The Importance of Spare Time and How to Create It
An Essay on the Ever-Shrinking Appreciation of Spare Time, and How to Budget it Back into Your Life
“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
At my day job, there is an environment that I’m sure is quite familiar to most working people — whether they work in a Silicon Valley startup, a small unglamorous business, or a large conglomerate. It’s the environment of scarcity. But it’s not scarcity of money (though that is a reality for some), but rather, a scarcity of time and energy. We have a lot we’re trying to do, and even more that we want to do, but aren’t doing yet — but we don’t have enough time or energy available.
This is not exclusively a problem at work; it’s a problem in our personal lives as well. There are dishes to do, soccer practices to drive to, friends to visit, grocery lists to make — and so on. There are more things we both need and want to do than time and energy available. It creates a great deal of stress — which saps our energy even more.
This has made me think a lot lately about the concept of margin — that space between what we have and what we need. We hear about it in business, as the measurement of profit — and to that end, we value margin. However, when it comes to something even more valuable than money — namely our time and energy — we don’t tend to value margin at all. I’m not quite sure why that is.
What is a Margin, Anyway?
Craig Mod, in a wonderful essay about books and craftsmanship writes:
Text printed on the best paper with no margins or unbalanced margins is vile. Or, if we’re being empathetic, sad. (For no book begins life aspiring to bad margins.) I know that sounds harsh. But a book with poorly set margins is as useful as a hammer with a one inch handle. Sure, you can pound nails, but it ain’t fun. A book with crass margins will never make a reader comfortable. Such a book feels cramped, claustrophobic. It doesn’t draw you in, certainly doesn’t make you want to spend time with the text.
Here, Mod is using the typesetting definition of the word margin, but his conclusion can be carried over to any other similar use of the term. For instance, in project management, a margin of time is called a buffer — an amount of time over and above the estimated time that task or project should take. That buffer or margin of time is left open because in projects — as in life — things tend to just come up, and those things require your time. Because of that, you leave yourself a margin — spare time.
In finance, a margin refers to the difference between the cost of something and what its sell price is. It’s the difference between revenue and expenses. In short, it’s the money that you have which doesn’t already have somewhere it needs to be spent. Though it differs slightly, the concept is similar enough to a buffer in time management. So I will use them synonymously.
Margins have always been desirable in finance because having more money than you currently know what to do with is basically the definition of wealth. People who are rich have more money than things that need to be done with it. To carry the analogy over to time: people who are not time-crunched have more time than they have activities that need to take up that time. In either situation — all other things being equal — having that margin (of time or money) is the foundation of feeling secure and at peace.
Why We Need — But Don’t Allow Ourselves — Margins
If you don’t have a margin of time or money, you get stressed. You’re anxious about how you’re going to close that gap between what you have and what you need. If you’re lucky, you might match them up — you “make ends meet. But in most cases, the thought of having more than you need — especially when it comes to time — is a feeling more and more unfamiliar and unimaginable to people. This is a big problem.
What compounds the problem is that so often when we find ourselves with a bit of a margin, we tend to get rid of it rather quickly. We get anxious, feel weird, and we find something to do with it, so we don’t have to worry anymore.
To put it another way, we are increasingly re-investing the margins of our lives, rather than keeping them. Spare time and energy is spent on side-hustles, collecting experiences, and other things to keep us busy. But this re-investment leaves us little with which to handle the wonderful spontaneity of life — the stuff that just comes up, and makes life so very worth living.
That’s the key: we need to get comfortable having some time and energy to spare. Having that margin allows you to remain calm, present, and open to new things that you weren’t planning for. In my experience, those things can bring so much value — and yet, if we don’t allow ourselves a margin, we can’t enjoy them; we squander the opportunities to find something truly wonderful.
How Do We Reclaim the Margin?
One of the books that radically changed the way I approached working and life is Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness. He has this wonderful analysis of our current time-constrained, fatigued situation:
Like a bee in a flower bed, the human brain naturally flits from one thought to the next. In the high-speed workplace, where data and headlines come thick and fast, we are all under pressure to think quickly. Reaction, rather than reflection, is the order of the day. To make the most of our time, and to avoid boredom, we fill up every spare moment with mental stimulation…Keeping the mind active makes poor use of our most precious resource. True, the brain can work wonders in high gear. But it will do so much more if given the chance to slow down from time to time. Shifting the mind into lower gear can bring better health, inner calm, enhanced concentration and the ability to think more creatively.
