Margin and taking a step back

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There’s no doubt that in order to have outstanding long-term quality in life, you need to lead a balanced lifestyle. Yet balance is a word that’s often misused and wrongly interpreted. I also had a wrong perspective on balance a decade ago. I was sure that balance in life is like a calm sea, like a perfect puzzle where everything is in order – you have a partner you never fight with, you exercise every single day, eat perfect meals, everybody respects you at work etc. Every single area of life is precisely planned with just the right amount of everything. I was wrong.

Let me explain. Balance in life is often compared to balance in nature. That’s why I also correlated balance in life to a calm sea in nature. But one day, after a severe storm, I asked myself whether balance in nature really exists. Unbearable cold in the North and South poles on the one hand, and unbearable heat in the desert on the other, things like storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, and many other extreme natural phenomena. I don’t think there’s a place on Earth where the temperatures are perfect throughout the entire year and neither are the wind and other weather conditions; there are always storms, earthquakes or other natural disasters and extremes present.

There definitely is balance in nature, but the balance is not a calm sea, but rather the sum of all different extremes (hot and cold) and quiet periods in between. Balance in nature is the calm before as well as after a storm. It’s a quiet and peaceful feeling after every extreme situation, allowing you to prepare for the next one. Of course there are places on Earth that are more exposed to extremes and others that are less, but it’s the same in life, depending where you live.

Earth level

Balance in life therefore doesn’t mean having everything in perfect order, a dull life where nothing exciting happens, it means taking a rest after an extreme state and preparing yourself for the next sprint. In other words, life is neither a marathon nor a sprint, but rather a series of sprints with periods of rest in between. By the way, that’s also the fundamental philosophy of agile management. A series of sprints.

Studying for finals, proving yourself at your first job, getting a baby, relationship break-ups, moving away from home, changing a job, improving your physical fitness level, getting a severe illness – everything brings some form of a storm into life, together with its changes and challenges. Some situations are more extreme, some less.

But all situations demand focus, dedication, sacrifice, pushing yourself and so on. You can’t just give back a baby if you’d like to sleep more. If you’re asking yourself why that is so, the answer is quite simple: a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor and one of your purposes in this life is to grow and develop.

But there’s also another side to this equation that you have to understand. As I mentioned, life is a series of sprints with rest periods. Even in nature, the sun shines after a storm every time. That means balance. Everything you do in life excessively for a longer period of time backfires sooner or later. Putting yourself under stress for years is definitely the best way to slowly destroy your life and become a zombie.

Taking a rest is therefore definitely a very important concept in life management. The general recommendation for all workaholics is to take time off at least one day per week, one extended weekend (4 days) for every quarter and additional two full-time weeks a year. On the off days, you should be lazy and do nothing, or do some activities that really relax you – taking care of your garden or pool, travelling, getting a massage, reading magazines, watching TV or doing other things that will completely disconnect you from this world.

In addition to taking a rest, there are two more concepts that can help you manage a series of sprints in life with adequate rest. The first one is called (1) having enough margin in life. The second concept is that (2) you sometimes have to take a step back in order to take two steps forward afterwards. Let’s look deeply into both concepts.

You need bigger margin

Margin in life

Margin in life has been quite a popular concept in time management ever since the book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives was published. I really recommend the book, since it provides a very good definition for how to use margin in life for a higher quality of living. I’ll summarize the main points, and then you can decide whether reading the book is worth it.

The idea of margin is that you have physical, mental, emotional, and financial limits that are more or less fixed. When you exceed this limit, it leads to overload and consequently to more stress, intensity and unhappiness. On the other hand, if you let some space between your maximum capacity and how much you take upon yourself it leads to you restoring your emotional, physical, time and other reserves. The space between your maximum capacity and how much you take upon yourself is called margin.

Margin is the space between your load and your limits. Margin is the opposite of overload. R. Swenson

Almost everybody in today’s busy world let themselves only enough space to just get by and nothing more (operating on a daily/weekly maximum or near it) so they are constantly over-stressed and anxious. The right solution is bigger margin that leads to higher quality and happiness in life. With the right margin, you can slow down and give yourself more space to really enjoy life.

Margin is nothing but breathing room, and you need four basic margins:

  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Time
  • Financial

Here are some examples:

  • If you need bigger physical margin, cut down on some projects, exercise less if you’re over-training, don’t go to partying every weekend or go to sleep earlier, for example.
  • If you need bigger time margin, learn to manage your time better and before you do that (learning how to manage time means taking a new activity and goal), cancel two other activities that are at least as time-consuming.
  • If you need bigger emotional margin, you can take a weekend off totally for yourself and isolate yourself from the world and people. This especially goes for introverts.
  • If you need bigger financial margin, you can downsize your home or your car instead of taking on another job.

To have the right margin, you simply have to set limits in life. Maximums and minimums. Minimums make sure you don’t under-perform and progress in too low a gear. With maximums, you have to make sure you don’t operate at your upper limit or even exceed it for a longer period of time. You make sure you keep enough margin in life so you can breathe.

