One of my favorite movies of all time is Gladiator. I love stories of the underdog overcoming the odds and finding a way to win. I also appreciate the lessons that I can learn from history. There is a particularly profound quote from the film that has stuck with me over the years-
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
Those are the words of Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD. You may recall from history class that Marcus Aurelius was a sage and the last of the “good emperors.” I think we can agree that we would do ourselves a disservice if we did not heed his advice.
Do you ever find yourself living in the future, continually reaching for something beyond your grasp, while losing sight of today’s blessings? Man, I struggle with that. Finding contentment, while not being complacent can seem impossible at times. While I aim to remain satisfied with my lot in life, I want to get better. I want to have greater impact. I don’t want to just show up and stay where I am.
If I were to settle for the status quo at home or at work, life would become boring. People would suffer. The world would be no better. So, how does one reconcile being content without succumbing to the dangers of becoming complacent at home and at work? We must find time in our day to strain forward to what lies ahead.
Enter margin. Margin is the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits. When you reach the limit of your resources or abilities, you have no margin left. So, as life picks up speed, we hit limit after limit. Slowly, margin begins to disappear. Yet, we need margin in order to thrive relationally. With relationship, we experience life.
Dr. Richard Swenson, writes about this societal phenomenon in his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Margin was an unrecognized possession of the peoples of the past. Throughout most of the history of the world, margin existed in the lives of individuals as well as societies. There were no cellphones, laptops or internet. There were no cars or traffic. With no electricity to extend daylight, few suffered sleep deprivation. Time urgency, daily planners and to-do lists had not yet been adopted by the masses. Instead, by default rather than choice, people lived slower, more deliberate lives. They had margin.
How things have changed! Swenson writes that the amount of meaningful conversation held between spouses is as little as four minutes a day. Parent-to-child quality time resides in the same neighborhood, between thirty-seven seconds to 5 minutes per day. In short, margin is yesterday’s charm. Today, the world is moving at hyper-speeds and with speed comes stress.
According to Swenson, 4 out of 5 Americans report a need to reduce stress in their lives. Yet, avoiding all stress is not an alternative to our overloaded condition. Those who have no stress in their lives, no challenge, no change, are as miserable as those who have too much. Hence, we must carefully analyze ourselves to try to find the particular stress level at which we feel most comfortable. In the end, some degree of stress may actually be good.
Here are a few tips that I have learned from other sages that may help you create more margin, thereby giving you a greater likelihood of winning at home and at work.
Simplify. If we find ourselves being detailed to death, simplification can restore life. What low payoff activities and tasks do we need to strike off the list? Ask yourself these questions: Am I overcommitted? Where do I need to unplug? What material possession can I give away? The more that you have, the more you need to maintain.
Use the 80/20 rule. Invest 20% of your time in activities that produce 80% of the results. Do that 5 times and your impact increases 400%. Now that’s multiplying your impact!
Choose the best. When choosing between good, better and best, pick the best. Good and better are often enemies of the best. This principle applies to time, relationships and money.
Learn to say “no.” Say no to things that aren’t the best, say no to time wasters and say no to activity overload.
Say “yes” to a day of rest. Recharge your batteries, reflect on who you are, why you are here and where you can positively impact the world for good in the week ahead.
Let 2017 be the year that you are content, not complacent. Find time each day to be thankful for the blessings that you enjoy. Then remember to create margin in your life so that you can focus on the things that truly matter.