Inside: Are you overwhelmed and exhausted by your non-stop pace of life? Check out these effective strategies to help you start living with margin.

Crouching in my parent’s closet, I flipped through my dad’s stashed-away copy of First Things First by Stephen Covey. I was only 12 years old, and adult life seemed so complicated. The grown-up concepts in the classic productivity book both fascinated—and baffled—me.

Today, I’m a recovering productivity nerd. For all my life, I’ve followed some system of productivity, whether it be someone else’s or my own. I’ve chased the goal of getting more done in less time. 

But now, I recognize the dark side of productivity culture. The whole time I’ve been missing one key ingredient: margin. Chances are that you are, too.

Here’s What You Should Be Aware Of

In First Things First, Stephen Covey lays out his Big Rocks illustration. He uses a glass jar to represent a person’s life:

·       The big rocks represent our main priorities.

·       The pebbles represent the urgent, but less important priorities.

·       The sand represents the details that don’t matter much, but still take up time.

If we try to cram all of them into the jar, then the big rocks won’t fit. We won’t have time for our main priorities. But if we schedule our big rocks first, we can fit the remaining pebbles and sand around them.

Here’s the problem.

If you’re like most people, you keep piling on pebbles and sand. You don’t leave any space at the top of the jar. The sand might as well be quicksand as you drown in overcommitment. 

You end up with a life without margin.

The Danger of Living Without Margin

According to experts, the optimal fuel-efficient speed for a car is approximately 55 mph. If we were to drive a car at 85+ mph all the time, it’d cause extra wear and tear to the engine and other parts. We’d spend much more on gas. And we’d be at the mechanic more often than necessary.

As our Creator, God designed us to live at an optimal speed, not too fast or slow. In our modern society, however, we live at a frenetic pace, leading to breakdowns in our spiritual, physical, and mental health. 

When we ignore our natural God-given limits, we disregard the way God designed us. Pushing through our bodies’ warning signals to slow down, we’re convinced that we know better than our Maker. We believe we could do everything if we could just strive harder. 

Overworking a bit here or there becomes a way of life. In the meantime, our bodies keep score with increased tension, irritability, frustration, and anxiety. The lack of margin causes us to feel downright miserable.

What is Margin? 

Margin comes in different forms, but in terms of our schedule, margin refers to free time. In his book Margin, Richard Swenson defines it as the following: 

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations.

Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.

Living with margin is a counter-cultural way of life.

Maintaining margin means intentionally slowing down and not attempting to maximize every minute of every day. It’s traveling through life at 55 mph while everyone else is doing 85. And it means you might end up “wasting” a few minutes here and there.

As a Christian, you might find yourself using the free moments to catch your breath, talk with God, let your mind wander—or do nothing at all.

Creating margin won’t come naturally for those of us who are used to running at 110% of our energy and time reserves. It may even be uncomfortable, but living with margin is 100% worth it.

Why You Need Margin

Here are some of the benefits of creating space in your life:

1. Better health

Having a jam-packed schedule raises our chronic stress levels. Maintaining some downtime gives us breathing room and reduces burnout. Living with margin also helps us have more energy during the day and sleep better at night.

2. Improved focus and creativity 

When our brains aren’t overloaded, we focus better. Research also shows that downtime improves our creativity. And if you’re stuck trying to solve a problem, stepping away enables your creative brain to generate more ideas.

3. Better memory

If you think your memory has reached new levels of fogginess, it’s not necessarily you. Your brain has difficulty remembering essential information when it’s awash with non-essential details. (Who said that thing on Twitter again?)

Living with margin gives your brain a break, allowing it to recall information better.

4. More reflection

Margin gives us time to process, not just consume, information. It gives us time to reflect on upcoming decisions or the last conversation we had. It helps us figure out if we’re going in the right direction in life, rather than speeding through it.

5. Increased resilience

In modern society, efficiency is prioritized at the expense of resilience. But the faster our pace, the less resilient we’ll be. It’s difficult to get through today (let alone tomorrow) when we’re running on fumes.

Incorporating margin today increases our resilience for tomorrow’s challenges.

6. Deeper relationships

Living with margin will give you more time to connect with God throughout the day. You’ll also be more available to your family and friends. When you stop doing, you start being with the people you care about. 

7. More availability

Living with margin also helps us obey God better. When we have buffer room in our schedules, we’re more in tune with God’s leading.

Rather than dismissing interruptions as annoyances, we have room for the unforeseen. We’re more patient and flexible with other people. 

In our 24-7 culture, margin is the one thing we desperately need. Here are some ways that you can start living with margin.

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How to Create Margin in Your Life

1. Wake up 15 minutes earlier.

One way to create margin is to start the day slightly earlier and spend that time with God. If we can make sacrifices to get up earlier for our jobs, kids, or “me time,” we can do the same for Him. Let this time set the tone for the rest of your day.

When we seek God first, He will give us the peace and wisdom to live at a more sustainable pace. Because living with margin is counter-cultural, we need His help to do so.

2. Figure out why you overcommit. 

Be honest with yourself about why you live without margin.

Are you overambitious? Do you want to have it all? Are you a people pleaser? Or you don’t trust others to get it done? Is it FOMO? Do you feel lonely when you’re not working? Or you don’t know how to rest?

