The following is a guest post by my good friend Shawn Blanc, creator of The Focus Course. Shawn is a writer, small-business owner, productivity coach, and creative entrepreneur. For more than a decade, Shawn has been teaching and learning about creativity, diligence, and focus.
In a word or two, how would you describe your average day?
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.
As a small-business owner, sometimes my responsibilities have me pulled in a half-dozen directions. Between all my spinning plates, 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.
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.
Here are three signs you may need some margin in your day:
- You feel fatigued, hurried, and anxious rather than excited, calm, and secure.
- You have little or no time for your own projects and passions because your day is filled up having to respond to so many other urgent issues.
- You often wake up to your day, rather than waking up for your day.
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.
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?
Though they are related, Margin and Stress are not the same thing. A lack of margin can (and usually will) cause stress. Being overloaded and overwhelmed is usually what can lead to the pain of stress.
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, say no to some things, and create some margin in your day. Get yourself some breathing room.
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.
Let’s talk about these two things. Let’s look at ways to dial down when you’re overloaded, as well as how to persevere when you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Simple Ways You Can Quickly Restore Margin In Your Life
Again, in his book, Margin, Richard Swenson writes that “to be healthy, we require margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances.”
If you’re feeling overloaded, I bet you could get one or two “quick wins” for your emotional energy, physical energy, time, or finances — little ways to give yourself some breathing room.
Start by taking inventory of where you’re spending the bulk of your time, money, and energy. (Not where you wish you were spending it, but where you’re actually spending it.)
What can be subtracted? What can you do to give your schedule, your emotions, your mind, your body, and/or your finances some breathing room?
Here are some suggestions for quick wins for you. These can help stop the bleeding. And, with a small victory, you can begin to get some momentum going in the direction you need.
There are some very simple ways to help get your body active if you’re feeling underachieved and not physically strong. Get enough sleep at night (which probably means going to bed on time). Take a 30-minute walk most days. Eat less sugar.
Not to sound like your mother, but healthy disciplines are easy to abandon when life gets crazy. I know that for me, my daily workout is usually the first thing to go when I’m feeling overloaded. So I certainly need the reminder about just how important physical health is to doing my best creative work.
You need social support (community). And, to be candid, you probably could do with less Screen Time.
For the former, ask a friend or family member for support. Even if it’s just to let them know you’re feeling overloaded and you need to talk about it. Also, take a moment to give to someone by encouraging, helping, or supporting them.
For the latter, next time you feel the urge to check your Social Network of Choice when you have a down moment, consider opening up your journal or notes app instead and writing down something you’re thankful for.
(See also this Tim Ferris podcast episode, The Magic of Mindfulness, and the EntreLeadership podcast episode with Shawn Achor.)
You’re smart enough to know that you’ll never “find” time. You have to make it. If your schedule is full, the only option is to begin saying no to things. I’d start with television if you haven’t already. Then I’d start with taking an hour or two at the beginning of your week to plan how you’ll be spending your time over the next 7 days.
Mike’s Clarity Day is an excellent way to get some margin back into your schedule.
If you need to restore margin to your finances, start by cutting something out of your budget. Perhaps begin making coffee at home; or stop ordering fancy drinks and dessert at restaurants; sell your car to get rid of the payments and buy something less fancy for cash. These types of changes aren’t easy to make, but they’re a way of taking charge of your finances and learning to live within your means.
I’d also highly recommend you set up a rainy day fund if you don’t have one already. Save $1,000 as fast as you can. (Figure out how to get an extra $34/day and you’ll have that $1,000 in less than a month.)
Staying Sane In the Midst of a Busy or Challenging Season
If, however, you are not lacking margin in general, but rather are in the midst of particularly busy or challenging season of life, what you need is the ability to press through.
If you’re on the edge of a breakthrough, keep going.
What do I mean by “on the edge of a breakthrough?”
When you’re learning something new or transitioning to a different season of life, you have to “break through” from where you were to get to where you’re going.
Perhaps it’s that you’re starting a new business. Or you’re learning a new skill. Or you want to get better at budgeting. Or you’re writing a book. When you’re first starting out and you’re at the very outside of that new thing, it doesn’t seem quite so scary. But then, once you begin making a little bit of progress, you realize just how much you don’t know, and that state can be overwhelming.
It feels overwhelming because you suddenly begin to see so many open ideas, moving parts, and hazy concepts. You can see everything moving around, but it’s all in a fog and doesn’t make sense yet. You have a ton of unanswered questions, and you don’t even know who to go to for help or what you would even ask them.
Basically, you’re in the midst of a heightened season of “deep work,” and it’s not easy.
Instead of quitting, keep on learning. Keep pushing through. Eventually, the fog will lift, the dots will connect, and you’ll get that breakthrough.
It is in these seasons of overwhelm — when life is at its busiest — that it becomes all the more important to be intentional with how you spend your time. **
Here are the ways I stay focused during especially busy or challenging seasons of life (such as the one I’m in right now, as a matter of fact):
- Making sure my day is filled with intentional work. Step one is knowing what to do and having a plan of when I’m going to do it. This is so important that I’ve actually been spending more time managing my time. The days can so quickly get away from me that I’m upping my intentionality to make sure my daily and weekly schedule is providing me with the time I need to do the most important work.If I’m mostly in a reactive state — giving my attention primarily to the incoming inboxes of email and Twitter — then chances are I’m wasting time. This is why I’ve been spending even less time than usual on email and Twitter…
- Dialing back on social media. I love Twitter. It’s a great place for conversations, dialog, and finding cool stuff. But it’s not where I do my most important work.
- Recognizing progress. This is huge. When you’re down in the thick of it, one of the best ways to keep your momentum going is to recognize and celebrate the progress you make each day. I use Day One because it’s awesome. And at the end of the day, I’ll write down the small wins from my day.
- Health. This is the one that goes out the window the fastest for me, which is unfortunate because it’s also the one that matters the most. A good night’s sleep, a diet that gives you energy, and some regular out-and-about exercise is so good for you.
- Date night, family time, and lunches with friends: Social support is one of the main ways to keep a healthy emotional state. It’s also one of the best ways to increase your baseline level of happiness and to help ensure a successful and satisfying career.
For me, when things get extra busy, the thing that next goes out the window is my time with friends. I’ll find myself wanting to cancel my standing lunches with friends, work late and infringe on family time, and even skip date night with my wife. All so I can work more hours.
While there are occasions here and there when I truly do need to work extra, they need to be the exception to the rule and not the default.
All these things come together to help give space to think, to breath, and to focus on doing what’s most important.
Thanks for reading! In closing, here’s one more quote from Dr. Swenson:
Let’s stay busy to be sure. But together let’s also develop the necessary theological underpinnings for margin that will allow us to accept its importance without guilt. For just as we need to eat and sleep, so we also need to breathe.