A friend called me earlier this week, with the familiar question that begins most conversations: ‘How have you been?’ The truthful answer was busy, very busy.
In the last three weeks, I have presented at a Christian conference, attended and live blogged at another conference, preached twice, had four intensive classes, went to two weddings, organized a youth event and somehow spent time with my wife in between. For sure, it was a busy stretch but it was still a surprise to hear him say that the first words out of my mouth every time we spoke in the last couple of months was some variation of the word busy.
What I had been missing is margin.
Margin is the portion of a page that you intentionally leave blank. Without it, books and magazines would be readable but they become messy and hard to digest. Similarly, when we live lives without margin we can make it work, but our lives become messy and unsustainable.
People are doing more than ever before, but the consequence of constantly being busy is burnout. People cram their schedules so full of activities and busyness that their emotional, physical and spiritual health suffers dramatically.
I love how Richard Swenson, describes margin:
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.
I know from personal experience that when my calendar starts to fill up, I struggle to spend intentional time with God. Added onto that, the things you do to stay healthy, such as eating right and exercising go out the window in the quest to get things done.
That said, margin is important.
Mark Batterson writes:
“You need margin to think. You need margin to play. You need margin to laugh. You need margin to dream. You need margin to have impromptu conversations and you need margin to seize unanticipated opportunities.
Having margin helps you make good decisions, makes you more pleasant and less grumpy. Most importantly, margin increase the chance that you will hear the still, small voice of God when he is speaking to you.
HOW DO YOU INJECT MORE MARGIN INTO YOUR LIFE?
I do a couple of things with every team that I lead, and one of them is to run them through an exercise called a perfect week. It’s a simple tool that Michael Hyatt put together several years ago that I have added to with my own stylings to maximize its potential for creating margin. I’ve created a simple PDF for you to download here, print and work off in your own time. There is also an downloadable excel sheet if you want to make it pretty or color-coded like I have done below.
There are four steps in creating your perfect week:
Building Margin Tip #1 – Fill out your current week
The first step in creating margin is to have a sober assessment of your current levels of space. Often, this is a revealing look into how the idol of business and work can slowly, but surely take over your life without you even realizing.
On the first page, fill in your last week, to the best of your ability, using whatever tools you commonly use to capture dates and time schedules. For me, this is either my phone or my diary.
Here is an example of my last week.
Now that I have a sober assessment of how I am doing, it’s time to make a positive step forward and carve out some margin for yourself. I do this asking three questions:
- What are my top three priorities for this calendar year?
- When am I going to plan my rest?
- How am I leaving space for God to work?
When you have your priorities, you can easily see the things that take up too much of your week. If your priority is your health or your study, and you spend all day playing video games then you have an easy culprit to cut out.
Secondly, when you plan your rest, it actually happens. Too many times I have looked back over a week, only realizing too late that I spend either no time resting or too much time resting in things that don’t give me energy. Rest is life-giving pause in your life. Make sure you plan yours.
Finally, work out how you are leaving room for God to act in your life. Whether it’s giving space for him to whisper to you or simply time where he can use you, leave room for God to move. God can move and act regardless of how packed or free our schedule is, but I have found that when we have a packed schedule, God will break something – either us or our schedule – to move in our life.
Building Margin Tip #3 – Make a Perfect Week
The third step is to put all the information you’ve gathered over the last two steps and build some space for yourself. You do this by planning out your perfect week – the week you would have if you could control 100% of what happens. There is one trick though:
Lock in priorities, rest and time with God before you add anything else.
Personally, I find it helpful to color co-ordinate my three priorities, rest periods and time with God so I can keep track of visually how much time I have given to the important things in my life. Otherwise, I find less important tasks and values getting way too much of my time.
Here is an example of what my perfect week looks like at the moment.
Now you have instant margin added into your life.
Building Margin Tip #4 – Adjust and Re-align.
The key to building margin that makes an impact is to keep looking back at it, adjusting and re-aligning according to your goals and schedule. We often don’t have control over our weeks, and so most of the time my week doesn’t look like a perfect week but when I do have control, I know what is important and when it should happen.
At least once a month, I go over my perfect week and current week to make sure they match up and if they aren’t, what I need to cut out to regain some space and sanity in my life.
Hopefully this can help you build some margin into your life. Let me know how you go below in a comment.