To Survive as a Writer: Finding Margin

Certain Type A personalities seem to thrive on overloaded lives, but most writers don’t.

Our best ideas – and energy to write about them – require some peace and quiet, some “down” time. To get that, we must rebuild margin into our lives.

Defining Margin

What exactly is margin? According to Richard Swenson M.D. author of Margin, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is something held in reserve for unanticipated situations. It is the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

You might wonder at what point you became overloaded. It’s not always easy to see when it happens. We don’t have a shut off valve that clicks like when we put gasoline into our cars. Stop! Overload! Usually we don’t know that we are overextended until we feel the pain and frustration.

We would be smart to only commit 80% of our time and energy. Instead, we underestimate the demands on our life. We make promises and commit way more than 100% of our time and energy. Consequently, we have no margin left.

A Simple Formula

What exactly is margin? The formula for margin is straightforward: power – load = margin.

Your power is made up of things like your energy, your skills, how much time you have, your training, your finances, and social support.

Your load is what you carry and is made up of things like your job, problems you have, your commitments and obligations, expectations of others, expectations of yourself, your debt, your deadlines, and personal conflicts.

If your load is greater than your power, you have overload. This is not healthy, but it is where most people in our country live. If you stay in this overloaded state for a good length of time, you get burnout. (And burned out writers don’t write. I know–I’ve been there more than once.)

The Answer

So how do we increase margin? You can do it in one of two ways. You can increase your power — or you can decrease your load. If you’re smart, you’ll do both.

Many of us feel nostalgic for the charm of a slower life. (Few of us, however, miss things like outhouses or milking cows or having no running water.) Usually what we long for is margin. When there was no electricity, people played table games and went to bed early, and few suffered sleep deprivation. Few people used daily planners or had watches with alarms, let alone computers that beeped with e-mail messages and tweets. People had time to read–and to think–and to write. It happened in the margins of their lives.

Progress devoured the margin. We want it back. And I firmly believe that writers must have it back.

PLEASE SHARE: Do you identify? What does “fighting overload” mean to you as a writer? Have you been successful in any ways you can share?

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3 Responses to To Survive as a Writer: Finding Margin

  1. Thanks for this great post, Kristi. I can certainly identify with “marginless” living. Even when I’m apparently doing nothing, my brain is churning with the list of things I should be doing instead of actually stepping back from the noise. The only thing that shuts off the brain for me is reading–a wonderful way to find real quiet.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Reading is the only guaranteed “mind re-focus” for me too. Listening to books on tape with my eyes closed (or when walking) is about 2/3 as good, but my mind can wander when my eyes aren’t required to pay attention! Reading is my favorite break during the work day–even just ten minutes every couple hours can be refreshing.

  2. Nancy says:

    Earlier this year I kept a log of the newsletters, blogs, etc that came to my computer. There were 22, roughly evenly split between daily, weekly, monthly. I consciously looked at each one, assessed how much of my time it absorbed and how important it was to me, and forced myself to unsubscribe from almost half of them. An item may have been interesting, but given the choice between reading it and reading a book I keep not getting to, or working on my writing, should it win? Was it THAT interesting? If not, it had to go. I plan to revisit that exercise and do some more cutting. Yes, even writing-related items had to go. It’s one small way to be able to decrease load.

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