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Why you need margins as an entrepreneur or business leader

Posted by Grace Townsley

July 15, 2021

Many entrepreneurs and business leaders find themselves tangled in the myth of total efficiency. This myth is toxically invasive in business culture. Consider the common catchphrase “time is money.” It is a key example of how we have deeply linked efficiency with business productivity.

  If you are an entrepreneur starting out on your own, or with a small team, you have undoubtedly felt the pressure of having numerous roles to fill yourself with only the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else. You may be your own CEO, marketing director, bookkeeper, project manager, hiring manager, and more– all before lunch on Monday. And the stakes are high, if you do not fill these roles your fragile business could crumble before it even has the chance to take off. 

  With so much on the line, it is natural to curse the enemy of wasted time. After all, time might be the only thing we can control, right?


Newsflash: Our brains can’t actually “hurry up”

The fact is that thinking can’t be sped up, and it is impossible to manage 100% of wasted time out of our day. Management consultant Tom DeMarco writes in Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency  that many organizations have bought into the myth of total efficiency, only to realize that scheduling away margins leads to major work backup, employee burnout, and organizational stress. It turns out that the “hurry up” message actually harms company culture more than allowing for downtime in the day. 


Defining “slack time”

  Have you ever been stuck in a traffic slow-down, only to realize there was nothing actually holding up the road except the cars slamming on their brakes because they were traveling too close to one another? If each car had maintained a little more distance from the car in front of it, the bottleneck could have been entirely avoided.

This is how slack time operates. Slack is a margin made in anticipation of the unexpected. This margin is a protection against project bottlenecks, space to step back and reflect on progress overall, or time to give your brain a needed break so it is fresh for the next task.

Slack time is our rocket booster, not our enemy

The “hurry up” business culture that strives for efficiency actually cripples companies because bottlenecks become breaking points, your overwhelmed and tired brain can’t make healthy decisions, and there isn’t room for thinking up new ideas.

All this because we confuse efficiency with effectiveness. Efficiency is having no waste while doing whatever we’re doing. Effectiveness is doing the right thing,regardless of the time spent daydreaming in the process. And margin is necessary for boosting effectiveness.

How can you add margins back in?

  • Schedule a little free time in your day.

    Planning to take an extra 30 minutes at lunch to do something creative gives your brain a chance to decompress and relax before picking up your next task. This buffer also gives you space in case a project gets delayed, or a meeting runs long.

  • Be comfortable with not working.

    If you or a team member finish a task early, it is okay to take a break instead of picking up the next to-do just to get ahead. Rewarding yourself with a margin and creating a culture of slack time protects you and your team from the pressure of busywork– wasted work done just for appearance’s sake.

  • Reduce the pressure around you.

    Resist the urge to promise a timeline or deliverable that is not realistic for your business. If a project will require you and your team to put in overtime, push out other projects, or absorb all margins in the month, consider if the project is worth the impact it will have on your business. You may find your clients more willing to accept a longer timeline than you think, especially if your healthy company is rising as an industry leader. 

Remember, margins hold relentless power. Mental health, employee satisfaction, and innovation have no price tag. One of the surest ways to protect these assets is to prioritize margins in your business.


Grace Townsley
Grace Townsley

As a professional copywriter in the finance and B2B space, Grace Townsley offers small business leaders big insights—one precisely chosen word at a time. Let's connect!

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