The day I got my driver’s license is one I could not easily forget. After (admittedly) failing my first round, the victory and sense of newfound freedom felt so sweet! My dad sat in the passenger seat of my little 2001 Toyota Corolla as we drove home from the DMV and proceeded to give me some new driver advice.
“Victoria, don’t ever let your gas gauge get to empty. The minute you are at a half tank, go to the gas station and fill it all the way up to full.”
I giggled (like most of us initially do at dad-advice), but then asked him why. He told me that this was a piece of advice his dad gave him and it was a simple way to make sure your car lives as long as it’s supposed to. Running on empty negatively affects the car’s performance, creates anxiety in you and is a hard habit to break. I didn’t know it then, but this was advice I would return to years later because it wasn’t the car running on empty, it was me. And like usual, my dad was right.
We all know what it is like to be running on empty. Let’s be honest: We’re busy women. Life and its endless list of demands can easily overload us leaving us tired, emotionally run down and counting the days to our next vacation. The reality is, everyone wants a piece of us and there just isn’t enough to go around! As finite human beings with limitations and capacities, there is no way we can do it all. (Though we try, don’t we?)
So how do we live above water? What is the alternative to operating at 120% percent day in and day out? The answer: margin. In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D. describes it like this:
“Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”
Simply put: Margin is the space we fight for to keep from running on empty. Unlike cars, we don’t have a visual for when the tank requires more gas, but there are sure signs in life that serve as indicators of our need.
For me, I know I need more established margin when I become easily offended, inexplicably tired, disinterested in things I love and overwhelmed by non-issues. Can you relate? Here’s some hard truth: You do have limits; margin protects you from empty living. Whether you are a fast-paced CEO, college student or stay at home mom, margin has the potential to make your life feel and become more sustainable. This isn’t about becoming less productive or throwing in the towel, margin is like my dad’s advice: It’s taking preventative measures to keep the car going.
As artist Banksy says, “If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.”
So how do we do it? Here are five ways to work more margin into your life:
1. Think about your Sunday on Monday.
One way I have learned to implement margin is to keep the end of my week in mind. Considering this helps you determine what is necessary and what decisions are most important to make. If you know that your weekend is going to be jam-packed, be thoughtful about how busy you are Monday-Friday and make changes as necessary.
2. Learn to say no.
In the busyness of life, wise decision-making can prevent you from blaming a meeting or a person for making you tired when that “no” was really yours to say.
3. Do not compare your capacity.
Everyone has a capacity that is unique to them. For example, my mom can successfully and joyfully accomplish countless tasks in a day. Some would look at her and say, “Her capacity is just bigger than mine.” The truth is, she values margin and her daily morning workouts are her personal time to gear up for the day ahead. Whatever your capacity or day-to-day life looks like, own it and make margin personal to you.
Simply put: Margin is the space we fight for to keep from running on empty.
4. Consider what brings you joy.
Margin does not always mean a nap. (Though, how many of us could use one of those?) Creating margin in your life is about creating space for yourself apart from demands! What do you enjoy doing? What makes you feel filled up? This could be a hike, a coffee date with a family member or even seeing a movie. Schedule some time for this in your week and see how it sustains you.
5. Ask for help.
If moving from empty to full feels like a weighty task, ask for help! Look around and examine the lives of people you love. Who seems to be thriving, growing and fulfilled? Ask them to help you make time for yourself and maybe put together a practical schedule for margin to make it more doable. Like most things in life, we are better together.
Let’s beat exhaustion to the punch by caring about margin. And may we be women who don’t see margin as an unattainable task or a dirty word, but rather the space needed to keep leading lives we love for many years to come.
How’s your margin level right now?
Image via Angelo Sgambati for Darling Issue No. 13