Now comes the hardest question. If life is a series of sprints, should you give it your all in every sprint? The answer is yes and no. The shorter the sprint, with less margin you can survive if you get enough rest after the sprint. The longer the sprint, the more you have to make sure that you have enough margin, even though you’re sprinting. If you know that it’s going to be a long sprint, you definitely don’t do it at your maximum, because you’ll only hurt yourself sooner or later.

A very good thing is that you can be very flexible when it comes to having enough margin in life. You can reschedule your daily or weekly obligations, you can cancel some projects, downgrade something financially demanding, simplify, sell things, outsource, automate etc. The moment you feel overwhelmed, you can do something to increase your margin. Maybe you’ll have a feeling of slower progress, but there’s no point in fast progress if you’re overloaded and completely unhappy in life.

The longer the sprint, the more careful you have to be about setting your upper limit and taking care of your margin in order to have time to breathe.

Taking a step back

The second concept that can help you with a series of sprints in a lifetime is taking a step back. As mentioned before, sometimes you have to take one step back in order to take two steps forward. Neither linear nor rapid improvements really take place in straight or exponential lines. There are always ups and downs along the road, and sometimes just taking a rest isn’t enough, sometimes you actually have to go back. There are no straight lines in nature.


There are four most frequent scenarios when you have to take a step back:

  1. When you want more than your foundations can handle
  2. When you’re overloaded for a longer period of time without any margin
  3. When you have gone too far along the way based on wrong assumptions (climbing the wrong ladder)
  4. When there’s a rapid unexpected change in an environment and your strategy is not adequate anymore

Taking a step back is usually not a conscious decision. That’s why you HAVE to take a step back. Most often, life forces you to take a step back; and the more you insist on not taking a step back, the harder life is pushing you back until you seriously hurt yourself.

If life demands from you to take a step back, the best advice ever is to do it. It may be a short-term punishment, but it’s a long-term gift, because if you want something badly enough, you will take care of the essentials and come back to continue the path afterwards. If you’re aware of that, the following quote definitely makes sense in life: “An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. So when life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means that it’s going to launch you into something great. So just focus, and keep aiming.”

Here are some examples for each of the scenarios, just for getting a more plastic picture. You decide to start running to be fit. (1) Instead of starting slow and pacing up day by day, you want to run a half-marathon right away. You throw up in the middle of the way and because of all the stress, you simply don’t want to hear about running for an entire month. That’s a big step back. (2) You run every day without taking any rest, your calves and knees start to hurt, the pain escalates, but you still run all the way anyway until your bones get stress fractures. Because of the injury, you can’t run for another few months. That’s a step back. (3) You think that running is easy, something everybody can do, and so you don’t need any knowledge about it – the technique, equipment etc. Because of a wrong technique, you hurt yourself. Again a step back. (4) It’s a cold and rainy day and you don’t feel well, but you go for a run anyway, because it’s written in your plan. The next day, you get a flu or a cold. Again no running.

When life forces you to take a step back, you’re usually quite far along on the wrong path. Before that happens, you get many signals that you’re doing something wrong, but usually you don’t listen to yourself. You ignore a problem, and ignorance only causes it to grow until it really hits you hard and knocks you out.

Pain is an obvious indicator that something’s wrong. Physical pain shows that there’s something wrong with your body. Many times, you may be causing the pain simply by doing something excessively (sports, alcohol, food etc.). “No pain no gain” can be the worst advice you can get in this context. Emotional pain shows you that there’s something wrong in other areas of life.

Remember, it’s not the future that you’re afraid of. It’s repeating the past that makes you anxious. Don’t resist life, you must have learnt that much.

The good news is that if you learn to listen to your body and emotions, you can take a step back by yourself, way before things get serious and life forces you to take a step back. You maybe don’t even need to take a step back if you react fast enough (observation to action), but only need to increase margin in your life. Nevertheless, if you ignore your body and your feelings, life will force you to get some margin in life by kicking you a step back sooner or later.

Learn to listen to your body and your emotions. They’re a compass helping you make the right decisions for managing your daily life and ensuring you quality and happiness. Your body and your emotions can help you make the right decisions for your long-term success. It may take you longer than planned to reach your goals, but to be honest, it’s about the road not the end goal, no matter how hard that is to accept (everyone wants the final event, but only a few respect the process). That’s what being lean and agile is really about.

Make sure you have enough margin in life. The longer the sprint you will undertake, the more careful you have to be about enough margin. If you’ve set your limits wrong and are exhausting yourself, take a step back. Your body and your emotions will give you several signals to take that action and the quiet signals will begin immediately after you start over-burning your system. If you somehow miss all the signals and life knocks you down, respect that and embrace that you’ve fucked up. Take a step back, regroup, make a new plan, adjust, and all that will give you strength to take two steps forward, right after you take care of foundations and essentials. If you won’t take a step back, the knockout will only be more severe next time.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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