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#STOP! Overloading Your Schedule to Create Margin for Deep Work

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

—Henry David Thoreau

Are you so busy that you don’t know if you’re coming or going? If I did not actively and consciously manage my schedule, it would fill up to the point that it would manage me. I came to the realization about a year ago that one of the largest sources of stress in my life was lack of control over my time, particularly my work time. The solution for me was to STOP overloading my calendar. Because my calendar was too full, I did not have enough time for what Cal Newport calls "Deep Work" in his book of the same name.

Richard Swenson, MD, coined the term "Margin" in his book of the same title to describe the need we all have for space in our lives. Look at the page you are reading now; it has a margin at the top and bottom and on the sides. It has space between paragraphs. What if the type on this page were pushed all the way out to the edges with no space between paragraphs? It would be so dense that it would be difficult to read and would likely increase your blood pressure while trying. That is the point of margin. We need room to breathe.

Here is an example from the book Margin. “Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office, because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the hairdresser’s, because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school, because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station—and you forgot your purse.”[i]

We have all had marginless days, but is this type of day the exception or the rule in your life? Do you have enough margin?

The key tactic to the Corporate Performance Athlete initiative at my company, Evolent Health, is management of our calendars. The overriding principle of calendar management is that you are in control of your calendar. In his book Shine, Edward Hallowell, MD, describes the relationship between brain science and peak performance. He writes, “Smart people underperform when their circuits get overloaded.”[ii]

When you consider your schedule, you may not feel like you have much control, but you have a choice about how to spend most of the hours in your day. The most powerful word in the English language is “no.” Determining how to spend your time, deciding what meetings and calls to accept, and creating white space on your calendar are critical factors to reducing stress and freeing up energy to focus on your top priorities.

Kristi Ling, happiness strategist, offers three tips to manage our calendars:

  1. Make it a positive habit to give yourself a chance to think mindfully about obligations and projects before saying “Yes” to them. If your soul isn’t telling you, “Heck yeah!” then seriously consider a “No.”

  2. Even if you’re making an effort to only allow things that feed your soul (or things that are absolutely necessary) on your schedule, sometimes your schedule will still become too full. Make a point each week or month to check in with your calendar and ask yourself, “Is my schedule too full to live fully?” If the answer is yes, look for some things to drop, or reschedule for a time when your load is lighter.

  3. Schedule unscheduled time. Purposely leave some mornings, afternoons, and even entire days blank, so you can have some time now and then to just zone out or do something you feel inspired by in those moments. I block out time in my schedule to have absolutely nothing planned. When I do, I always end up thanking myself. Some of the best times I’ve ever had are the spontaneous ones—when you just go where the wind takes you.[iii]

In my experience, if I do not add time to my calendar for things like exercise, writing, planning, thinking, personal events, and other priorities, they tend to slip off my radar screen. I use a digital calendar that syncs with my laptop and smartphone, but sometimes I need to print it out on 11x17-inch paper so that I can see it more clearly and make notes. Also, I color-code my calendar to differentiate between personal events, conference calls, travel times, planning times, etc.

I welcome your feedback.

Joy to you!

Eric Parmenter

[i] Richard Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, 2004).

[ii] Edward Hallowell, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

[iii] Kristi Ling, “Is Your Schedule Too Full to Live Fully? 3 Ways to Lighten It Up!” Kristi Ling (blog), July 22, 2013,

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