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Nobody’s Perfect: Why We All Need A Margin For Error

You can’t control the universe. But you can anticipate the unexpected and build the necessary wiggle room into your schedule.

A jam-packed day feels extremely efficient until it all unravels. The fatal flaw of productivity is the presumption that we can plan ahead without budgeting for the unexpected. It turns out that flexibility is a competitive advantage.

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.

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.

Ambition becomes counter-productive when you pursue your goals without the humbling realization that things seldom go as planned.

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.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (16)
  • Kristin Eide

    I am going to start scheduling a margin of error. Great tips for dealing with the unexpected, thanks!

  • Michel Scoz

    Great article… shared 4 good.

  • Graphican

    Where I agree with your approach of keeping a margin between two schedules, I want to share this would prove unproductive when things finish on time and when they don’t, the margin might appear insufficient; still causing a ripple effect in the tasks planned after the margin time. We can never plan accurately, when we cannot plan our planned activities with certainity, we can surely not plan our margin or utilize that expecting it to solve everything perfectly.

    The next generation approach would be to realize there are few things which are important than the other and also the fact that some planned activities will surely get compromised. Howerver when we are able to make a distinction between important and compromise-able tasks, then we will still utelize the whole day, without giving any margins or empty slots, and still able to get most out of time. That means we would need to have one important and couple of unimportant tasks planned in a line that if we have to comprise some, we would only compromise a minor one instead of hurting something which is equally important. 

    Now there is another level of approach which supercedes this important and compromise-able schedules approach and that is sense of direction. If we know we are moving in the right direction, doing right tasks and by giving them right time and attending people the way we should, the sense of loosing an appointments wouldn’t hurt. Disturbance in schedule is ought to happen but when it does, it wouldn’t disturb.

    Even if we stay in the same tightly planned tasks schedule and if we give extra time to some task which rightly deserves it, I would prefer to take planned one task/activity out and reschedule it instead of disturbing all the tasks lying next in line and completing them just for the sake of it. When you do something, do it the way it must be done and this is my approach towards work.

  • Term papers

    Very good information, thank you very much by the article and the quality of your Web site.

  • Scott Belsky

    And if I were to boil it all down to one point / tip for all of us…  

    Don’t trade flexibility for productivity.

  • Jeff Doubek, Day-Timer

    You CAN still achieve flexibility in your planning by simply allowing buffer time around your most influential activities each day (commuting, meetings, project tasks). I love to use time boxing in my planning so that every key task hour includes 15 minutes or so of a flexible cushion to allow for the unexpected, the distractions, and (bathroom breaks.)

    I really enjoyed this post and discussion. I linked to a few tips I wrote on time boxing in my post name.

  • kangarara

    What Tom DeMarco said 🙂

  • sportslive
  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Really excellent post Scott!

    Here’s an approach that I’ve found to be effective for being productive, allowing for margin and still keeping up a good level of focus and intensity:

    During your weekly planning, schedule in time for your most important activities earlier in the day and earlier in the week, then loosely sketch in your top “would like to do” activities.

    That way when the unexpected comes up, you can fit it in without your most important activities “falling off” the day or the week. If you end up having a meeting canceled or some other unanticipated free time, the next most important “would like to do” activity is already clear and can slide in to fill the space.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Gary B Cohen


    Can you please forward this to all my doctors. I beg them to build in a margin for error and make all of us wait! Ugh…

  • Scott Belsky

    Great idea Gary, agreed that docs often over-schedule.

  • Scott Belsky

    Great tip Elizabeth; although when scheduling meetings with other folks it may be difficult to keep the early week bias intact. But as a general principle it’s worth trying!

  • Parin Patel

    @twitter-16722173:disqus Great Tip!

    I’ll do the same thing with my days: make time for the MITs early in the day, leaving the afternoon a bit open – and it works great! 


  • essays

    Thanks for the article. Very interesting.

  • Nur Nachman - Eytan

    Is there a magic ratio that one can use to calculate margin for error? 1.2? 1.3?

  • Alighanbari

    hi i am iranian
    I sopourt fo “we are the 99 percent”
    and i am in group .

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