Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development or personal productivity book.
About two months ago, I settled in to read Margin, a book recommended to me by several readers. Subtitled Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, it seemed like a book that would match my interests – and the interests of a lot of my readers – very well.
It did. I was blown away by Margin and a big part of me wanted to sit down and write a “home run” review of the book right away. As I sat down to write, though, I was troubled for one big reason: Margin is clearly written from a Christian perspective and makes no bones about it. Since my readers are of a very wide range when it comes to religion (Christians, people of other faiths, agnostics, and atheists all mixed together), I was really hesitant to write about Margin, and I even wrote in detail about my hesitation several weeks ago.
Since then, I’ve thought carefully about the book, read it again, and read the reflections of my readers on the topic. Simply put, this book was too powerful for me from a secular perspective for me to not write about it.
This review is going to be glowing, but please do note that it is written from a Christian’s perspective. If this offends you or turns you away from the book, that’s fine, but there is a lot of valuable and thought-provoking material between the covers of Margin. Let’s dig in.
A Deeper Look at Margin
Marginless Living A lot of us live a marginless life, and that’s why the book opens here, because it’s often easier to define the concept of margin by looking at marginlessness. Financial marginlessness means living from paycheck to paycheck. Time marginlessness means your schedule is tightly packed every moment of the day. Social marginlessness means you have to plan out who you’ll spend time with and when so that you don’t overlook someone. Work marginlessness means even a second of downtime is a terrible waste.
This sounds a lot like my life over the last few years. While I’ve been able to juggle everything, it does not seem like a long-term sustainable and healthy life.
Part One – The Problem: Pain
The Pain of Progress In our daily lives, progress often brings additional complexity along with it. A promotion at work brings more responsibility. More stuff at home means more stuff that requires attention, maintenance, learning, and effort. Progress, in the traditional sense of the word, eats into our margins. We spend more time on maintenance and continued effort and less time on growing and enjoying free time.
The Pain of Problems When we have smaller margins, problems amplify themselves. If you have a schedule that’s tight, a car breaking down is an unmitigated disaster. A sick child can mean a rather significant setback in our career progress. When we’re living paycheck to paycheck, a leaky roof or a blown hot water heater can be almost insurmountable. In each case, a little bit of margin makes that problem far easier to deal with.
The Pain of Stress When your margin gets so small, it becomes stressful to maintain everything. Every change eats away at your small remaining margin, and every problem eats into it, too. Indirectly, knowing this adds a lot to one’s stress level – you know that you’re walking a tightrope, and just one slip spells disaster. Thus, even the “normal” easy things in life bring about stress.
The Pain of Overload So often in our lives, we get “just one more thing” thrown on the stack of things we have to get done. This stretches our margin even thinner, amplifying the pain of problems and the pain of stress even more.
I’ve seen exactly how these things all work together to make your busy life into a personal prison. You keep adding little things to the mix until suddenly you find yourself in a home that really needs a thorough cleaning, sitting down in the basement at 4:30 in the morning after a night of poor sleep because your child was sick, trying to write an article for this morning so that you can get a shower in before you head off to work at a full time job, knowing also that your truck is starting to act up and there’s likely going to be a nice big bill for that due sometime soon, too. That describes me about a month and a half ago – and it’s painful to read and really think about.
Part Two – The Prescription: Margin
Margin Margin, if you’ve not deduced it already, is the difference between the load you’re carrying and the absolute limit that you can carry. In other words, a person with only six hours of scheduled activities in a day has more time margin than a person with ten hours in a day, and a person with $50,000 in an emergency fund has far more financial margin than a person living paycheck to paycheck.
Margin focuses in on building margins in the areas of emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances, but in truth there are margins in almost every aspect of your life.
