Updated on 03.16.08

Review: Margin

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development or personal productivity book.

marginAbout 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.

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  1. Andy says:

    Sounds like a great concept and an interesting book. One thing your review at least didn’t touch on much, however, was how to get margin. I know you mentioned getting more rest and not buying too much stuff, but does it essentially come down to making choices of cutting certain things out of your life?

  2. Patrick says:

    This is an awesome idea, great concepts here. I’m excited to read this book and apply it to my specific niche, which is overcoming addiction.

    For example, take the idea of quitting smoking. Someone quits cigarettes and makes it a few years, maybe ten years–but they still have no margin. A single puff and they are hooked again. The same idea would apply to other addictions as well.

    So the question for me becomes: how do you build up margin when overcoming addiction? How do you create that safety zone when a single impulsive decision can lead to relapse? I would think the same could be said of impulse buying: how do you create margin when trying to fend off impulsive purchases? It’s definitely an interesting way to frame the question and I’m going to make an effort to explore the ideas here.

    Thanks for the book review!

  3. Anthony says:

    Thank you for discussing the religous aspect of the book up front. Being agnostic there is nothing that I hate more than having religious views pushed on me from an unlikely source. I fell it is nothing more than a type of advertising that we are all trying to avoid in our lives.

  4. cendare says:

    Hey Trent, just wanted to say that as a non-Christian, I strongly enjoyed your review, and if I see this book at the library, I will definitely pick it up. If you read other books with a similar situation (Christian/religious orientation but with material anyone can appreciate), I hope you consider reviewing them as well.

  5. Kathy says:

    Hi Trent,
    I don’t think you have to put so many disclaimers in about the Christian perspective. It sounds as though you are fearful. Do you think readers will think less of you for reading and reviewing and possibly recommending a book with a Christian perspective? I certainly wouldn’t. Sounds like a good book. It is interesting that you have no problem posting articles or references to the “Zen Habits” blog. This may be an area to spend some time contemplating with yourself.

  6. Janet says:

    Hi Trent:

    My first comment to your blog. Just want to let you know how much I’m enjoying your blog in general – very informative and fun to read and I appreciate the frequent updates. And also, how much I enjoy your book reviews too. A suggestion: Could you include the name of the author in the body of your review? That way I don’t have to click on the Amazon link just to see the author’s name, and the book-cover picture usually has the author’s name in too small a type to see. Thank you!

  7. Jacques says:

    Hi Trent,
    Your review gave me the urge to go & check the book at Amazon – knowing that I have many books waiting for my attention, it is quite a statement !

    I understand where you come from on the Christian point of view. I live in Malaysia, and some book I recommend to friends who are from a different background are not perceived the same. Good job adding the disclaimer.

  8. Rolltimer says:


    Sounds as though you don’t understand the Christian faith if you see it as a detractor rather than a benefactor. Maybe you should revisit your own commitment to what you propose to believe.

  9. FMF says:

    This is an excellent, excellent book. I HIGHLY recommend it. It changed my life (for the better) and will do the same for almost everyone who reads and applies it.

    Can you tell that I liked it? ;-)

  10. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Rolltimer, your perspective on evangelism is why agnostics and members of other faiths are rejecting Christianity.

  11. If the thoughts are wise and useful, the delivery (Christian in this case) should not matter. Some of the greatest thinkers of all time spoke openly for or against religous faith. It would be foolish to discount their wisdom for their personal beliefs…

    Thanks for the post…

    “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  12. Michael says:

    Trent, you might enjoy reading a good Thomist book on leisure.

  13. clevelis says:

    Hi Trent, Awesome review. I’m adding this to my list to read and sharing it with my fam/friends.

    At 28, I am trying to live an intensional life. By that I mean that I am seeking to live the life of purpose and faith.

    On other book to check out is “The Shack” by William Young. It is well worth the read; probably not for the SD but just for you.

  14. Norman MIller says:

    Religion is a peculiar subject in that for some reason it can never stand on its own, apart from another subject.

    Philosophy can stand all by itself, so can ethics. You don’t need religion to understand either subject.

    I suspect, based on the review, this book could have been written, without the religious remblings and that would have made it shorter.

    As I don’t have as much time as I would like to read, I’ll be skipping this book.

  15. cendare says:

    Hey Trent, I already commented above, but I forgot to say that your disclaimers are exactly *why* I enjoyed the review. Any review of a book with a strong religious slant needs to say so up front, and then it’s up to the readers to decide whether to read on. If you do review other religion/finance books (or religion/time management, or whatever), I hope you do it the same way.

  16. reulte says:

    Andy (comment 1) I think everything comes down to cutting something out of one’s life; the point is to make a conscious choise of what to cut out. How does the saying go? “You can have anything, you just can’t have everything.”

    Kathy (comment 5) & Rolltimer (comment 8) I suspect the disclaimers are there because not everyone who reads this review will have read what Trent wrote earlier. Further Zen Habits doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is; some Christian books do — I recently read “What Every MOM Needs” which even claims in the Introduction, “This book is written to ‘every’ mother … whatever your heritage or faith” (pg 16) then starts quoting biblical verse as the answer to problems. I threw the book across the room when I came across some line that read (and I’m not quoting this) … when you’re really stressed out turn to [Bible verse #) for the answer. As if — when the dog is throwing up some plastic toy he’s eaten, the cat is bringing a live, wounded bird into the house, my boy is crying because he’s hungry and I’ve just stepped on a Leggo while holding a basket of laundry — I’m going to drop everything else, sit down and read my Bible! Sure, the book had useful things information to impart, most books do. But the attitude of the writers as ‘Christianity is the answer for everything’ left a bad taste on my metaphorical literary taste buds.

