Published on January 30th, 2014 | by April Best

Protect Yourself from Unexpected Stress by Creating Margin in Your Life

Extra demands and unforeseen, challenging events sometimes conspire to force you into living and acting in ways that are unhealthy or unsustainable. Creating margin in our lives protects us from getting worn out over time.

Margin is the space between what we are capable of (100%) and what we are committed to.

Choosing margin is about making a conscious effort to live a bit inside the limits of your capacity.

Margin is another way to say boundaries.

In our December issue, in an article on protecting your boundaries in relationships, Sharideth Smith wrote:

Here’s a news flash. You train those around you how to treat you. You never say no? They’re going to take advantage. You always let them bully you into answering their obnoxious questions or demands? They will keep at it until the day you die. When you can say “enough,” others will follow suit.

Sometimes people are jerks, and you can’t train them, but I’ll make an additional argument:

YOU train YOU how to treat yourself.

Just as we can learn to protect ourselves from unhealthy relationships, we can learn to protect ourselves from ourselves.

When we reach a feeling of overwhelm, we are conditioned to blame outside circumstances such as work schedules, difficult relationships, or family commitments. This can feel like being trapped underwater, flailing out at anyone nearby, even a rescuer.

Do you find yourself experiencing any of the following?

  • Limited enjoyment (a muting of things that used to bring pleasure)
  • Falling behind on finances
  • Inability to accomplish things that are important to you
  • Relationship breakdowns
  • Distractibility
  • Nagging fear or anxiety about your to-do list

All of these happen to everyone for myriad and complex reasons, but most of these can be better managed with some small changes that help increase margin in your life.

create margin in your life reduce stress1. “Begin with the end in mind” (Stephen R. Covey)

Create a question or two by which you can judge opportunities. Consider how each decision affects your greatest goals. For example:

  • “Is my gut reaction delight or tension?”
  • “Does saying ‘yes’ to this benefit my family?”
  • “Will this come between me and a person I love?”
  • “Will I be able to do this with a happy heart?”

I work best with some down time during the day. Recently I started a new job. Things are busy there, and I have noticed that breaks during the day, and even lunches, are not sacred and separate. My end goal of keeping myself peaceful during the day made me ask myself, “Does keeping up with the pace of the culture here help me stay peaceful?”

I choose to care for myself by living differently than the culture of my new workplace. I take a lunch break. I find a space, and I take time out of my day where I do not talk about work. Instead I play on my phone or read a book.

Beginning with the end in mind allows you to make choices that get you closer to your destination, rather than being diverted in another direction.

2. Look at your current commitments

Just as you did in #1 with incoming opportunities, ask questions and evaluate whether your current activities and commitments are advancing your goals. These questions might be different, because you’ve actually interacted with these “opportunities” for a while now.

  • “Is this optional?”
  • “What is my motivation for doing this?”
  • “Would my dropping this improve my life?”
  • “What gives me energy when I do it?”

Make a list of your current commitments in all areas of your life: school or work, household management, family, friends, volunteering, pet care, etc.

Some of you will be able to look at your list and cut 30%. Margin appears like magic and your biggest challenge will be guarding that breathing-room while you wait for the adrenaline you’ve been living on to clear out of your system.

For others of you, building in margin will be a process. It will mean living tight a bit longer while you wrap-up a commitment, close it out, and remember not to take on a new one.

While you’re in this transition, remember to be gentle to yourself. Release responsibilities if you can, or ask for greater flexibility.

Most people would prefer you to be honest rather than continue telling them you’ll do something you never actually do. If you realize you can’t keep a commitment you’ve made, ask the person to whom you made the commitment if they’ll let you out of it or at least extend your deadline.

For example, when I started this article, I was unemployed. My schedule was very loose, and writing this article was well within my margin area. On January 2, I began a new job that has thrown me and my margins all out of whack. Emotionally and physically, I have been exhausted. I had to ask for a continuance three different times in order to finish this piece.

3. Practice

As you train you how to treat yourself, don’t be afraid to have conversations. Conversations with yourself and with safe people in your life about what you may need to add or take away from your life in order to find some margin.

Saying “no” to yourself is hard. But it does get easier with practice, and knowing that you don’t have to get it all “right” or all at once could help you relax a little bit.

“Creating margin” does not have to be one more thing on your to-do list. Think of it instead as a deep breath. Instead of hyperventilating, you slow down, and do what you already need to do in a way that is more comfortable.

And how do you know what’s more comfortable without the comparison?

Practice building margin, because it’s important to persist when your first try isn’t all you hoped it would be. Practice because those in your life might not understand what you are doing, and it could take them a while to catch on. And that includes you.

Start small. Remember, you did not get into all of your current commitments in one day and you will not find balance in one day. The important thing is to begin.

Picture inserting margin as adding whitespace to every side of your life. Much like the margins of a printed page make it easier to read, margin in your life provides you with a kind of buffer, a built-in rest.

Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!

The unforeseen always happens. It is impossible to plan so well that you never have to play catch-up. Our ultimate goal is to live a life where those surprises don’t break us before we have a chance to respond.

Photo by Mikha S via Stock.Xchng.

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