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Overspent and Overloaded? You Need Margin

Bill Smith sits down to his most dreaded chore—paying bills. Every month it’s the same story: pay the most urgent and leave the rest. There’s never enough money, no matter how hard he works.

Jane Miller flies into the school office frazzled and 30 minutes late because she was 20 minutes late getting out of the dentist’s office because she was 15 minutes late to her appointment. How will she ever get the kids home, homework started, dinner on the table, and be back out the door in time to chair the PTA meeting that evening?

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Tom Johnson gets up every morning at 4:30 to make the 5:30 train for his 90-minute commute into the city. He crams during every spare minute for the classes he’s taking at night. Getting his degree is no longer something Tom can put off.

It’s been weeks since Tom’s made it home for dinner. But what’s he to do? Without a promotion they will never make it on a single salary. His ever-growing student debt will come due whether he graduates or not. Quitting is out of the question. Most days it is all Tom can do to just keep going.

Bill’s, Jane’s and Tom’s situations could not be more different. Yet, they share the same problem. They are stretched to the limit.

Bill is living beyond 120 percent of his income, Jane is presuming upon more than 120 percent of her time and Tom is requiring more than 120 percent of his energy. All are overspent and overloaded and perfect candidates for all kinds of stress-related maladies.

Richard A. Swenson, M.D. author of Margin, explains, “Margin is that space between us and our limits. It’s something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. As a society, we’ve forgotten what margin is. In the push for progress, margin has been devoured. We are besieged by anxiety, stress and fatigue. Our relationships suffer. We have unexplained aches and pains. The flood of daily events seems beyond our control. We are overloaded!”

Most people regularly commit to a 120-percent life. It’s rare these days to see a life prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected, says Dr. Swenson.

Pain characterizes the marginless life. Physical, emotional and spiritual pain is manifested in many different ways such as increased blood pressure, chest pain, arrhythmias, hyperacidity, ulcers, back pain, headaches, fatigue, depression, withdrawal, confusion, worry, teeth grinding, jaw-clenching, compulsive shopping, hostility, paranoia, insomnia, burnout, breakdown, addictions—need I go on?

The way to build margin into our lives is to simplify. That means downscaling, dejunking, reducing expenses and choosing to say no so we can give ourselves the gift of margin.

Life is too short to live stretched beyond the limit. If you yearn for relief from the pain and pressure of overload, Dr. Swenson suggests a daily dose of margin. The benefits of good health, financial stability, fulfilling relationships, peace and joy are what you can expect for your efforts.


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9 replies
  1. disqus_8PO4pccBE3 says:

    Best article ever. It really spoke to me, thanks Mary! My margin is yoga class. Every time I go the instructor begins the session by telling us to leave everything outside the room and just be here with our mat. Be present and stay in the room. Good advice!

  2. sadnana says:

    Materialism drives much of our 120% lifestyles. Letting go of the idea that we have to have a lot of extraneous things frees us from the necessity of working long hours, having 2 jobs, buying on credit, etc. When it comes to our time commitments setting priorities and time “blocking” will usually solve the problem. Saving blocks of time to be with God, to be with family, for practical necessities such as household chores and financial oversight, and especially time for rest and recreation are all necessary to live a healthy, peaceful life. If you have made a firm commitment to using your time well you can honestly say, “I have another commitment”, when pressed to do something that will consume your 20% margin.

  3. Wendy in VB says:

    I have recently taken a bible verse to heart. Especially since I am of the “getting older” generation. That is 1 Thessalonians 4:11 about living a quiet life, not involving myself in a lot of busybody (even on FaceBook) activities, and get my work done around the homefront, prioritizing my husband. I don’t have to be there for every church activity or meeting,or get addicted to constant exercise.
    If I maintain this, my life is a lot more peaceful, and there is more margin to help those who cross my path.

  4. Kimber says:

    My plan is to read and practice what I learn in a new book I just got called Living with Less: How to Downsize to 100 Personal Possessions by Mary Lambert. I’ve always wondered how I could minimize my “stuff.” Sadly, material possessions are what contribute to keeping my margins filled. I’d like to understand how to undo what I’ve done.

  5. JMM says:

    Go on and listen to a great sermon series by Andy Stanley called “Breathingroom”. It speaks perfectly to exactly how little margin so many of us are leaving ourselves

  6. Beck says:

    I have learned that some people will try to take advantage of anyone they can. As soon as you learn someone is like that it is better to distance yourself. In my case I am the sandwich generation. I have kids that are not on their own yet, we both have jobs, plus my husband and I both have elderly parents that need help. While we are not the only children in our families you would think we were because they always ask us to help. We do help them a lot but I also learned to tell my elderly mother she has several other children that can also help and she should also ask them. If I don’t remind her of that once in a while she will wear me out.
    The same goes for organizations sometimes if you are a “doer” they just keep asking you to do things. A person has to set a limit then nicely say I am sorry but at this time I am unable to do any more than I am presently doing for church or a group. If a person has a hard time expressing that they are over stressed the best thing to say is “can I get back with you on that?” I have had to say that once in a while to get out of doing something I did not want to do but the person would take no for an answer. Often we create our own stress we just have to figure out how to undo it.
    My favorite stress reliever is to read the newspaper outside on a nice warm day or with a warm cup of coffee in the winter in a room by myself. A person has to have alone time sometimes to “regenerate” or get to their quiet place.


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