As the pages of the calendar keep turning, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time recently. Actually, this is something I regularly have tried to do – the periodic evaluation and recalibration of what I do during my waking hours. I think we all can agree that time (not money) is our most precious resource, and we’re specifically encouraged to make the very most of our time on earth – “recognizing and taking advantage of each opportunity and using it with wisdom and diligence.”
Now of course, I don’t have perfect control over how I spend each hour of consciousness during the day, because I’m not just responsible for myself – but also for my wife and my child. Plus, to whom much is given, much is required, and I know I am called to pour myself out to bless and invest in others outside of my family that God has specifically put in my life.
That said, I’ve been reminded about the concept of Margin recently, and have felt led to reassess whether I have intentionally included it in my life. Margin is “the space between our load and our limits,” according to author Richard Swenson. He goes on to say that margin is “something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations” and “the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”
Margin is “the space between our load and our limits,” or “something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations.”
I read Dr. Swenson’s book over fifteen years ago, and it showed me that it’s tremendously unwise to operate at 100% or 110% or whatever percentage our productivity-obsessed and accomplishment-driven culture expects from us. If we do, we have no room to handle the (unpredictable) vagaries or (predictable) vicissitudes of life when they happen. And when they do, we struggle mightily in a number of ways.
Recently, a lot of crappy things have happened in our household:
My car’s transmission went out.
A lot of our landscaping got diseased and had to be removed before it killed absolutely everything.
Our sprinkler system had problems.
Our dishwasher broke.
Every family member got really sick for weeks at a time.
We had significant injuries from sports.
I could go on and on.
If we have margin in our lives – where our current load is under our limit and there is breathing room to handle the unexpected and unscheduled, we can more pleasantly deal with these setbacks. However, if these things happen when we are already operating at (or over) our capacity, we become somewhat ugly versions of ourselves:
We are very grumpy, irritable, and snappy.
We are much more silent and moody around each other.
We don’t compliment each other, thank each other, or love each other in tangible ways.
The atmosphere is palpably (and painfully) tense.
I think this is because Rachel and I are feel completely overwhelmed with whatever new problem has arisen, specifically because we do not have time, energy, or capacity to handle it.
If no one ever takes a step back, this could be the pattern of your life. Your new norm. Where you can’t even remember a time when members of your household were joyful, and easy-going, and conversational, and genuinely happy to be with one another, or even happy to be alive. All of this happens subtly, but unmistakably and insidiously. Like being silently flanked by the enemy and then completely ambushed and annihilated. Or like cancerous cells dividing and replicating without your knowledge, before invading and destroying the organs necessary to your survival.
What’s the solution?
Well, we can’t prevent crappy things from happening sometimes. They just will. You know this. It stinks, but it’s true.
We can, however, intentionally carve out margin in our lives to serve as a buffer to more readily (and cheerfully) handle whatever new misery comes our way. But most people just don’t bother. They are often too slammed and stressed out to even stop to consider the life benefits that might accrue if they reapportion their time to include more margin. And so they just keep living life as usual, hoping that nothing completely awful happens to them, and then dysfunctionally and often disastrously cope with it when it does – in ways that negatively affect their health, their future, and their relationships.
Most people just keep living life as usual, hoping that nothing completely awful happens to them, and then dysfunctionally and often disastrously cope with it when it does.
It’s interesting to note that pretty much everyone believes in the idea of setting aside money for a rainy day in a savings account or investment vehicle. You know, to cover expenses just in case something bad happens. However, they don’t apply the same wisdom when it comes to their time.
I didn’t either while growing up – I was such a hard charger, saying yes to everything, working as much as I possibly could early in the morning until late at night, and on holidays and on weekends just to get ahead. And so when bad things happened, I would just rage and seethe and think the world was set against me (a perspective that is not only unhealthy but childish and self-centered).
I was such a hard charger, saying yes to everything, working as much as I possibly could early in the morning until late at night, and on holidays and on weekends just to get ahead.
And that perspective and mindset started a domino effect that repelled people from me in a season where I wanted and needed them to be close. And it took me years to dig out from under a nihilistic, cynical mentality that may very well have been preventable had I lived with more margin in my life.
My final illustration to convey the importance of margin will be extremely accessible to Christians. We tithe – or give at least 10% of our gross income to God – believing in faith that 90% with His blessing in our lives will go much farther than 100% without His blessing. Said another way, when I operate my life on 90% of my income (instead of choosing to operate on 100%), I’m making room for Him to move – I’m giving Him space and margin to have His hand on my finances – to multiply, safeguard, and protect what I am earning and investing. Otherwise, He is blocked from intervening and is left on the outside. I don’t want that.
It is the same thing with our time. I think we should be operating at 90% (or less) and not 100% or more, just to ensure that we have adequate margin in our lives. Even if bad things never came our way, my resolve to live with childlike faith demands the conviction that 90% of my time spent with His blessing will go much farther than 100% spent without His blessing. And that belief has proven itself true time and time again – with my finances and with my time.
Just like with tithing, believe in faith that 90% of your time spent with His blessing will go much farther than 100% spent without His blessing.
I encourage you to create margin in your life. Start with an honest assessment of how you spend every hours each day and each week, and reshuffle, delete, and re-optimize so that you are not overloaded anymore. Say NO more often and intentionally choose to undercommit rather than overcommit. Continually ask for help from others in your circle. Get someone to point out where there might be major inefficiencies in what you’re doing each day. Be humble enough to field and implement new ideas to streamline your workflow in order to reduce your workload.
Say NO more often and intentionally choose to undercommit rather than overcommit.
Living with margin is another way to demonstrate that you really do trust Him fully, and you know that faith pleases God more than anything. Plus, I promise it will lead to a healthier, happier you, and better relationships with your loved ones. But it’s up to you. It won’t happen naturally. Start today, and reach out if you need any help or input – I’m here and happy to assist and encourage you along the way!
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