Founder Diary

May 31, 2022

Margin of safety, anyone?

Margin of safety, anyone?

When was the last time you actually finished all your to-dos? Let's talk margin of safety.

First-person view of a hamster drawing a margin in a notebook
First-person view of a hamster drawing a margin in a notebook
First-person view of a hamster drawing a margin in a notebook
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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Three facts.

  • Work always takes longer than you expect (aka “Hofstadter's Law”).

  • Despite that, your plan for the day (or week) is routinely twice what you can possibly accomplish (aka planning fallacy).

  • You’re perfectly aware of both these issues but, for whatever reason, you keep stepping on the same rake over and over again (aka optimism bias).

The result: overplanning + overwhelm + overwork = unhappier you.

The solution?

Build a margin of safety.

If engineers, investors and physicians rely on this concept, it must be worth a look right?

There is, of course, a detailed engineering definition that talks about parts and structures and their capacity. But, simply put, If a beam is required to bear, say, 75 pounds, it might be built with the ability to bear 100 pounds. That 15 pound difference is the margin of safety.

In other words, the margin of safety is how much more load something (or, in our case, someone!) can take beyond the expected pressure without falling apart. So, if I lift a two-year-old toddler, I know I have some margin of safety because my back is “designed” to take more than 30 pounds. But I should probably think twice before taking an elephant baby in my arms.

Here I want to look at how we view our workday and work life and why we need to build for ourselves our own margin of safety.

You know what happens when there’s none? That’s right, things break!

Can it be negative?

When was the last time you actually finished all your to-dos for the day?

When was the last time a task actually took less time than you expected it to?

When was the last time you time you were done for the day and still had time left?

Never? That’s definitely my answer.

To-do lists and other work plans tend to be like that. Too big to fail.

What does this mean?

Well, we’re accustomed to a negative margin of safety. A negative margin of safety is a loss situation. If you had a beam that could support 100 pounds and you needed it to support 125, that would be a negative margin of safety. So, the point is that we have more plans (goals, to-dos, work in general) than we have the capacity to get done with sufficient-quality results. Instead of taking less load than our breaking point, we stay overburdened by design and set ourselves up to fail.

With a negative margin of safety, no wonder things are broken.

How to fix this?

Reverse the whole thing.

Plan little, expect even less, surprise yourself.

The solution is simple, but it’s not easy. A few thoughts and stepping stones to help.

  • You’re not a conveyor belt. We know that if a production line takes ten minutes to make a part, then ten parts will take 100 minutes. Well, it doesn’t work like that in real life (for humans that is.) If a sales call normally takes ten minutes to produce, there’s absolutely zero chance of making ten calls in 100 minutes. Hofstadter's Law states that everything always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law. So, relying on your familiarity with this adage doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but things do tend to get worse if you outright disregard it.

  • Productivity is attention management first, time and task management second. There are task switching costs. There are distractions. There are limits of concentration. Have you ever consciously earmarked time and resources to that? I bet the answer is a resounding “no.” Who in their right mind plans for such unproductive stuff? But maybe we should, because...

  • Despite your best efforts, time will be wasted. Miscalculations and mistakes, procrastination and emergencies. They are unavoidable. Accept it and move on. No matter how well aware you are of the downsides of procrastination, and no matter how determined you are to fight inefficiency, you’re going to face them anyway. No judgment. Just make sure you plan for time to be wasted.

  • Mindfulness at work is underrated. When we work on one thing at a time, we get a luxury of focus. Focus isn’t just concentration, it’s selectiveness. The more goals and tasks you pursue, the more complex the interplay among them, the fiercer their fight for your limited bandwidth, and the more messy and uneven the outcomes. So, “how about no?” The hardest thing about saying no is that you have to eliminate some exciting stuff. I know, the whole “saying no” thing is a bit overblown these days. But one way to look at it is that avoidance is bliss.

  • Solve for quality. What’s often overlooked is that mindfulness and selectiveness lead to better quality of work. Better quality means fewer mistakes. Fewer mistakes means less time wasted to correct them.

  • In the end, limits can be liberating, not just restricting. If you embrace greater limits on what you can actually accomplish and accept the reality that you just can’t be as productive as you hope, it will open the door for more meaningful work. And isn’t that the point?

“Unnatural” selection

With these under your belt, there’s a chance to go from a negative to a healthy margin of safety. Just like there’s natural selection in the wild, you can wage “unnatural selection” on your all-encompassing work ambition. The challenge is two-prone:

  1. Match your resources to the goals with the biggest potential. Eliminate the rest.

  2. Earmark way more time and resources to each goal, and task, than you think you’ll need. Even if you do this first, you’ll be forced to only leave the important stuff on the menu (see 1).

Then, actually do it.

If I think this blog post will take three hours to write, I should plan for at least five.

If you think you can go through ten to-dos in a day, make sure to eliminate, or reschedule, at least a half.

If your calculations show that a new project will take two months, there’s a fairly decent chance you’ll actually need six.

The key is to stick to “overbudgeting” (in a good sense!) even when you think it’s going to be easy-peasy. I bet more often than not you won’t find you have much left even with drastically reduced plans.

And when it does, occasionally, prove to be easy-peasy, it’s a pleasant surprise, and you have even more time to tackle your priorities.

You won’t hit 100% of your plans every time, but does it matter if the result is a happier you?

Thanks for reading!

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