I have a little experiment for you. Take a look at the newspaper this article is printed in and check out the layout of each page. Pay close attention to how each article is set up and how the graphic designers have created nice margins around every section. Rest assured there is a team of professionals who continually refine how this paper looks and how they manage the “blank space” and margins between all the content. Why all the fuss? Why do they take the time to create a page with plenty of margins? After all, they could save a tremendous amount of money if they just printed each line of text right up to the edge of the page. But they don’t. Because no one would like to read a paper that didn’t have margins around the text. It’s just human nature; most of us prefer some space around the sentences we are reading. We like the margins because they are just more comfortable for us.
The same intuition that leads you to be more comfortable reading a page that has margins leads you to prefer margin in other areas of your life. Having extra space in your life is always more comfortable than living right on the edge. This is true in your financial life, isn’t it? Life is more comfortable when you have space in your budget, when you aren’t living at the edge of your income every month when you pay your bills. We also pursue margin in relationships. Have you ever asked someone for more space in a dating relationship? That’s because relationships can feel smothering if we don’t have margin built into them.
Although we need margin in every area of our lives, individuals who are stressed-out tend to have very little margin, particularly in their schedules. They don’t have any extra space or time to experience the breathing room we all crave. I was struck by this unfortunate reality one day when I was finishing up a counseling session with an eleven-year-old boy. I walked out to the waiting room to make another appointment with his mother, and I whipped out my phone to see when I had an opening available.
I laughed inside when the client’s mother pulled out her own phone to check her calendar. I wasn’t really surprised by our little digital scheduling party until something crazy happened right before my eyes. My eleven-year-old client’s mother looked at him and asked if he would be available at four o’clock on the next Tuesday. My client immediately pulled out his own phone and began to scroll through his appointments. He was more booked up than I was!
Do you see the irony here? When I was eleven, I was riding bicycles and fishing on lazy afternoons after school. This kid needed a calendar just to manage all of his commitments. I bet you can guess why he was in my counseling office in the first place—anxiety. Sure, I’d be anxious too, if I were an eleven-year-old boy who had so little margin in my schedule that I needed an iPhone just to manage my daily life. If a child’s schedule can be that full, then imagine the life of the average adult. It’s chaos at best. We live life right up to the edge, cramming as much activity as possible into our eighteen-hour days. Why? Because we don’t intentionally pursue margin in our schedules, the extra space that will give us time to breathe, relax, and get comfortable.
If you want to live a less-stressed life, it is imperative that you put more margin in your life. Try mastering these two principles to help you experience the comfort of having breathing room in your everyday life.
- Maintain Your Priorities
One reason it is so difficult to create margin in our schedules is that we don’t have a true sense of what is most important to us. The truth is, no one can maintain more than three or four priorities. If you have a family, that’s a priority. If you have a job that you care about, that’s a priority. This leaves room for, perhaps, one or two more priorities. Maybe it’s staying in shape or volunteering at your child’s school—but that’s it. Most people understand this intuitively, but they keep over committing themselves and over complicating their lives. In the process, they destroy any chance they have at experiencing margin in their schedules. In order to have margin, you must set clear priorities. You must learn how to keep the main thing the main thing. Ask yourself, “What is most important? What do I value most in life?” If you can determine the three or four most important things in your life, then you are in a position to start experiencing some margin. Is this easy? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely. There is no way to create any kind of margin or comfort zone in your schedule unless you are able to focus on what is essential. Only then will you be able to fill your life with a reasonable number of activities, and experience lasting peace and comfort. If you want more help maintaining clear priorities in your life, complete the “Maintaining Your Priorities” exercise on our website at http://www.floridacounselingcenters.com/priorities/.
- Learn to Say No
The playwright Jules Renard wrote, “The only man who is really free is the one who can turn down an invitation to dinner without giving any excuse.” By that definition, are you free? Few of us are because we feel guilty when we draw boundaries with people in order to focus on what’s important. That’s a problem. It will be impossible to maintain your priorities and experience margin in your schedule until you get comfortable saying a simple word: no. No excuses, no rain checks, no babbling about when you might be able to fit it in—just plain no.