Creating Life Margins


We recently conducted a Team offsite.  It was what many organizations do in preparation for a new year.  Our leadership director, Jennifer Owen-O’Quill, did a fabulous job in leading us through the thought process for focusing on things that help drive success.

During our discussion, the topic of life margin came up.  For those who were familiar with life margin, this resonated highly.  Those that were not, it needed some further explanation.  In short, it was about the real vs the ideal.  In other words, how do we make the big things happen without getting excessively overwhelmed? We work on creating margin in our lives.

Scott Eblin in his excellent book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative,
reminds us that we need to be mindful of what our best looks and feels like. My experience has been that the resolution to almost all our professional / personal challenges is linked to how mindful we are of the balance between these four areas:

                                         Time, Energy, People and Communication

Tips for creating life margin:

§  Define the ideal vs the real and intentionally sculpt time to move life towards the ideal.

§  Actively manage personal energy in addition to managing time on the calendar.

§  Set tactful boundaries around people and limit exposure to negativity or toxicity.

§  Know our default personality wiring and that of the important people around us.

The goal is to create some margin for error and for the unexpected. For this to happen we really
have two choices. We can either work faster or accept that not everything will get done, (at least
when we think it should). Please understand this is not excusing lack of productivity, quite the opposite, it’s protecting it! If we can intentionally build in margin, we have some wiggle room and will become less stressed, healthier and more productive.

                            Living habitually in an overwhelmed state is a recipe for disaster

I will be presenting in an academic setting on Stephen Covey’s seventh habit, sharpening the saw. To sharpen the saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have--you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Stephen Covey points out examples of activities that create life margin and sharpen the saw below.

1)     Physical:                    Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting

2)     Social/Emotional:     Making social and meaningful connections with others

3)     Mental:                      Learning, reading, writing, and teaching

4)     Spiritual:                   Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through                                                           meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

Some of my favorite / memorable quotes from Mr. Covey:

§  Start with the end in mind.

§  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

§  The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

§  The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule,
but to schedule your priorities.

§  Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication.
It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.

§  There are three constants in life...change, choice and principles.

§  Live out of your imagination, not your history.

§  Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

§  The way we see the problem is the problem.

§  Effective leadership puts first things first. Effective management is discipline,
carrying it out

            So, let’s go out there and create some life margin then fill in around the edges. Cheers!


I have been coaching a lot of people recently who are pretty stressed out and running on fumes. Does this sound like you? If not, please keep up the good work and share your secrets with the rest of us. However, I have a feeling a lot of you are like a client I have been working with recently. She was worried about her daughter getting into college, the project that was off track at work, the relatively new boss who she had a hard time reading and getting aligned with, the future of healthcare, planning vacation, eating healthy, finding time for meditation, oops, need a birthday present, oh no-another project just assigned to her, and other things that pop up throughout the day.

Does this sound similar to your day? You are probably in a ton of meetings and jumping from task to task and look up and it is time to go home and you wonder where the day went! I think one place to start is with Stephen Covey’s concept of Circle of Control from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1992.) I am working from an adapted model of Covey’s work.

The inner most circle is the Circle of Control. This is the circle where you have the most ability to own and impact the results. This might be who you hire, how you plan your morning routine, when you check email, how often you exercise, what present you buy for your daughter and what food you eat. I worked with my client to list out many of the things that she could control and then we started to prioritize the list and put the required actions on the calendar.

The next circle is the Circle of Influence. This circle is where you have some influence but not complete control. Examples might include—getting a position approved for your team, deciding on the salary for a new hire, determining the timeline for a group project, priorities of your team, or the location for your vacation. I had my client outline the decisions that she felt were stuck that she could possibly influence. We found about 4 decisions quickly and were able to put her next steps on the calendar. You could almost hear a sigh of relief from her.

The outer most circle is the Circle of Concern. This is the hardest one to deal with at times. We all have concerns that we have limited ability to fix. Examples include—National Healthcare, our taxes, strategy of our company, or Board Decisions. The challenge here is to make peace with the fact that you might not like the outcomes but you also do not have time and energy to invest in all the things you have concerns about. I encouraged my client to list all of her concerns and it was a long list. I then asked her which ones she had the passion and energy to try to bring into her circle of influence. The only one was an issue at her daughter’s school that would require work with the School Board and Administration. She might be able to influence future decisions if she gets her voice heard and continues to flag the issue.

