How do you respond to the question, “How are you doing?” The standard response is often, “Doing well, staying really busy.” This statement is made as if being “really busy” is a good thing. But is it? Why do you not answer the question instead, “Well, I have been taking life at a comfortable pace, not packing my schedule, and allowing plenty of downtime”?
Our culture seems to value those who accomplish a lot, who have a lot going on, or who are “really busy.” In other words, people who live life with little to no margin. Researchers in the areas of stress management would argue that a life with no margin is really a dangerous thing. The costs of living this way outweigh the benefits. Even if the impact is not immediate, it will eventually catch up with you.
So, what is “margin”? Richard Swenson, M.D. (the author of Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives) defines margin as “the space between our load and our limits.” Implied in this definition are a couple of major concepts. The first is the idea that you have limits. The second is the idea that there should be a difference between the amount of your resources and the expenditure of those resources. Margin is the opposite of overload. Overload is when you have more on you than you have resources to accomplish.
This concept of margin makes sense with financial resources. Most people would agree that it is a good idea not to spend every penny you have. Rather, it is prudent to hold back some in reserves. Further, to spend more than you have and to be in a deficit is not sustainable. Yet, when it comes to time, physical energy, emotional resources, and relationships, you tend to expend all that you have. When you live a life without margin, it is as if you are saying that you have it all under control. Life is totally predictable. Nothing unforeseen will occur. This overestimates your abilities and resources. Unfortunately, the consequences of such a way of life could be quite damaging.
Do you really believe that you have limits? Most people give lip service to this idea, yet they live as if they do not have limits. Nature reminds us every day that we have limits. You have 24 hours in a day, you fall asleep after a certain number of hours being awake, you can only talk, move, and think so fast. Limits are all around you. Overload happens when you ignore or refuse to accept those limits. What do you do when you bump up against a limit? Do you step back? Do you learn from it? Or do you push through, trying to make it work or even worse add to your load?
Overload is a serious problem, and it is wreaking havoc for many. In some situations, overload can even be deadly! Stress based illnesses continue to be rampant despite medical advances. Our society knows what constitutes good mental and physical health yet refuses to live within the limits of what is healthy.
A little less deadly, but still having significant impact, is the cost of overload to relationships, to family, and to society. A lifestyle of pushing and ignoring limits will have a negative impact on critical areas of life. Among these negative consequences is the inability to prioritize. When operating in overload, you are not really in control. Demands, expectations, and desires are driving your decisions. Critical thinking is diminished or absent. Instead of asking what is most important, many tend to focus on the immediate or the most pressing. You might ask, “What is next?” or “What needs to happen to prevent a problem?” Hence, principle based and prioritized decisions are not being made.
You can only push too hard for so long. Eventually, you are used up. The problem is that people often do not recognize that they are headed toward burnout until it is too late. It really is easier to prevent burnout than to recover from it. The road to burnout is paved with rationalizations — you really do think you are handling it all. You ignore or dismiss the physical, relational, practical, spiritual, and emotional signs signifying that you are headed toward burnout.
When operating in overload, you do not accomplish things satisfactorily. When you have too much to do, you tend to cut corners. “Just get it done” is the thought process. Getting it done takes precedence over doing it well or with excellence. With too much to do, you make mistakes, have to redo things, and leave dissatisfied with the outcome. Maybe even more damaging is the fact that internally you are not satisfied. You are not happy with your own performance.
Overload often leads to an unbalanced life. Most of your time and resources get focused in a few areas. You neglect or exclude other areas that are important. Some of these areas of neglect include rest and recreation, deep social connection, spiritual connection, and physical health. All of these are important for health and for the life satisfaction that most people really desire. On a deep level, you may have a nagging feeling that you are not really living the life you want to live. You are not the person you really want to be. Life satisfaction comes through knowing yourself and living a life congruent with who you are, what you are about, and being who you want to be. This can only be achieved with margin. If for no other reason, you need margin because you need time to think and reflect.
If a life in overload, a life without margin, is so costly and dangerous, why do so many people live that way? In a nutshell it is because they lack boundaries. You might struggle with or lack boundaries for a number of reasons. One is the pace of life itself. Have the industrial and technological revolutions really made life easier or better? For sure they have made life more complicated and fast-paced.
It seems you have more to do and manage than ever before. In a world where you can have so much instantly at your fingertips, you can also have unrealistic expectations of how fast you can make things happen in life. Also, you have so many options and possibilities. Because there is so much that you could do, you feel there is so much you should do. Think about this for a minute!
In considering all these options, you may have fear of missing out. Many of the possibilities before you are good ones. You do not want to miss out on these enjoyable things, so you pack your life too full. You fear that if you don’t, you will have regrets.
Pressure from others may push you into overload, either because you want to keep up with and join those around you who are trying to do too much or they may pressure you to help them in their overloaded lives.
All of this can turn you into “human doings” versus “human beings.” In the fast paced, marginless life, many are defined by what they do and what they have instead of by who they are as individuals. At the root of the struggle to have boundaries is a lack of a defined self or life mission.
A healthy person who lives a healthy life with sufficient margin is a defined person. They know who they are, what is important, what they want their life to be about, and they live out of a defined value system. Whatever comes at them is filtered through this mission, and some things stay and some go based upon the underlying values and mission. To even do the work of defining yourself and what you want your life to look like will take time.
How to Add Margin to Your Life
• Be proactive rather than reactive: Is life and its frenzied pace in charge, or are you? Make intentional decisions on what you want in your life. Acknowledge limits and make intentional choices on what you will spend your resources on. To be proactive means that you have a value system that you are making decisions from and goals you are pursuing.
• Be reflective and corrective: A life with adequate margin involves regular periods of reflection and evaluation. Ask yourself hard questions:
“Why are you doing what you are doing?”
“Are you going to be happy with this decision a year from now?”
“Are you living a balanced life?”
These are just a few questions that will get you to living a principled life. Based upon your answers to such questions, be willing to make adjustments to how you are living.
• Create routines: Probably the most important routine is a morning routine as it focuses you on the day. Waking up with enough time for self-care in the morning will set the tone for the day. Other routines will help to ensure that you accomplish what you really want to. Routines can help keep out the urgent but not important things in life. Schedule breaks into your day. Try to schedule 15 minutes in between important activities. This allows you mentally to finish the previous task and prepare for what is coming next. More importantly, it helps to decrease stress levels. Add to that break some simple mindfulness in which you connect with yourself, some aspect of gratitude, and awareness of the world around you. This will help you to be more productive in the next activity you do.
• Limit social media: This important idea can be controversial with some. Social media might seem like a relaxing transition, but beware. At a minimum it is another task that requires focus, mental energy, and connection. Often it adds to the stress and pressure of life and creates unrealistic expectations on you. It is a major contributor to the “fear of missing out” syndrome.
Margin can be defined as “the space between our load and our limits.” Life is to be more than just lived. Life is more than what you accomplish. Life is to be experienced, to be enjoyed, to be stewarded all at a sustainable pace. It may seem counterintuitive, but a life with margin will be a more productive and enjoyable life. You can begin now by taking a few minutes (of margin) and reflecting upon what you have just read.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.