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Which is more important in life – balance or margin?

Do you ever watch or listen to Ted Talks?  I love to listen to them (if I don’t have music playing) while I’m cleaning the house or cooking by myself.  I just put on a Ted Talk playlist and hit play.

The other day, I heard a Ted Talk by Nigel Marsh* called “How to Make Work Life Balance Work“.  It’s under 10 minutes and I agreed with most of it.  If you want to listen be aware that he does mention the word sex so you may want to listen to it away from younger children if you don’t want to answer the “What is sex?” question yet.

I generally disagree with what most people have to say about work life balance, so this was a nice change. That’s because most people give you “tricks” to help you keep life in balance such as “set a time to leave work and tell others.”  That kind of advice generally strikes me as superficial at best and useless at worst.

I think work life balance is a really hot topic because in more than half the interviews I do, I am asked how I manage to balance my work life and my family life since I’m so busy and my work and family are so intertwined.

Podcast Interview

My common answer is that I don’t balance my work and my life on a day-to day basis at all.  There are times (I usually use kidding season as an example) where I spend way too much time on work and not enough time on my family.  But I make sure that we have an excess of family time (like a family vacation) to counteract the day-to-day imbalance so that over time I’m spending enough time on all areas of my life.

I believe there is a very big misconception out there about what it means to live a balanced life.  I believe most people feel there is an ideal number of hours to spend working and an ideal number of hours to spend with family on any given day.

But I don’t think life works that way.

To me, a balanced life is one where I have the time to spend on what is most important on any given day.

But defining what is important is a trap in and of itself.

I think we can all agree that family time is important.

But what about paying bills? Making dinner? Cleaning toilets? Changing diapers? Visiting a sick friend? Mowing the lawn? Taking a pet to the vet? Washing dishes?

Are those “not important” or a waste of time?  Of course not!  Some of them need to be done and some of them should be done. And that’s why it’s hard to define what a balanced life looks like because it is hard to define what is important.


We know instinctively when our life is out of balance.  It’s that constant feeling of being overwhelmed or feeling like we can’t catch up.  But what we need to remember is that we all feel that way at times.  And honestly, that’s ok.  That’s how life works, there are seasons to life such as the sleepless time after a newborn baby arrives.

What is not ok is to feel that way all the time.  That’s when something truly needs to be changed.

And so instead of talking about a balanced life, I much prefer talking about a life that contains margin.  I podcasted about margin, but in case you are unfamiliar with the concept, Richard Swenson in his book, Margin*, defines it as:

“Margin is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.  It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations.  Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.  It is the leeway we once had between ourselves and our limits.”

With some effort, it’s possible to build margin into your life.  And that is what gives you the ability to handle the overwhelming times in your life, because you’re not living perpetually in a state of overwhelm.

So if you find yourself constantly feeling overwhelmed, I would encourage you to stop trying to balance your typical day.  Instead, can you build some margin into your life so that over the course of several months or a year you’ve found a better balance?

What do you think? Are you living with margin in your life?  Or without it?  And what can you change to reclaim some margin?





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