After we were done, she was still “full” but she had a path to tackling her feeling of being overwhelmed. She was able to make significant progress on her Circle of Control and her last month has been excellent. She is getting ready to go on a great vacation with her family and has even named a delegate to stand in for her work while she is gone.

What about you? What is in your Circle of Control? Circle of Influence? How can you let go of some of your concerns?  Good luck and let me know how you are managing your circles.


Do you like to get right to the point, or would you prefer to cozy up for a while to feel things out?

Are you driven by facts and figures or do you prefer to talk passionately about ideas and concepts?

There is no right or wrong when dealing with individual human beings, but there is a place where we all overlap.  Understanding how people are wired at the factory has great implications for how successful or unsuccessful relationships may be.  These include work relationships with the boss, colleagues, and customers.  Equally important, it also includes relationships at home and in the community.

One the best ways to understand a person’s behavior is to have them complete a DiSC profile.  DiSC was first advanced in the 1920s by American psychologist William Moulton Marston and is an instrument that measures four distinct dimensions of observable behavior.  They are the Driver, the Influencer, the Supporter and the Calculator.

In a nutshell, their characteristics look like this:

Why does this matter?  If we seek first to understand others (aka how they are wired), then our ability to be understood increases exponentially.  So the next time there is misunderstanding, drama, or conflict, one of the best places to look for solutions is observable behavior as revealed by the DiSC profile. 

For example, if my boss is High D (be brilliant, be brief, be gone) and I am High I (let’s talk so you can hear how brilliant I am), I am inviting tension needlessly.  If my spouse is High C (wants to drive hard on data), and I am High S (doesn’t want to rock the boat), I may go along to get along, even if I disagree.

The combinations of observable behavior, once understood, can be utilized to foster maximum understanding and avoid conflict at work and at home.


Sarah knew something was wrong.  She came to work every day expecting the worst and, more often than not, there it was waiting for her:  unfinished tasks, projects completed but poorly executed, mediocre results, and lots to clean up.

Something needed to happen to change Sarah’s circumstances.  She knew it, her team knew it, and by the time she sat down in my office, her frustration was boiling over.  After a full 15 minutes of hearing her enumerate everything that was going wrong, I had two questions:

·       What went right this morning?

·       What do you want?

It took a few minutes to refocus her attention, but Sarah was able to recall a couple of bright spots from the morning.  We were able to focus on what she did want instead of what she did not want.  Then we celebrated:  some things went right!  Better yet, some things went right every day.  Once we had these Bright Spots in focus, we could take the next critical step:  building on her success.

·       How could Sarah build on the successes of her team? 

·       Could she leverage what was going right to get better results?

·       What impact would it have on her own leadership and performance to work with her team to focus on what was already working and to drive better results from what was already going right?

As a performance-driven leader, it was a totally new concept to Sarah to focus, not on fixing problems, but on magnifying successes.  However, she was desperate and willing to try.

She asked each team member:

·       What is working well?

·       What can you do to get that successful area working even better?

Asking those questions tapped new energy on her team.

A few weeks later, Sarah was back in my office. This time she began by doing for herself what she had done with her team the previous month:  she spent time sharing what was going well and thought through ways to make those successes even better.  From there, she addressed a couple of the larger challenges she had before her and, when she did, her thinking was clearer, sharper.  She was thinking creatively and actively, not from a defensive, reactive place.  Her ideas about her next steps were light years ahead of where they had been a month before.

Here is why:  when we focus on Bright Spots, we have greater insight, less anxiety, and a greater access to solutions and creative winning moves as opposed to defensive measures. 

Ask yourself:

·       What are the Bright Spots on your team right now?

·       What is working well?

·       How can you build on those successes?

·       Who else can you involve in the process so your success is shared?

Long term success depends on leaders accessing their creativity to solve problems.  Focusing on Bright Spots is one way to ensure that we have our best thinking at hand when we tackle significant challenges.