Jonathan brown book

Working in the Margins of Life

Since the age of 16, I’ve essentially been working a full-time job. During high school and on into university, I worked late nights and weekends nearly every day, with just a short break on the weekends and during holidays. I had to, or I wouldn’t have been able to afford a high-quality education – and to me, it was worth the sacrifice. After university, the work schedule continued as I transitioned into the conventional corporate career path. All of that changed just recently, when I quit my job in high-tech and shifted my focus to work full-time on some personal projects and living meaningfully.

After quitting my job at LinkedIn, I felt the difference in focus almost immediately. It was as if my free time had expanded to fill the entire day (which indeed it had), and I was exhilarated by the thought of all I could accomplish. Would I rather attend Mandarin classes for a few hours, or work on writing my new book? Or how about start up a newsletter? The answer: all of the above.

But as I reflect on my past couple of years spent working at LinkedIn, I realize that in my rush to work hard at my day job, I’d neglected to work on these passion projects in the margins of my life – and it showed. My desire to work on anything not related to my day job was greatly diminished, because at the end of most days I was just too mentally tired to do much else.

Before continuing further, I define “the margins” as any time outside of one’s regular working hours. It could be the hour you have before embarking on your morning commute, or the two hours spent lazing about in bed before turning in for the night. We all have this free time in our life, and it’s up to us to use it for personal growth, or mindless relaxation, or socializing. In my view, a healthy balance of the three is fine.

Forgetting to live meaningfully within the margins of our own lives is all too easy when we get overly absorbed in our own careers. This is especially true if the career path you’re on isn’t in alignment with your personal passions in life. This can result in a feeling of listlessness, and a lack of drive to push the boundaries of one’s life beyond the comfortable confines of the job one is currently in.

But no matter what line of work you’re in, you can always use the margins of your life to make serious progress on your own personal goals. Often, all that’s needed is consistency (showing up ever day), discipline, and accountability.

singapore apartment

Maximizing what happens in the margins of your life is key to progressing towards your personal and professional goals. This is true for all of us, but especially if you’re working a regular, full-time job. These are the golden hours of opportunity in the day where anything is possible, and it’s up to us to make the most of them. Below are a few tips I’ve been using recently to ensure I make the most out of the “free time” I have – I hope they’re helpful for you as well.

1. Plan out your week each Saturday. I do this with pen and paper, as I find it helps me think through what I need to get done more intentionally. For each day, sketch out the free time you’ll have, and think about how you’ll use it to work towards your long-term goals. I usually split my time equally between learning new skills, and actually working on any projects I have in flight at the moment. For you, this might mean researching future job opportunities, attending relevant networking events, or learning a new language. Whatever it is, make sure to plan your time around your goals, and invest in yourself accordingly.

2. Partner up with a friend for accountability. The best friendships are symbiotic, where both parties are invested in each other’s success. Find someone who meets that description in your life, and ask them to help keep you honest on the goals you’re working towards. This could be as formal as checking in with them once a month, or as informal as having coffee every once in a while. I have several friends I do this with, and having an accountability partner will help keep you focused and motivated towards achieving your long-term goals.

3. Get out of your bubble and network with like-minded people. Make it a goal to attend an event directly related to your personal projects at least twice a month. Meeting other people working towards similar goals is a great way to boost your motivation and spark new ideas at the same time. No matter what phase of life you’re in, there’s probably a network you can plug into. Here in Singapore at least, I use all the time – it’s got an active community, and there’s interesting events going on every day of the week.

Although I believe making the most of your free time is important, I’m not saying that relaxation isn’t. On the converse, I think a healthy balance of relaxation and forward movement is the best way to enhance your sense of well-being, while at the same time being productive.

Next week, I’ll be headed out to visit Lisbon, Portugal for the first time ever. Hoping that the intoxicating mix of cooler weather and delicious coffee will spark another burst of inspiration, as it always seems to do. If you’re going to be in town too and want to hang out, drop me a note.