    ‘Margin’ does look like an excellent book and I will put it on my PaperBackSwap wishlist hoping that everyone who reads it doesn’t give it a place on their permanent bookshelves.

  17. jake says:

    @Rolltimer (comment #8)

    I use to think the same way until I step outside and met the world. I realized that people do not share my views, and in some case they do not want anything to do with it.

    I’ve met people that at the mere mention of any religious affiliation they would stop me in my tracks and tell me that I better not be heading where they think I am heading.

    Trent is respecting people of other backgrounds not turning against his faith. Something, you yourself need to do.

  18. acehbee says:

    On the discussion of Christianity, while I feel that Trent shouldn’t hold back on reviewing more Christian based personal finance book, I think he did a great job in reaching to his readers. Whether I agree with other commentors or not is not the issue, but I think as christian, I think we need to show we care, not trying to judge other people. I don’t know where Trent or other christian reader stands on a lot of the issue, whether they are “good christian” or not, because I know there are sins in our lives that we need to fix ourselves.

    Trent, thank you for the review. I actually found an older edition of Margin on paperbackswap and has ordered it. Hopefully I will get it soon and start reading it and put it back out to paperbackswap again for others benefit.

  19. Ro says:

    We are doing a study on this in our Sunday School class. When you posted your daily schedule the other day one of my thoughts was that you are not creating enough margin in your life. Then I immediately thought that I was spending too much time on the computer and need to get my own life and not judge others! :)

    I do think it’s a good book.

  20. Char says:

    As a Christian I am grateful to you for the disclaimer, in my case it will make me run faster to the library to get it but I particularly enjoy others who respect other people’s backgrounds. As far as those who criticize that you are not being true to your beliefs I think you will lead more people to the book with your disclaimer and then they can make their own decisions. I have read books written by authors of other faiths and have enjoyed their wisdom at great length but I am always grateful for the “heads up” You do a great job with this blog and thank you for a wonderful review!

  21. Michael says:

    Norman Miller: Only bad philosophy stands on its own, unrelated to anything at all, and purely abstract to disguise its errors. Good philosophy can’t help but bring in other subjects, especially concrete ones where ideas are tested.

  22. Brent says:

    One thing that people forget is there are always underlying assumptions behind anything that anybody says. When you gather all those assumption together, you should be able to work out a systematic world view (or as I like to use an older term, cosmology).
    The problem is that most people are very unaware of their world view, or at worst, their world view is fragmented and/or inconsistant.
    Some have commented that religion can not stand on it’s own, but I suspect that they have not questioned their own world view enough to see how much of what they believe can not stand on its own. Take mathimatics/logic for example. While a great tool, it can not stand on its own, and it is a base line for all thought and reason. When it comes down to it, math/logic are what is called a ‘brute fact.’ Another way of saying it, math and logic just ARE. When you deal with brute facts you are in the relm of faith. We can work with math and logic, and know their rules, but we do not know why they are, they just exist.
    I am a Christian, but I would not hesitate to read an openly Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. book on any subject. If what they say is true, then it is good for the goose and the gander. A Pagan can say it is good to save your money. Just because he is a Pagan doesn’t mean what he says it automaticlly foolish.
    I guess my point is that we all have world views, even some one who denys they have a world view has one. Those world views dictate how we think and what smart and stupid things will come out of our mouths. We all need to be aware of our assumptions. I would rather have a writer have his world view on his sleves so to speak.
    At any rate, after I read the review I ordered the book for my future wife. She tends to over plan her time a lot.

  23. Phil A says:

    I agree with the philosophies contained within this book of wisdom. I am a big believer in free time. Time devoted to relaxation and to doing things I enjoy like watching movies. I need 4 hours of free time during the work week and 10 hours of free time on each day of the weekend. This allows me to enjoy life.

  24. Wondered says:

    I wondered about your jump into writing fulltime.
    I also find it amazing that a book convinced you to do it, you had talked about it over time, next thing I read you are throwing your job out the window. I wish you nothing but luck and happiness in your new adventure, but wondered where it came from. Now I know.

  25. Travis says:

    Hi, Trent. I am so glad I stumbled across this Web site. I am so excited to read “Margin” I can barely wait. I also am planning to try to be a stay-at-home dad and continue my freelance writing business on the side. I think I need one year to prepare. I’d love to read more posts about this part of your life and perhaps the unexpected challenges and benefits you experience.

  26. Kat says:

    I’m curious if you delved into the author’s other book The Overload Syndrome? Some of the Amazon reviews say the books are very similar, but they might have preferred Overload slightly.

    Kudos to you for being religiously sensitive; Boo to those that think you need to rethink your devotion to your faith.

    Amusing that the comments (yes, mine as well!) have less to do with the book and more to do with how people misinterpreted you being sensitive to your readers.

  27. Adam says:

    I have been looking forward to your review of Margin. It has been on my permanent bookshelf for sometime. Looking forward to putting your book beside it in the future.

  28. Tedrick says:

    If interested in a deeper treatment of Christianity and relativism/pluralism, consider reading and reviewing Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There.

    In this book, Schaeffer illustrates the differences between relativism/pluralism and historic Christianity. The parting of the ways occurred when people lose sight of antithesis – what is a is a, what is b is b — non-a can not be a – ect –

    In 2008 we live in a society where the only tolerable intolerance is discrimination against Christians, there is only a short window of opportunity to make note of this before being forcibly silenced by anti-Christian persecutors.

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