margin – or, panic early

I first published this post more than two years ago. In all of my 11 years of blogging it is one of my favorites. It is also still my biggest struggle. I’m sharing it with you today for two reasons:

  1. For the first time in a long time I haven’t got a blog post this week. I’m occupied with filling orders, details for upcoming workshops and beginning to plan new classes and workshops for 2018 (including at least one in Europe…… stay tuned).
  2.  The message, the idea of margin, is one I need to hear and apply again and again but especially right now. It boils down to this – when there is certainly and officially too much to do – the only sensible thing is to decide to do less. Ideally before it gets decided for you.

I’m forcing myself into my high gear, last minute place, that magic spot where priorities are crystal clear and hard decisions get made easily. I’m forcing myself into that place a little early so the week before I leave to teach I’ll be one of those super chill prepared people. For the first time. Ever.

(This post was originally published April 2015 – I’ve updated with images of preparations for my natural history workshop)

Had I already mastered the idea of margin in my life I wouldn’t be editing this post 20 minutes before I need to publish it. But I have not mastered margin, not at all. Margin is the space between, the room left for error or chance, the cushion, and I rarely have any. I’m the guy hand making one more Christmas gift at 2 AM on the 24th, 10 year old me was adding glitter to my styrofoam ball planets on the bus to the science fair. It isn’t really about procrastination (although I’m great at that too) – it’s more – I see some space, some room and think “why not add something?! Why not make it better?! Let’s do both!”.  It is a kind of misguided enthusiasm – it’s hard to say no to something I’d love to do even when I know there isn’t enough time. It also comes from fear of lack – fear that the universe will find me ungrateful and opportunities will disappear, it’s living in fear, fear of scarcity. And I am a wishful thinker, I catch myself all the time planning for things to go perfectly, filling every possible moment with commitments, scheduling things back to back or overlapping. It feels like I’m being diligent, a hard worker, but I’m setting myself up to fail – when there is no room for error some little thing, like the printer breaking, can become a huge deal.

When you have margin you have options – so often in this life that I supposedly designed to afford choice I feel I have none. And I need to fix that. Fix it or miss out on my best work. Fix it or be swept along in the chaos – just reacting to emergencies.

I came across this article recently and for some reason it penetrated in a way that the idea just hasn’t before. It got my attention and it stuck with me and I understand something new: margin isn’t something that happens when things get magically better, it is a decision.

It’s a choice.

It’s a choice and a discipline, something you plan for. I don’t have a busyness problem I have a decision making problem.

It sounds simple – just plan for extra time  – but It means fighting against life long inclinations and habits, the temptation to fill every available minute is strong. My first move in the right direction is to figure out how to take one day a week completely off. Oh boy. My current situation is so far away from that I can barely get my head around the idea and at this point I think it’s going to take a while to make it happen. I’m hoping for progress, not perfection, for improvement, some sense that this is attainable for me.

So much of the new stuff I’m trying is working but I think this one issue is the lynch pin, the biggest obstacle, the thing between me and real improvement in my work and my life.


  1. I suffer from over stuffing my life, too. Margin is a good word, but it doesn’t really click for me so I went to the thesaurus … “allowance”, there’s word I can visualize as a metaphor … especially as “seam allowance.” Here is the image in my mind – booking all of my time edge to edge is like sewing something together at the edges with no seam allowance; everything (including myself) will come apart at the seams. The seam allowance (or margin) is the space needed to keep everything together, neatly. I’d like to have a life filled with fancy french seams.

    • Denise L.

      Your seam allowance analogy really resonates with me. Thanks for your comment in cementing the Margin idea for me.

  2. Hi Ann, I have been following your blog for a few years now and just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your recent posts. I too suffer from poor planning and leaving things to the last minute, often up at 2am on Christmas Eve finishing things off. My husband is German and well organised, good at leaving margin, he often shakes his head at me, particularly at Christmas time. So I loved this post. I work with other artists and find all your posts from the Creative year theme resonate so much, it would be great for you to put it into book form at the end of the year.
    Also love the baby goat. Once I am finished on my current budgie project I may try a goat.
    Kind Regards

  3. Mirepoix

    I too do the same thing. Given two options, go with what is or risk adding more not knowing if it will work out or i have enough time to complete it–i always go with the risk. Its the only place in my life that I am risky. Maybe you are a risk taker too? Your art projects are so beautiful and inspiring. Take that day off every week. You will be okay.

  4. I too can appreciate that feeling and the feeling of lack. It’s a great motivator and there is always one more thing. Ihave learned a lot while helping to run the charity I’m a part of. Not everything has to pass through my hands. I work with some talented sewers who have great ideas and abilities that are different than mine and I try my best to let them takeover projects of their own. I still have that fear. I’m not good enough or inciteful enough to make the best choices. I also don’t know my own aesthetic either. But I try and there are always days I do better than others.

  5. I can so relate (margins, seam allowances, one last touch to add when I should be walking out the door).

    We all deserve & need at least one day a week to rest without commitments. It’s not a luxury, it’s self-care. Glad you are moving in that direction.

  6. Your post describes my tendency exactly – isn’t it part of how creative people work,though, on a continuum – a flow of ideas that’s difficult to put the brakes on sometimes. I have started recently, after years of leaving no margins and becoming exhausted in the process, of ‘restraining’ myself – asking if that extra touch is really necessary, whether working up to the last minute is worth the stress involved. Leaving a bit of breathing space can give room for reflection and new ideas to form in the pauses in between making, well that’s the theory!

  7. I love your posts, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Right now at this very moment I am too tired to get my work done and so I am escaping to reading your thoughts – which is a delight.

  8. Sonia Simpson

    One day off a week
    Ha ha ha ha
    Even if you took yourself away from making one a day a week I’ll bet you’d never turn your brain off for that 24hrs
    In fact I’ll bet 100s of ideas will cone and you will want to write them down or start creating

  9. Angela McElroy

    Just read what you say about margin and that totally resonates with me. It’s a really tricky one to get right and can lead to mental health issues when we get it wrong. You’re absolutely right about it being a choice, but why are those of us afflicted with this problem so afraid to make that choice? Ironically, an inability to do so can turn the very things which we use as therapy into the exact opposite! I speak from experience. So, just one more row of knitting before I call it a night…?

Comments are closed.