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Life's Margins

by Rebecca Oliver, SSWAA Executive Director

Reading is a part of our lives. For some, reading is required for school or study. For others, reading is a means of pleasure or relaxation. Reading can take on many forms. Some, like my mother and me, prefer to read a good “old-fashioned” paper book/novel. I enjoying having the book in my hands and viewing the print on paper. Others, like my husband, prefer to download a book to their phone or tablet and read an electronic version of a book. Regardless of the format (physical or electronic) day to day life presents many opportunities for reading. We read news articles, calendar entries, work articles, meeting minutes, magazine articles, blog posts, journal articles, social media posts, and even recipes.

Each day, many of us read information in a variety of formats and don’t necessarily think of how that information is displayed. We may not notice the font style. We may not notice the formatting. We may not notice the layout of the headings or page numbers. However, there is a group of professionals who are very mindful of the details of the printed page. Typography is the art and strategic practice of designing with intentionality the layout of a printed page.

Would it surprise you to know that for a typical 6”x9” book, taking into account the recommended margin settings, that when reading said book, only 63% of the page contains words? Would it surprise you to know that on average, the margins of a book this size would account for around 34% of the page? That means about 1/3 of the page is blank. What is often referred to as negative space. Why do the margins take up so much space?

Interestingly there are a number of reasons for the margins. Some of these reasons are quite practical. For example, if you prefer to read a physical copy of a book (actual paper) like I do, what if there were no margins? How would you comfortably hold the book? Would it become an annoyance to have to change your grip of the book regularly so that you did not miss the words hidden under your fingers? Likewise, would you enjoy twisting and bending the pages of your book so that you could read the words that would be crammed into the binding of the book? Additionally, do you think the book would be as calming or aesthetically pleasing if the words ran all the way to the edge of the page? Or would the pages of the book appear cluttered and less inviting?

Margins have a meaningful purpose. The blank space provided by the margins is there for a reason.

If our lives are like the pages of a book, our lives need margins as well. Our lives’ pages need some blank space. If you will allow me to make this analogy, our work life may parallel a book in a number of ways. Let’s consider that our work is the written word on the pages of a novel. Our work is meaningful and exciting. Our professional story has many twists and turns and the plot may be rich with characters and content. Hopefully, each of us finds joy and meaning in our work. But, we also must be aware of the margins. If we allow our work to dominate our life, the pages of our lives’ book become cluttered and overwhelming. How can we make sure our lives have margins – have blank space?

  • Protect the blank space by saying “no.” Many opportunities come our way and we are asked to do many things. Often these “things” are good and important tasks. However, it is imperative that we learn to say “no.” Saying “no” allows us space for rest and relaxation. Saying “no” allows us to be at our best for the things to which we have committed. Also, saying “no”, allows someone else the opportunity to say “yes” and to grow/learn/contribute through the task.

  • Intentionally build blank space into your schedule. Give yourself permission to schedule some down time into your day. Perhaps you spend the first 15 minutes of your day meditating or reading an inspirational text over a cup of coffee. Maybe you protect your schedule for 25 minutes mid-day to sit, breathe, and refocus over your lunch. Practice mindfulness techniques before a challenging meeting or after a stressful interaction. Or, maybe an end of day routine provides you the blank space needed to refresh: a walk after work, relaxing music on your drive home, or unplugging for 20 minutes before bed.

  • Create blank space in your physical environment. Do what you can to create a relaxing space in your office. Spend some time each day cleaning up clutter. Make sure your space is warm and inviting without being too stimulating or over decorated. If possible, consider using ambient lighting and soothing music when appropriate.

So, how are the margins of your life? Is your work spilling over into your margins resulting in a feeling of anxiety? Are the activities of the day dominating your time, causing your life to feel cluttered and without rest? How will you protect your margins?

With summer around the corner and vacation on the way, when you pick up a good summer read, maybe you will look at the margins in a new way. Perhaps you will notice the blank space and delight in it as much as in the written word, knowing the purpose and value of the margins.


Rebecca K. Oliver is the Executive Director of the School Social Work Association of America. Prior to becoming the Executive Director, Mrs. Oliver served on the SSWAA Board of Directors and has over 20 years experience working as a school social worker. In her current role with SSWAA, Rebecca is able to support school social workers across the nation and advocate for the profession about which she is so passionate. When not working, Rebecca enjoys traveling with her husband Jon, singing, running, reading, doing home-improvements, and outdoor activities including walks with her two dogs, Abby & Buddy.

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