, active with something….sometimes they semi-complain about it, but I think deep down they realize that they just LIKE being busy, for the most part. My Dad sometimes daydreams about moving to a condo on the beach in Florida. But then when we actually discuss it, he’ll say, ‘But really. What, am I just going to sit and read my book all day? That’s just not me.” Haha. He’s 71 and heads up the maintenance department of their condo association, is always working on some project, my mom is always running errands or out somewhere… 😉

    And they’ve always been like this. When I was a kid, my Dad was always rebuilding something in our house. My mom was a Sunday school teacher, or heading up some committee, or cleaning out a closet or ironing or doing something!, plus her full time teaching job. I have a distinct memory of being maybe 12 and going over to my best friend’s house one day on a Saturday. Her mom was just sitting on the couch, watching The Weather Channel, of all things (haha. It’s a very distinct memory!) I remember being kind of blown away, like, wait, is your mom seriously just sitting on the couch at 2 pm?? Not joking, I never saw my parents just sit around EVER! Unless it was like, family movie night or something. They were just always….doing something!!

    I definitely lean that way, too. So I think it’s genetic. haha! (although I think my sister is not really this way, so who knows.) I like “free time”, but not pure “down time.” I’m like you though that I like to “putter”. I don’t really want to just sit and watch TV or do nothing, but I like to have some control over my time. I think that’s the key for me in finding margin- I need enough time in my schedule that I can CONTROL what I’m going to do…even if I’ll choose to do something/ be “busy” with that time. I think I get cranky/ unhappy when my time is all spoken for, like too many places to drive people or events that I don’t really want to go to. But if I chose it/ control it, I’m usually pretty happy.

    One last note- eek, sorry, long- I appreciate that you are not framing this in a “my way is better than your way” type attitude. Sometimes I think there is a subset of people who sort of imply a superiority “air”, if you will, about how open their schedule is, almost sort of looking down on people who ARE / choose to be really “busy”…like an impression of “oh, those poor, overscheduled souls, look at them running around like crazy……they should be more spiritually evolved, like me, and be able to just “be” more, without overscheduling their poor children and lives…”. Does that make sense? I mean, I just think- different strokes for different folks. Whatever makes you happy, you should do. 🙂 Those busy people might be bored stiff if they had the same wide open schedule that might feel wonderful to someone else.

    1. You make a great point about the view “my way is the better way” cropping up in some circles. (NOT here Elisabeth!) I tend towards being more busy bee but that’s partially due to growing up feeling isolated on a farm and having no choice but to have huge swaths of nothingness. And then on the other hand there was always work to do so my parents were often working steady through the day. Sunday for us though was “lazy” and involved the TV being on a lot that day.
      I do need some margin as I would also consider myself to be an extroverted introvert. I love great conversations and my job of teaching but need down time to recharge. I think you hit on a great point that having control over my day makes it feel less busy even if it is full!

      I have run into feeling more judged for not being busy (I don’t have my kids in a lot of activities and where I live that is more common to go, go, go with hockey, dance, etc).

      I love the opportunity here to think about life and read and learn about others’ experiences. And it helps to remind me that there is no right way!

      1. Yes, the flip side of all of this – I definitely feel like I’m (judged isn’t the right word?) being evaluated by how few activities my children participate in…

    2. SO many good points here, Kae – as always 🙂
      1) “What might be a lot of margin for one person could be very little for another.” – SO very true. I have friends that actually need a lot more margin than I do.
      2) “I don’t really want to just sit and watch TV or do nothing, but I like to have some control over my time.” – This is me. I basically never sit down and watch TV outside of being with family to do it. Like 2-3 times in a year would I watch anything solo. To me margin means – I can walk with a friend on a Saturday afternoon, or I can walk for 20 minutes before getting the kids off the bus or I can start reading a book at 8:30 pm. I am, in many senses, very busy. I rarely read during the day (I do read/comment/write on the blog but that’s different than sitting down with a book to me). So I guess defining what “margin” looks like is another place to start. I guess I like to have the feeling that I have all the time in the world. That I have white space that I can fill with puttering which, to me, is margin.
      3) I am definitely NOT trying to claim any amount of margin is correct and I 100% understand what you’re saying! I really hope no one reads between the lines of this post to think my quest for more margin is superior. I say if people are happy with their current level of margin that is absolutely fantastic whether every minute of their day is filled or their calendar is barren. Different strokes for different folks, indeed.
      One last slightly tangential note: I have know multiple people with busy schedules where I it has become a bit of a compulsion that leaves them drained, unhappy, but completed unable to break out of the cycle because it’s all they’ve known. The relative I mentioned – complains all the time about not having enough balance, but doesn’t know how to live without being over-busy and frankly, miserable. Some of this is personality, but some of it is likely exhaustion from “doing” constantly.

      You seem SO happy with your level of activity which is wonderful! But I think some people cut out margin to escape certain fears and insecurities? Maybe. That’s a whole other thought and discussion!

  9. I can absolutely relate to what Kimberly said above about having too many endeavors. That has been me my whole life. I would “add” hobbies to my life, but didn’t want to give anything up. Sometimes I feel like I am interested in *EVERYTHING* and that leads to decision paralysis where sometimes, I don’t do anything at all, or I will jump from one thing to the next, never feeling satisfied.
    While I am lucky that – besides work – most of my time just belongs to me, simplifying would be a REALLY good thing for me to do and I think I will start working on those margins. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. I am someone who needs lots and lots of margin in my life. My anxiety is triggered when I have too much going on and not enough downtime. And since my free time belongs to me, that means I’ve been able to set up my life to have as much margin as I need. And it ebbs and flows, of course. Some weeks I need more margin and other weeks I need less. It’s all about understanding what I need and making sure to give that to myself.

    1. Yes, I definitely need a high ratio of flexible time to scheduled activities (and also need some solitude where I can work/putter in peace).
      It’s so important to recognize that natural ebb and flow and listen to our body/mind and the signals it gives us.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this not only in terms of time but also in terms of my physical space. Time… well, there doesn’t seem to be enough of it, right now, for me. I have very little margin and would love to have more. And yet, so much of my narrow margins are self-inflicted. I’ve seen references to Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, and the idea that we will never get through all the items on our “to do” lists, and we shouldn’t even try. It’s good that I have that book downloaded now, as I suspect I need to read it. 😉

    I do love that you do not overschedule yourself or your kids. Free time – imagining time – play time – are all so critically important. That’s when brains grow and change and develop new connections… I particularly love reading about how your kids play in the backyard together. Think of the memories they are creating!

    Oh, and margin in terms of physical space. I am slowly decluttering things and thinking more about whether I want/need something to take up space (literally) in my home. I read James Clear’s post this morning and he said this, which really resonated with me: Look around your environment. Rather than seeing items as objects, see them as magnets for your attention. Each object gently pulls a certain amount of your attention toward it. Whenever you discard something, the tug of that object is released. You get some attention back.

    That seems to be the guiding principle I need for decluttering. Not whether something brings me joy, but whether I want it capturing my attention.

    (So thanks, as always, for capturing my attention with this post…. late late late comment even for me, as I was pondering this for several days! :>)

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Anne.
      I really enjoyed 4000 Weeks and will be curious what you think.
      I’ve been making finding some margin a decided priority…it’s not always possible to get the balance quite right, but I’m trying!

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