Do you think about margins in life like a business thinks about profit margins?
For business, the different between its total/gross revenue (income) and its expenses is its margin. Without margin, you can never grow. Clearly a negative margin means you are going backwards, headed to bankruptcy or liquidation.
Life follows a similar paradigm. While few of us think about margins in life, the dynamic is still present.
Life margins give us a better sense of balance between work, life and faith. Rather than seeking the elusive notion of life balance as its own end game, you can seek margins and a sense balance becomes a pleasant reward.
In his excellent book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D. describes margin like this:
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. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.
If we were equipped with a flashing light to indicate “100 percent full,” we could better gauge our capacities. But we don’t have such an indicator light, and we don’t know when we have overextended until we feel the pain. As a result, many people commit to a 120 percent life and wonder why the burden feels so heavy. It is rare to see a life pre-scheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that God sends our way.
When we run at full speed all the time, we burn out. Our tanks get empty. We suffer mental and emotional breakdowns. I’m not trying to over-dramatize this issue, but talking about these extremes gets us to a better understanding.
Here’s an example. I am overwhelmed at the number of young people who, when asked “how are you doing?”, respond “I am so tired!” Is that you? I ask tired over what?
Yes, maybe you have filled your time with countless obligations to do things, running here and there. Young, growing families feel the tug of this tiredness for having chased little kids all day long. I get that (been there, done it).
Creating margin starts with better management of obligations. The first key is to say “NO” on a regular basis. Just stop taking on all the commitments that others may place on you.
Being a man of faith, I submit to the idea that we are all here for a bigger purpose; a divine appointment. We need to be good stewards of the things God has given us. This includes not just money, but time, relationships, knowledge, and wisdom and so much more.
We all have the mandatory commitments; job, family, and perhaps church. On top of those demands, if our days are consumed with less than meaningful trivia, we are not being good stewards. Saying no to certain people and events gives us margin to use for the greater good, which, ironically, often involves other people and events.
Therefore, having margin means we still have something to give to the greater good; our family, our friends, or our communities.
When we give in this way (again, it’s not all about money) we receive the blessing of knowing others have been helped. Getting outside of ourselves and sharing life with others brings the sense of balance. It rewards you with a new found energy for life.
I was fortunate to live this path in 2008. During the U.S. financial crisis and recession, I had to close a company I had worked for 5 years to build. It was brutal both emotionally and financially. At the bottom of the trough, I chose to create a non-profit for job seekers, called Jobs Ministry Southwest (JMS). We were a non-denominational, faith based ministry. While I could have been overcome with grief about losing my company, I chose to adjust my margins. I made an intentional decision to get out of myself and do something for others.
JMS opened in September of that year. Then, over the next several years, we served over 2,500 professionals who were in transition. They had suffered life altering job loss. JMS helped them through those changes.
Creating more margin involves making some tough choices. When those choices are made for the right reasons, not selfish ones, you will be blessed by the outcome.
Hi, I am Doug Thorpe. Author, speaker, entrepreneur, and business coach.