Now that we have exceeded our limits—personal, emotional, relational, physical, financial—we have no margin at all.
Explaining the term ‘margin’ on the very first page, Richard Swenson (interestingly a medical doctor), author of Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Our Overloaded Lives, tells us what ‘marginless’ is:
“Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you are twenty minutes late getting out of the bank because you were ten minutes late dropping off the kids at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station—and you forgot your wallet.” And the page continues on with examples that make me alternately hyperventilate and, breath a loud sigh—ah, finally someone gets my life!
He says that we know that something isn’t right here, that it’s not supposed to be this way but that we can’t name what it is—hence his coining the term ‘margin’.
The Big Idea
The Cure for Marginless
"…seldom will be found in ‘progress’ or ‘success’. For that reason, I’m not sure how many are willing to take the cure."
Progress always give us more to do. People who are harried, just trying to survive, simply wanting to escape their suffocating schedules—this doesn’t sound like the success that comes with progress. What happened? It didn’t used to be this way. Before the mid 20th century people spent Sunday’s sitting on the porch with no plan, no need for a plan, no to do list, just engaging with one another.
If we want to have margin (and no matter how we try to fool ourselves, we just can’t go very far without margin) we have to break the addiction to progress—at least as the world measures it. Ultra wealth, education, power are the measures and there’s no way in the current 24 hour a day world to ever have enough of these—we try though and so we work toward that success every minute. Or worse, we can’t work toward it every minute so we feel badly that we aren’t. This isn’t margin either. Swenson proposes that we be measured by virtue, love, kindness toward fellow man, self-denial and humility. (You won’t make the news with these.)
Once we have come to peace with a new measure (or realistically I’ll start with a portion of that new measure), then we can subjugate the world’s measure of progress to our greater goals and our relationships.
Overload syndrome is easily misdiagnosed
"What would you think if this page had no margins?"
You’d think it was aesthetically displeasing and chaotic. Page margins are needed in order to make it easy to read the words, the sentences, the paragraphs on the page. The same is true of margin in our lives: we need space in between all the things we do in order to focus on the things we want to.
If you know someone who isn’t doing something most of their waking minutes you usually think slacker, apathetic, lack of commitment to their job, their family, the community or at the very least a weak individual. In order to get back margin in our lives we’ll have to not do something every waking minute and then we’ll be the ones labeled a slacker. It’s hard to help other people understand why you’re choosing to hold back on what they perceive to be ‘progress’.
I read this book at a time when there were acquaintances in my life who were trying to make my overloaded life even more overloaded such as wanting me to do things with them several days per week. They called me ‘antisocial’, made fun of my excuse that I wanted to be alone with my partner and no matter how many times I said no they just kept asking. I was so excited to read this book as it gave me words to describe my feelings. Don’t get too excited, even this didn’t dissuade them. They just couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to be doing something with other people every minute. After reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in World That Can’t Stop Talking, I had more words to describe my feelings, but this didn’t stop them either. I was now convinced that I had to have margin and so it was easy for me to stick to my Margin Plan and say no to them. Eventually the margin they were taking from me simply by asking stopped as well.
Marginless (or Overload Syndrome) isn’t just about doing too many things. It’s also about the emotions taken by the people asking and 25 more things causing us to feel overload. I was amazed at the list as most were things that even I would have just labeled ‘the current world’. Here are just a few from his list: change overload, media overload, debt overload, decision overload, possession overload, hurry overload.
What if we started with just one day a week with margin?
Health in the form of margin comes from contentment
"Our quest is usually not for contentment but for more."
Swenson breaks his Rx to restore margin into 4 areas, all of which have root in the practice of contentment.
Here is just one prescription per area that I am committing to:
Emotional energy – serve one another (Horace Mann said, “We must be personally kind and generous or we miss the best part of existence.”)
Physical energy – choose to get enough sleep and drink a lot of water (ok, that’s two thing, but this is the most important area for me.)
Time – create buffer zones (even 10 or 15 minutes between appointments can allow me to take a breath, take action from that appointment, prepare for the next thing. I will have to work to not let the knowledge that I have a buffer zone cause me to let the appointment run over!)
Finances – increase savings (in order to do this I will also have to decrease spending.)
Henry David Thoreau said, “I love a broad margin to my life.” We think this a wonderful approach to life but if our neighbor were to sit looking out the window every day until noon we’d think him lazy. Our modern view of time is to milk it for every second of productivity we can. I’m guilty of this view of others but it’s only out of jealousy, not because I think it’s unproductive. I must get rid of a large number of things that are keeping me from feeling I could stare out the window for periods of time. Margin also allows me to be available, to do something for someone at the last minute, to notice something beautiful, to get a new idea. The most important thing God has for me on any given day may not even be on my to do list.