Identifying the problem will help solve it. If you don’t first pinpoint the root causes, you’ll slip right back into a life without margin.

3. Determine your rocks (main priorities). 

Using Covey’s example above, determine the big rocks in your life jar. Figure out your purpose and commitments. Know the main priorities around which you’re creating margin. 

Jim Rohn once said, “A lot of people don’t do well simply because they major in minor things.” Don’t make the mistake of creating margin around the wrong things.

4. Batch the sand (the small stuff).

The sand in your life jar might consist of e-mails, social media, errands, and sorting those mysterious “home warranty” letters that keep appearing in your mailbox.

Set aside a designated period every day or week to tackle similar kinds of tasks at the same time (known as batching). Studies show that batching work makes you get the job done in less time. 

Complete all these tasks during these set periods. Don’t let the sand seep into every nook and cranny of your free time, robbing you of precious margin.

5. Prune your commitments regularly.

Prayerfully evaluate your life to determine which commitment(s) you need to drop. What should you take off your plate today? What’s one thing that God has not asked you to do? 

Like our closets, our schedules might become full and cluttered again over time. Many of us are like activity magnets, committing to new activities wherever we go. If this sounds like you, set a reminder on your phone to spring-clean your commitments each season.

6. Accept your limitations. 

From now on, aim to fill your plate to 90%, rather than 100%.  You cannot do everything. And God didn’t create you to do so.

He only wants you to do the work that He intended for you to do beforehand. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV, emphasis mine). 

7. Wait before you accept a commitment. 

Protect the new margins in your schedule. Rather than automatically replying “yes” to every opportunity, make your new default be “let me get back to you.” 

Then sleep on it. Pray for God’s guidance and wisdom. It’s much easier than backing out later or becoming resentful.

8. Expect problems (add buffer time).

We live in a world of thorns and thistles, but many of us schedule our days as if we live in a perfect world. I know I’m guilty of this.

Factor in time for potential problems. Leave for your doctor’s appointment a little earlier. Anticipate that you’ll run into snags at the DMV (who doesn’t?). And you know your cheap printer will have a paper jam when you print your next report.

9. Incorporate regular downtime.

If your dog takes more bathroom breaks than you, you might need to change your habits. Your brain can only concentrate for about 90 minutes at a time. Take micro-breaks throughout your workday, even if to stretch for a few minutes.

Be sure to block out longer periods of rest as well. One of the best ways to do this is to keep a weekly Sabbath with your family.

10. Monotask when possible.

Frequent task-switching increases cognitive overload and stress. The more we multi-task, the more overloaded our days will feel.

When possible, do one work project at a time. Skip the podcast when you take a walk around the block. Turn off the music when you drive home. Use the time to transition and process your day.

You’ll be more present with your family when you arrive home.

11. Maintain a lower-information diet.

Tim Ferriss first coined the term low-information diet, where you decrease the amount of information you consume to free up time and brain power. If you want an effective way to increase margin, the lowest-hanging fruit is cutting down on social media and news.

Another way is by reducing the number of YouTube videos, podcasts, audiobooks, and articles you listen to or read. The benefit is that you’re able to reflect more deeply on what you do consume. 

12. Avoid social comparison.

It’s easy to be influenced by other people who can seem to handle more than you—and pile more on your plate as a result. In the Parable of the Talents, we see that not everyone has been given the same capacities.

Matthew 25:15 says, “To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability.” 

Focus on being faithful with the talents that God has given you. He won’t give you the grace to handle what He hasn’t intended for you to do.

13. Stop rushing through your to-do list.

Sometimes, God wants to interrupt our daily routine with a divine appointment, an opportunity for us to bless someone or for someone to bless us.

We miss these opportunities when we’re rushing to finish the current task or plowing through a to-do list. Or racing that slow driver in the fast lane on the way to our next appointment.  

The way to stay available is to be open and have time for your neighbor. Your to-do list will never be complete. Even if you finished it, there’d be something new to do. So let’s stop the mad rush for that imaginary finish line.

Me and My Younger Self

If I could turn back the hands of time, there’s much I would say to my 12-year-old productivity-minded self. I’d warn her of the dangers of being too productive. I’d tell her not to take literally the self-help advice that says, “Make the most out of every minute.”

I’d encourage her not only to create margin but also to embrace it. 

What would you tell your younger self?

Recap: How to Create Space in Your Life

1. Wake up 15 minutes earlier.

2. Figure out why you overcommit. 

3. Determine your rocks (main priorities). 

4. Batch the sand (the small stuff).

5. Prune your commitments regularly.

6. Accept your limitations. 

7. Wait before you accept a commitment. 

8. Expect problems (add buffer time).

9. Incorporate regular downtime.

10. Monotask when possible.

11. Maintain a lower-information diet.

12. Avoid social comparison.

13. Stop rushing through your to-do list.

How much margin do you have in your life? What could you do to increase it?

For more on this topic:

How to Keep the Sabbath in Modern Times

How a Low Information Diet Can Help You with Information Overload

14 Ways to Stay Connected to God

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Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

About the Author

Helen Rees

I am a Christian, wife, stepmom, psychiatric nurse, and writer. I write about research-backed ways to navigate the challenges of fast-paced modern life while growing in your Christian faith.

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