Margin in Emotional Energy Swenson offers fourteen solutions for cultivating margin in emotional energy, among which four stood out to me. Cultivate social supports by calling your friends and putting continual effort into building strong relationships with them and not letting them die on the vine. Reconcile relationships by talking to people who you’ve had a difficult relationship with in the past – just call them up and work through it. Rest by simply sleeping more – naps are good (trust me on this one). Grant grace by realizing that your enemies are human and it is good for both of you to forgive their transgressions and move on with life. There are ten more here, too.
Margin in Physical Energy There are really three big tenets here: sleep, exercise, and eat a better diet. Those are three things that we can all do to improve our physical energy level, and the book offers basic tips in each area. As I’ve stated before, I look at exercise and dieting as an investment in yourself, as they build physical energy and endurance and positive feelings that help with every single aspect of life.
Margin in Time Basically, this section encourages finding ways to more effectively manage your time, not so you can squeeze more things in, but so that you have more margin to escape, enjoy non-required activities, and perhaps follow your passions. While there are some very good tips here for time management, I’ve found just three really help me: minimizing electronic interruptions (by closing my email program and web browser when I’m writing, for example, and doing only one email session a day), penciling in blocks of truly free time, and turning off the television.
Margin in Finances There’s also a nice chapter in here on basic personal finances with a focus on building a margin. In other words, Swenson preaches the spend less than you earn philosophy and encourages emergency funds.
Part Three – The Prognosis: Health
Health Through Contentment What makes you feel content? What moments in your life leave you feeling genuinely like things are all right? For most people, these content moments have several things in common – they come from within you and they’re not really influenced by the values of others. For example, I feel most content when I’m eating a really tasty meal at home with my wife and my two children. This contentment has little to do with what others are buying or saying or doing.
Swenson’s advice is to start by ignoring what your peers are doing and ignoring what advertising is telling you. Listen only to your own heart to figure out what contentment is, then follow that exclusively. Don’t let peer pressure or marketing influence what makes you feel content and happy.
Health Through Simplicity By this, Swenson mostly points towards minimizing the complexity in your life. Have a home that’s just big enough, not too big (so you’re not wasting extra time and money and energy on maintenance). Don’t buy a lot of stuff that you have to pick up and maintain (eating time and energy). In other words, strive to nail the basics rather than getting bogged down in the complex.
Health Through Balance Most things in our life require balance. We balance work and free time. We balance time with our spouse and time with our children. We balance action and meditation, speaking and listening, leading and following. Internally, we have a pretty good sense of what the right balance is for ourselves. Listen to what your heart is telling you. Often, if there’s something nagging at you, there’s some balance in your life that’s off-balance. Figure out what it is and put effort into correcting it.
Health Through Rest By rest, Swenson isn’t referring to sleep (physical rest). He’s also talking about emotional and spiritual rest, which he views as actually more important than the physical rest (since your body will make you get the physical rest). He advises spending time mending and nurturing relationships as well as spending time in prayer and meditation each day in order to find that new balance.
Pain, Margin, Health, and Relationship The conclusion was strangely powerful to me. Swenson basically closes the book by stating that without margin in our lives, we can’t open ourselves up to the things that are truly important, the one true path that we should be following in our life. There are so many deeply powerful things that we have the opportunity to do in life – without margin, we can’t open ourselves to finding these things and doing them.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
This is truly an incredible book, and it singlehandedly gave me the courage to dive towards my writing career. That choice gives me the margin I needed to be a much better parent and spouse for starters and opens up the possibility of finding other options and value in my life.
I recommend Margin to everyone, period. It will make you think about what you’re doing with your life in a profound way and may guide you to making choices and decisions that you might not expect. It will stick in your mind for a long while – and perhaps it will make you read it a few more times, too. I’ll say that I’ve read this book four times in the last three months and each time I came away with something different, something new, and something powerful to work on and think about in my life.
I do realize that the Christian tone of the book may reduce the value of it in some eyes, but if you find yourself in that group, just focus on the actions and principles. They work whether you’re a Christian or a completely secular person.
This book is going on my permanent bookshelf, a place that not many books I review on this site wind up. I can’t give it a higher nod than that.