Give yourself a margin of safety

Eoin Everard

In late August of 2005, one of the most dangerous tropical storms in history began brewing.

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico were unusually warm that month, and the high temperatures transformed the ocean basin into a giant cauldron with the optimal conditions for growth.

As the tropical storm cut across the tip of Florida and entered the Gulf, it immediately began to swell. In less than 24 hours, the storm doubled in size. And as it grew into a full-blown hurricane, the weather experts gave it a name: Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina churned through the tropical waters of the Gulf and quickly escalated to peak intensity. It ripped through the atmosphere with remarkable force, registering gusts of wind that exceeded 175 mph (280 km/h ) and lasted for more than a minute. By the time the storm hit the southeastern coast of Louisiana on August 29, Hurricane Katrina was nearly 120 miles wide.

Within minutes of Hurricane Katrina reaching New Orleans, the levees built to keep water out began to fail. The waters breached the levees and flood walls of New Orleans in more than 50 different places. Entire districts became submerged in more than 10 feet of water. Evacuation routes were destroyed as bridges and roads collapsed. At Memorial Medical Centre in the heart of New Orleans, the surging water killed the backup generators. Without power, temperatures inside the hospital rose to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit as doctors and nurses took turns manually pumping each breath into dying patients in a desperate attempt to keep people alive.

The margin of safety

The great mistake of Hurricane Katrina was that the levees and flood walls were not built with a proper “margin of safety”. The engineers miscalculated the strength of the soil the walls were built upon. As a result, the walls buckled and the surging waters poured over the top, eroding the soft soil and magnifying the problem. Within a few minutes, the entire system collapsed.

This term, margin of safety, is an engineering concept used to describe the ability of a system to withstand loads that are greater than expected.

Imagine you are building a bridge. The maximum weight for a fully loaded commercial truck is around 80,000 pounds (36,000 kg ), but any decent engineer will build a bridge that can safely carry vehicles weighing far more. You don't want to drive an 80,000-pound truck across a bridge that can only hold 80,001 pounds. Just to be safe, the engineer might build the bridge to handle five times the expected weight, say 400,000 pounds. This additional capacity is known as the margin of safety.

Of course, maintaining a proper margin of safety is crucial not only in construction and engineering, but also in many areas of daily life.

How to use a margin of safety in real life

There are many ways to implement a margin of safety in everyday life. The core idea is to protect yourself from unforeseen problems and challenges by building a buffer between what you expect to happen and what could happen. This mental model is widely useful on a day-to-day basis because uncertainty creeps into every area of life. Let's explore a few ways we can use this concept to live better.

Time management

One of the keys to being prompt and reliable is to use a margin of safety when scheduling your day. If it takes 10 minutes to get somewhere, don't wait to leave until 11 minutes beforehand. Instead, leave 30 minutes beforehand. Similarly, if it always seems to take an extra five minutes to wind down a meeting, then don't schedule meetings back-to-back.

If you are always running late it is because you are living your life without a margin of safety. There will always be delays in the real world. When everything has to go perfectly for you to be on time, you are not going to be on time very often. Give yourself a healthy margin of safety.


With endurance and strength training you can use a margin of safety by finishing each set with at least one repetition left in the tank. This strategy ensures you can complete each repetition with proper technique and reduces the odds of injury. Training to failure eliminates your margin of safety. It is the same with endurance running. If you leave each training session feeling you would be able to do one more then you will be ready for training again earlier than if you constantly cut out your margin of safety.

Similarly, strength coaches often prevent their athletes from attempting to lift as much weight as possible for a single repetition. Instead, they only allow their athletes to select a weight they can do for at least three repetitions. (Elite sports teams often test a three-rep max, not a one-rep max. ) This strategy creates a margin of safety and helps prevent injury during training by never placing athletes under a maximal load.


Having healthy food available that can be quickly cooked up or has been cooked up the day before is always a great idea. That way if something comes up you are not resorting to go to a chipper for your dinner. With our Pilates programmes at we give simple recipes so that you can have easy to make porridge bread or protein pancakes available if having to travel so you don’t end up eating white bread sandwiches. Have something prepared just in case and you will be rarely caught out.

Mobility and stretching

We also give on our Pilates programme a 20-minute foam rolling and stretching routine. Each muscle in the body has a “stress-strain curve” which describes how far a muscle can stretch before reaching the point of failure. Injury often occurs near the extreme end of this curve. The closer you get to the limits of your range of motion, the more strain your muscles endure.

Practicing stretching and mobility exercises can help expand your range of motion and widen your stress-strain curve. This helps to keep your normal movements in the middle of the curve and away from the extremes where injury is more likely to occur. In other words, it is not necessary to be as flexible as a yoga teacher, but it's nice to have a good margin of safety in your mobility to prevent injury.

Leave room for the unexpected

Utilising a margin of safety can serve you well in nearly any area of life.

All information — no matter how bulletproof it may seem — comes with some degree of error. The future is uncertain and life seems to be getting more complicated. A margin of safety acts as a buffer against the unknown, the random, and the unseen.

The world is more uncertain now than ever before. There is too much information for one person to handle, too many moving pieces for one person to manage. This is why the greatest benefit that a margin of safety provides might be reduced stress and overwhelm. Nobody can predict the future, but there is a sense of quiet confidence that comes over you when you know you are capable of handling the uncertainties of life.

If your life is designed only to handle the expected challenges, then it will fall apart as soon as something unexpected happens to you. Always be stronger than you need to be. Always leave room for the unexpected.


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