Perhaps one of the most overlooked productivity hacks has to do with the concept of margin. That is, creating space in your workflow for not actively working on a project. That might seem counterintuitive, but building in empty space is actually integral to the overall project management process, especially when collaborating with others.

Consider the planning and execution of a fundraising appeal. There are many steps involved, from developing a marketing concept, to deciding on the contents of the package, preparing a reply device, writing copy, crafting call-outs and underlined words, pulling together graphical design elements, working with a mail house, and getting everything approved by the powers that be. There are a lot of moving parts.

The thing about moving parts, though, is that they break down from time to time. Real life intervenes. People get sick, leave for new jobs, give birth, procrastinate, or they forget to back up their work in the cloud, and before you know it the best laid plans of mice and men go horribly awry. That doesn’t have to be a problem, however, if you plan for it. Just assume it’s all going to go to hell at some point, and then create the margin for dealing with it as part of the plan itself.

For instance, I now use a three-month planning cycle for every direct mail appeal I produce. It’s not that it takes that long to craft it and get it mailed. It doesn’t, but the process does involve working with other departments and off campus vendors. Each of those folks have multiple projects and deadlines they are juggling, and I have to recognize that my project is not the only thing in their lives.

Professionalism demands that I give my materials to the people who need them well in advance of the drop date so they are able to put things into their workflows in a way that makes sense to them. That’s just basic common sense, but it also makes allowances for the unexpected. And there is always the unexpected.

Recently, a colleague of mine who was responsible for a critical aspect of a project had to undergo a sudden and unexpected medical procedure – nothing too serious, but it did require some downtime in the weeks leading up to the drop date. The old me would have been tearing my hair out trying to figure out a solution, but the new me handed over the materials three months in advance and most of what needed to get done was completed before this sudden emergency.

Had I failed to build in margin, had I given the materials two weeks in advance (which would still have been plenty of time for my colleague to get things done without scrambling) we would have missed the drop, and I would have gone bald prematurely.

The point is that so often in our project planning we place an exclusive focus on what to do, in what order, and when. That is not bad, just incomplete. Once all of that is figured out, and you have a handle on how long the project is likely to take, step back and ask yourself, “how long will this take if Jane gets pneumonia, or if the new printer goes down, or if Jack quits, or if our vendor goes out of business…” The purpose is not to wish ill on anyone, but rather to account for the X factor as much as possible.

In sales, this is known as under promise and over deliver. If the worst case scenario happens, but you still finish on time because you created adequate margin, your boss will be grateful. If nothing goes haywire and you finish well ahead of time, you boss will be downright impressed. Margin is not paranoia, it’s actually a project’s best friend.

Question: What are some ways you try to build in margin in your work?

Posted by Mark Zobel, Ph.D., C.F.R.M.

Executive Director for Philanthropy and Stewardship, and Adjunct Professor of Philanthropy at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois

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