Introduction to Margin (Part 1)



In a word or two, how would you describe your average day?

Busy?
Overwhelming?
Relaxing?
Pointless?
Productive?
Boring?
Stressful?
Fulfilling?

For me, in this season of life, I’d say that my average day is a mixed bag. While most days are productive on paper, they feel a little bit too busy and a little bit too stressed.1

As a small-business owner, sometimes my responsibilities have me pulled in a half-dozen directions. Between Tools & Toys, The Sweet Setup, The Focus Course, shawnblanc.net, my Shawn Today podcast, and The Fight Spot newsletter… well, life can feel frazzled at times.

But I’m not alone here, am I? You’re busy, too. We all are.

From the rising of the sun until long after it sets, how quickly our days get filled with things to do. Important responsibilities. Urgent issues. Helping and serving the people who depend on us.

While my current, average day sometimes feels too busy and too stressed, what would my ideal day look like?

My ideal day would be fulfilling, with times that are both relaxing and productive.

I’m about as “Type A” as they come. I’ve always got more ideas than time and I feel most energized when I’m working on a project. The downside is that means it can be hard for me to stop working and even to stop thinking about work.

* * *

In his book, Margin, Richard Swenson, M.D., starts out with this statement:

The conditions of modern-day living devour margin. If you are homeless, we send you to a shelter. If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do.

Not only are we given one more thing to do, many of us are even seeking out more to do — perhaps intentionally, but most likely unintentionally — simply because we struggle to say ‘no’ to requests of our time and attention and thus are busy beyond capacity. When we do have a spare moment, we fill it quickly without thinking by checking the news, social media, and email, almost as if by habit.

“No matter how busy life gets,” writes Jessica Turner in her book The Fringe Hours, “I’m here to tell you that you not only can but must make time to do things that matter to you.”

When you think of margin in your life, think of health. Physical health, emotional health, mental health, relational health, financial health, creative health.

  • Margin in your finances means you’re living within your means and even have a rainy day fund.
  • Margin in your schedule means you have time to do the things you need to do as well as the things you want to do.
  • Margin in your emotions means you don’t live constantly on the edge — losing your temper or your patience at the drop of a hat.
  • Margin for your thoughts means you have the wherewithal to make clear decisions and focus on your most important work.

All of these areas overlap with one another — they’re not isolated. Which is why, when a household lacks margin in its finances it can erode at margin in the marriage. Or when we lack margin in our schedule, it can erode the margin in our emotions.

Why is margin important?

We need margin. You need it. And so do I.

Without margin in our finances, we fall deeper in debt every time the car breaks down. Without margin in our schedule, we have no time to rest, recharge, or serve others. And without margin for our thoughts, we lack creative energy to make progress on our most important work.

Though, not always, oftentimes our lack of margin is self-inflicted.

We would love to have a rainy day fund, but when we see a bigger television for a cheaper price, we buy the TV instead of setting that money aside. We would love to have time at the end of the day to read a good book, but when we come home from work we instinctively turn on said television. We would love to make progress on our side-project, but when we have a break, we spend it check our social media timelines.

It’s like Paul wrote in the Bible: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

Listening to Overwhelm

Again, Swenson writes:

No one likes pain. We all want to get rid of it as soon as possible. But physical pains are usually there for a reason, to tell us something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Emotional, relational, and societal pains, too, are often indicators that all is not well. As such, they serve a valuable purpose — they help us focus.

Modern-day living, however, opposes focusing. Surrounded by frenzy and interruptions, we have no time for anything…

Do You Need a Change or Are You On the Verge of a Breakthrough?

When you’re feeling the pain of overwhelm, listen to it.

There can be two reasons for the stress you feel:

  • It may be that life is telling you you’re marginless.
  • Or, sometimes that feeling of overwhelm is because you’re in a season of transition — you’re close to a breakthrough.

When it’s the former, you need to dial down and create some margin. Make sure you’ve got some things in place so you can stay sane and healthy.

However, when it’s the latter — when you’re on your way toward a breakthrough in your skills — you need help and the perseverance to press through.

Part Two…

In a couple days, we’ll hit on some of the simple ways you can quickly restore margin in your life.

Also, we’ll be hitting on this topic (and more) in the free Elements of Focus class that begins in less than a week! If you haven’t yet signed up, you definitely should.

Update: Part two has been published. You can read it here.


  1. Over the years, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at making sure my time is spent only on the most important and necessary work. Obviously, there is wiggle in there because I’m just a regular person. But, so far as I can tell, just about as much of my time as I have is spent doing the things I want and need to be doing in order to keep things moving forward. The problem for me, it seems, is not in cutting back and dialing down even more, but that I clearly have things for which it is time to delegate. More on that another day.