Need to Kill Some Busy? Look in the Margins.

How many times have you seen someone who could use a little help? The question isn’t “Have you ever…” but “How many times have you…” Because it’s a lot. Your first impulse is to stop and help, but then reality kicks in and you realize that helping would mean stopping. And you can’t stop. Not now. Because you’re late. Or there’s too much to do. Or you’re hurrying to ______. So you convince yourself it’s fine and somebody will be there to help them soon. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. I have intentionally driven past someone who was changing a flat tire because had I stopped to help them I would have been late to church. Talk about adventures in missing the point.

Then one day a while back a friend said something to me that caught my ear. He used the phrase “build some margin into your life,” by which he meant allow some extra time for whatever you’re doing. Do this so that when the unplanned opportunities arise you are not so shackled to your immediate schedule that you miss them. I didn’t get it at the time, but has since become clearer and clearer. When he said this my wife and I only had two kids, and the youngest was only several months old. Now we have three and the balance between important and urgent is very hard to negotiate. It gets harder and harder to take things slow. Still, I find myself up writing at 1:16 a.m. because it’s one of the few times of day my house is quite. How interesting that I choose silence over sleep. There is a truth at work here: We need the margins to survive.

It’s true that being a good parent or spouse requires being intentional. But it’s equally true that it requires not cramming so much into a moment that the moment drowns. If you’ve ever felt like you needed a vacation when you got back from vacation, you know what I mean. My grandparents took me to Europe when I was nineteen because my grandmother wanted to go to the places my grandad was in WWII. We covered some 2,200 miles in three weeks and it seemed nothing like a vacation. Some years later I was in Mexico with my parents and siblings, and I remember that it was so important to me that I sit in a beach chair, listen to the waves, and run my fingers through the sand. I did exactly this for two hours straight, and it was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Now, we obviously can’t go to a beach in Mexico every day, so we must cultivate the skill of build some margin at other times than just vacation. I understand it gets tougher and tougher in this ever-automated world in which we live. How did we get so busy? This technology that was supposed to make our lives easier actually just increases our output potential, so we end up doing more with the energy we were supposed to be conserving. It’s said often, because it’s so true: we have to intentionaly unplug more often than we currently do.

It’s more than noteworthy that there was a significant part of Jesus’ ministry that happened while he was on the way somewhere else. He met a bleeding woman. An official plead with him to heal his son. A blind beggar called out to him when he was coming off the mountain following the sermon on the mount. I won’t take the time to name all the occurrences, but the list is substantial. Start to look for the On the Way ministry of Jesus the next time you read a gospel and I’ll bet you’ll notice what you hadn’t before. The point is that Jesus wasn’t so locked into his mission that he ignored ministry when it needed to happen. But that’s likely because any ministry that he did fit within and under his bigger mission. May our prayer be “Oh Lord, help me to recognize the importance of the people you put in my life.” I understand we all have things that need to get done, but at the expense of what? At some point being alive must take precedence over living.

So here are 6 ways to build some margin into your life.

  1. Get up 30 minutes earlier than everyone else in your house. But here’s the catch: don’t do the same old thing. Don’t check Facebook, email, Sportscenter, or who retweeted you. Don’t add more stuff to the time you created by getting up early. That’s the Go Trap. Just sit and drink your coffee and just be in silence. You might pray or read or journal, but first relish the first minutes of your day when there is absolutely nothing to do and silence in which to do it.
  2. Arrive to places early. This means allowing for more time before you leave, which itself requires some planning. You might set the clock in your car to be seven minutes fast. For most short trips this is a good practice anyway just in case there is unforeseen traffic. But if not, you’ll have the pleasure of knowing you’re not in a rush. And if you have to sit in your car for twenty minutes and people watch, it’ll be a fantastic way to learn the skill of noticing things.
  3. Just get in the car and drive without anyplace particular to go. If this sounds impossible, the reason is because we are too busy, and this is exactly the kind of impossible we need to do. Maybe you don’t drive; then wander aimlessly. At a book store. At a park. At a museum. Wherever. Or take the long subway or bus route to get where you’re going. The point is drive or ride until you come across a situation you would otherwise pass because you would be in a hurry.
  4. Leave work on time. When I was a teenager, I worked at my back in the construction shop of parents’ design business. My dad had this rule that the last thirty minutes of the day was dedicated to cleaning up. I hated that rule at the time but now I see so much value in it, because I see the value in leaving on time and the value of a clean space the next morning. This one is especially hard for me, because I’m the type of person who quits when I’m done, not when the clock says a certain number. This is definitely a learned skill. And I realize there are exceptions and that with some jobs this is impossible. But as much as you can, respect the time of those outside your work life. Don’t keep them waiting because you had just one more thing to wrap up.
  5. Spend the last 30 minutes of your day decompressing instead of taking in more info. My friend retweeted the other day, “”Why am I not asleep?” he thought, while shining a beam of pure information directly into his eyes from eight inches away.” Exactly. It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to have a no-screens-in-the-bedroom policy for your house. Remove the tv and charge your phone in the living room. Impossible, you say? Challenge accepted.
  6. Eat slowly. There are a host of valuable reasons why, but the biggest one is that you’ll associate food with the habit of not being rushed.
  7. Bonus: When you’re eating out with people, everyone put their phones in the middle of the table. First one to touch their phone pays.

A few years back, a family I knew was planning a trip to Europe and asked for my advice. I told them to pick a city, take off their watches, and wander until they were lost. I’m not sure if they took my advice but I really hope they didn’t have a rigid schedule and try to see everything. Because trying to see everything pretty much guarantees you won’t enjoy anything. This is true on European vacations, beaches in Mexico, and everywhere in between. Resolve to build margin, and let the margin speak.

What ways have you found to build some margin in your life? I look forward to hearing from you.

Carpe Pax,

Duncan


2 thoughts on “Need to Kill Some Busy? Look in the Margins.

  1. These things are possible because of step zero: comfortably delivering a “no, thank you.” I have margins where I put them because I turn things down. I live in New York, where the pressure to do and be and make more is ever present. Saying “no, thank you” is something I must do often. Daily. Sometimes multiple times a day. In order to have 30
    minutes to myself in the morning, I have to go to bed 30 minutes earlier, which means not attending that get-together the night before. So, when another birthday invite comes down the pike (at my age, I have no desire to attend something that STARTS at 10 pm) , I chose to say “no, thank you.” For others it might look like skipping the sign up for yet another year of a 3rd club sport for their kid. We teach the world how to treat us by selecting how we spend our time and energy. My default used to be “yes!” and then I’d figure out how to make it work into my day. Now my default is a much more honest measure of how I invest myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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