I think that is the key. When we allow ourselves more time and energy to appreciate the spontaneous and seemingly mundane things of our days, life gets demonstrably better.
So how do we do that? How do we reclaim the margins we gave away —the spare time and energy that can be so beneficial and enriching?
One way is to slow down. Just like Honoré says, shifting the mind into a lower gear can help immensely. But we resist this, because we mistakenly think that if we move quickly, we’ll squeeze more out of the day. My experience is that such a thing rarely happens — we rarely do squeeze more out of the day by moving quickly and making ourselves time-crunched. What does tend to work is specific, intentional, targeted action — and that is rarely quick. In fact, that kind of deliberate and thoughtful action is slow, almost by definition — slow, but effective.
Slowing down your mind can be as simple as adopting a meditation habit. I know — you’ve read about this before, right (in numerous articles)? But there’s a reason for that. My experience is that the mind is naturally calm, but it loses that calm due to the pressure of the many inputs in our world that demand so much of it.
Think of the mind as a calm, glassy pond. When you continue to throw rocks into it, and run your speedboat around it, the water becomes choppy, unclear, and full of movement. But when left alone, it settles back into its natural state. I have found that this can be done with the mind. But it takes effort — time and effort. However, once you can calm the mind, it’s easier to start valuing the margin — the spare time, because you come to appreciate time when your mind is not occupied — when you are calm and centered.
Another way to create margin — and perhaps the most important thing to sustain it — is to do the same thing you do when you need to create margin with your money: budget it. Time and money are a lot alike — except time is even more scarce than money. You could theoretically get more money in a given month, but you cannot get more time. You’ve got 168 hours each week, and there’s no changing that. So to create that margin, you’ll probably need to budget for it.
Budgeting Time for Margin: the 10/10/80 Rule
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a piece of budgeting advice that is attributed to billionaire John D. Rockefeller. It’s called the 10/10/80 rule, and it’s quite simple:
- give 10% of your income to charity
- save 10% of your income for the future
- allocate the remaining 80% of your income for expenses
Millions (maybe billions) of people swear by this advice. And if it works for budgeting money, why not use it for something both valuable and fixed — like time?
Here’s my proposal: create margin in your time by budgeting your weekly hours using the 10/10/80 rule. It’s simple: just make a few tweaks to the rule as it applies to money, and voila — you have some breathing room!
- use 10% of your weekly hours doing stuff for others
- save 10% of your weekly hours as a time margin (buffer)
- allocate the remaining 80% to getting all of your projects and tasks done
A word of advice. I choose to subtract sleep time first before budgeting. That is the most sunken of sunk costs, and it makes sense to not include those (but you can, if you like). Let’s assume you get 7 hours of sleep per night (or at least aim for that).
168 hours in a week - (7 days of 7 hours of sleep) = 119 hours
If you allocate the remaining 119 hours of non-sleep time each week according to the 10/10/80 rule, you end up with:
- 12 hours serving others
- 12 hours of margin time
- 95 hours for everything else
When you look at it that way, it seems very doable. You have 95 hours to work, do a side-hustle, exercise, watch movies, etc. This is your “spending money” of hours, to use as you wish.
The 12 hours of serving others is actually a kind of trick because it can actually serve you as well. Use it to call friends you haven’t spoken with in a while. Walk around the office and catch up with people. Actually volunteer in your community. If you have a spouse and children, spend some of that time doing nice things for them, as well. The key is that having that time available allows you to feel okay about doing things for others, because you have the time.
The 12 hours of margin left over are also a kind of trick because there are all sorts of places it can go — and in all sorts of increments. If it’s a crazy week at work, you can allocate some of it to unforeseen work. You can use it do unexpected repairs on things, or do creative work that you wouldn’t otherwise do. You can journal, meditate, or do any other things you haven’t done because “there’s no time”. The list goes on and on. The key is the feeling — the feeling associated with having budgeted your hours and having that 12 hours of time that hasn’t been spoken for already. It frees your mind to stop worrying about time — much like a budget (when followed) can free your mind to stop worrying about money as much.
Just like having cash left over is a best practice of managing money, so is having time left over a best practice of managing your time. And as with money, investing that saved time in the right things can yield huge dividends for you. But you’ll never realize them if you don’t budget for the margin.
Follow the 10/10/80 rule, modified for time management, and you’ll have that spare time to set aside for the kind of stuff that just comes up, but can be so worthwhile.