Let me tell you about last Tuesday. The day started with a call from the bank amidst my race to get dressed and get to the office. Someone had made a fraudulent check and attempted to cash it against our company’s account. While they were unsuccessful, I now needed to speak with a fraud-prevention specialist and stop by the bank.Now running late for work, I ran outside to catch a cab just as it started to rain. With the streets flooded, my typical 15-minute commute became an hour-long slog. Upon arriving at the office, my two morning meetings were already waiting. I had to reschedule my lunch, and the ripple effect continued throughout the day.
Needless to say, it was a tough one. Noticeably absent was the opportunity to think, get any real work done, and connect with my team. With no margin for error, the whole day became compromised.
Everyone likes a productive day. The idea of squeezing in meetings, time to process Action Steps, and going home with a great sense of accomplishment evokes a sense of pride. When traveling, I’m the type that feels extra productive when I board a plane with just a few minutes to spare. I think the basis for this sensation is my drive to maximize what I can get done within the limited amount of capacity I have.But capacity — specifically, the amount of time and energy we have to expend each day — is limited. With so much that we want to accomplish, most of us are eager to fully utilize our capacity. But should we?
I would argue, “No.” Without a certain amount of capacity left idle, you lose the flexibility to adapt to the unexpected or to capitalize on circumstantial opportunities. You need to create and preserve some margin in your days to reach your full potential.
Margin For When Things Go Wrong
Ambition becomes counterproductive when you pursue your goals without the humbling realization that things seldom go as planned. The invigorating sensation you get from fully utilizing your capacity is really nothing more than a gamble against the odds. When you get away with it, you feel lucky. But when one thing goes wrong, your losses can be substantial.
A full schedule, without any margin for error, puts your entire day at risk. When you can’t find a cab or a client calls you with an urgent request, you need the flexibility to accommodate change. Practically speaking, when you plan, double transit time and leave a couple hours mid-day to accommodate the unexpected shifts you may need to make.
Margin For Mining The Circumstantial
Preserving some margin also allows you to explore circumstantial opportunities that could prove valuable. Fashion Designer Isaac Mizrahi once explained that his greatest ideas come from “mistakes or tricks of the eye.” Many famous innovations started with a mistake coupled with the capacity to explore more deeply, including stories like the weak adhesive that became the Post-It Note or the melted Mr. Goodbar that signaled the potential of microwaves for heating food.When confronted with the unexpected, you have the option to either quickly backtrack and try to make up for lost time, or run with it a bit. Do you have the capacity to continue a chance conversation over lunch that could yield a new project or breakthrough? Do you have the capacity to tease out that unexpected result that could shed new insight?
Don’t plan every minute. To increase your chance of new discoveries, you must preserve capacity to follow up on mistakes and circumstantial opportunities.
As you seek to utilize your productive capacity to its fullest, always keep a reserve. Plan it into your day as well as your philosophy. Ambition is a fine thing, so long as it doesn’t override opportunity.