Chief Executive Insights

Mind the margin: How to give yourself a 15 percent time refund to avoid burnout and care for yourself

Resources and energy are needed for growth; this applies to pretty much any area of our world where we want to grow or get better. It is true for communities, for individuals and for the natural environment.

And it’s not just about to physical growth. It’s also about emotional and intellectual growth.

In science, this is referred to as a finite-time singularity. In a nutshell, unbounded growth demands either infinite resources and energy or a major paradigm shift. Without either, collapse is inevitable. 

The question for leaders is, “how much longer can you go on before you exhaust your resources and energy, or that of your teams?” 

You need a paradigm shift. And not even a major one.

Simply think about where you can refund yourself only 15 per cent of your time and resources across a range of aspects of your life to create some space that will allow you to be the truly adaptive organism you have evolved to be. 

There are a number of real-world examples where a 15 per cent buffer or margin is considered optimal operating capacity.

  • Capacity utilisation (mostly used in manufacturing) measures the difference between production and production capability. Accounting for the fact that it is unlikely that an economy or company will function at 100 per cent capacity, 85 per cent is considered optimal. This provides a 15 per cent buffer against setbacks like equipment malfunction or resource shortages.
  • Olympians and professional sportspeople, too, know they will perform better at 85 per cent because they are more relaxed and can optimise muscle strength.
  • Hugh Jackman, in his preparation for and performance in the role of Wolverine, aimed to expend no more than 85 per cent of his energy, in the knowledge this would enable him to function optimally over extended production periods.

If we are to keep our own performance levels high and to optimise our resources and systems, we should be aiming for a maximum energy expenditure of 85 per cent.

This 15 per cent margin might seem arbitrary, or too little, and in many ways it’s more about what happens in our heads than about watching the clock. It’s about performing at a steady pace, always with this tiny bit of room to breathe, not as though you are constantly catching up or struggling. You will feel in control instead of overwhelmed and exhausted from pushing yourself (or those around you) too far.

Of course, there will always be things outside your control: traffic jams, flight delays and other unexpected obstacles.  Having that buffer means you have the time, space and energy to responds positively to changing circumstances, and often have the capacity to take advantage of them.

We are all living in an epidemic of urgency and busyness. Unless we are flat out, working ridiculous hours, we are judged, and we often judge ourselves, as lazy or unproductive.

Urgency is the new black. ‘Busy’ is the natural response to ‘How’s work?’ The effect is cultures that pride themselves on ‘fast-moving’ or ‘adaptive’ workplaces. But they are often white-collar sweat shops, pushing people beyond their limits, and the result is burnout.

Matthew Bidwell, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says of managers that when they can’t measure outputs easily, they will measure inputs, such as how long you are spending at work.

The industrial revolution specifically linked time to money as the advent of artificial lighting enabled 10-to 16-hour workdays. It wasn’t until Henry Ford introduced the eight-hour workday, and profits increased exponentially, that people started to think differently about productivity by the hour. His profitable methods, in effect, refunded two to eight hours to his workers every day.

In a culture that values hard work and productivity, we feel we are ‘winning’ when we are going hard all the time. Because being busy increases our level of (self-) importance and can become addictive, we may feel guilty or ashamed when we aren’t busy doing stuff. So we have a bit of conditioning to undo!

Instead of trading time for money, we need to trade energy for impact. For example, we are all familiar with the model that says I give you x hours of my time in exchange for y dollars. But what if we instead focused on the idea that I give you energy, value and impact in return for dollars?

Instead of thinking about how many hours I need to put in, I think about exchanging the most valuable and impactful work each day.  

Being less busy isn’t the issue. The real opportunity here is to take time out. To stop and take stock of where you are at and make some decisions about how you want to work.

Without some level of mastery and control over your time, at best you will lose opportunities and at worst you will become ill.


Written by Donna McGeorge.

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Donna McGeorge
Donna McGeorge is a speaker, author and mentor who helps people work smarter. Using a creative, practical approach, she improves workplace effectiveness while challenging thinking on leadership, productivity and virtual work. She is the author of 3 books, ‘The 25-Minute Meeting: Half the Time, Double the Impact’ and ‘The First 2 Hours: Making Better Use of Your Most Valuable Time’, and more recently, The 1 Day Refund: Take Back Time, Spend It Wisely published by John Wiley.


Donna McGeorge is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.