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Why the Best Things Happen in the Margin

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016 on an afternoon phone call: “I’m so sorry, but I won’t be able to get that done for you this week,” I said. “Next week?” he asked. “Honestly, no. You know, I need to be straightforward. I know I’ve said ‘yes’ a lot, but I have to say ‘no’ to the whole thing…it just doesn’t seem to help me stay true to my priorities right now. So sorry. Thanks for understanding.”

Taking a moment to wipe the sweat from my brow and shake off the post-call jitters, I slumped into the comfortable chair that embraced me while in one fell swoop, I took my calendar back and let someone down.

And it felt really good. Not the letting someone down part, but the confidence had in owning my time.

I’m not an unreliable person, but once more, I fell into the trap of saying, “yes” to one too many opportunities; one too many opportunities that were destined to keep me busy but oh so far away from my purpose. And that level of busyness is the primary symptom of a perfection-minded, people-pleasing, workaholic.

I am certainly guilty of wearing those hats. What I realized I needed more than anything was margin.

Not better time management skills.
Not more discipline.
Not more personal vision
Not even more time.

I simply came to the realization that I was thin on margin in my life. And that exact commodity is the key to your breakthrough, too. Can you relate?

The Best Things Happen in the Margin

The best things happen in the margin. Despite my knee-jerk proclivity to want to make everyone happy (which somehow makes me think I’m actually getting crap done), I truly believe that what has been missing in my life is margin. Culturally, we’re so indoctrinated to articulate our five-year plan, especially us guys.

College degree? Check.
Salary career? Check.
House? Check.
Wife? Check.
Two kids? Check.

Heck, while sitting with a friend at Starbucks last week, that exact question came to the surface and I felt compelled to deliver it with the finesse of seasoned pro.

Yet, in the last couple months, I’ve discovered that the greatest things we do in life are products of opportunities we cannot predict or anticipate.

And that is precisely why instead of focusing on the strategically planned multi-year plan, I’m now actively seeking to distill my time and energy down to make room for the priorities and activities I must do, instead of the ones I can do. In fact, as of last week, I’m dumping my endless pursuit of “the plan” in favor of pursuit of my purpose by intentionally creating margin in my life that will allow for the things I cannot anticipate today, thus giving me energy, focus, and resources for the people and priorities to whom I can add the greatest value.

But that amount of margin scares me a little.

Admittedly, in doing so, I feel a little unprepared. Because my “off-the-chart high J” personality thrives in preparation, organization, and efficiency, I’m a little thrown-off my routine. But there’s part of me that is learning to be okay with being unprepared so-to-speak. What I’m saying is that nothing can really prepare you or me for uncharted territory and new feats. You and I have never done what’s ahead before. All preparation prior to launching into the unknown is theoretical.

That’s precisely why the intentional creation and application of margin is critical for our growth in life. And its also why the ability to experience new territory to its fullest will be delayed and stifled by an over-crowded, underproductive life. To that, when I trip and make mistakes, I want to learn from the experience without the implied pressure to quickly move-on.

If you’re tracking with me, what I’m actually seeking is more room for the “ahh” and “aha” moments in my life instead of “ugh” moments.

Make Room for “Ahh” and “Aha!”

Margin isn’t only about time. It’s about personal health, finances, and relationships, too. Think about it this way from the perspective of relationships: if after packing yourself so tightly that you lack the emotional energy to add meaningful value to a friend or a significant other, what have you gained? Nothing. Not convinced? Let’s apply this to finances.

I’m pretty confident you can trim your financial fat by 10%. Trust me. Start with your superfluous expenditures. Those $1.29 iTunes purchases seem innocent up front, but they rack-up pretty quickly, don’t they? How about things like bottled water and overpriced coffee from a window? There’s nothing wrong with spending allocated fun money, but if you’re strapped really tightly and feel over your head, you have to start somewhere. I cut the cord to cable TV last year and couldn’t be happier. Again, the point is that margin prepares for opportunities we cannot predict or anticipate, in this case, for the good or the bad (like unforeseen repair needs).

Doctor’s Orders

In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D., says, “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 prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that God sends our way.”

Point being, margin isn’t going to show-up at your doorstep. You’re going to have to fight for it.

Maybe you’re thinking, Chris, I just need to get through the day. With all the demands on my plate, creating margin sounds plain impossible. I hear you. But that’s exactly why you need to carve out some time to assess your efficiency and create margin in your life. But you can’t create a plan for margin without clarity. How do you know where to cut if you don’t know what to cut. And clarity comes by instilling daily disciplines for daily productivity.

If you’re ready to live with the margin you need to experience opportunities and relationships you cannot presently anticipate, start by implementing the following six disciplines in your life.

Create Margin by Creating Clarity: Six Disciplines of Daily Productivity.

  1. Make your bed every single day. And make it immediately. It sounds silly, but by making your bed, you’ve accomplished a task. And when you accomplish a task, it sets-up the momentum to accomplish more tasks.
  2. Read something. File the knowledge. Apply the knowledge. We don’t know what we don’t know and should endeavor to be constant students in life.
  3. Don’t expect your day to be productive unless you’re dressed for the day. Believe it or not, dressing for the day gets you in the mindset of productivity and the posture of professionalism.
  4. Schedule your priorities on paper (or digitally) even if they are routine. Doing so provides not only the permission to focus but the motivation to do so without guilt or distraction. To that, what doesn’t get scheduled rarely gets done.
  5. Divert daily. Withdrawal weekly. Abandon annually. One of my leader and mentors, Dave Wilson, taught this principal a couple weeks ago. The point is that we must be intentional about rest and recreation.
  6. Be a quitter every quarter. Quit something.

If you’re ready to create more margin in your life, email me and let me know. I’m working on a special project and want you to join me in the effort. To that, let me know where you need more margin in your life by commenting below.

  • Marquise C. Medal

    I had to say NO to volunteering every weekend at church, I no longer was serving from my heart because of all the tasks and unfinished priorities in my life – we tend to think we’re helping but really were not fully engaging with a FULL heart to help others, stepping back really gave me margin to heal properly and let others take my role in serving! Great post C.C!