Margin #1: Progress, and the Modern Life

For the last few weeks, I've been reading (and greatly enjoying!) a book called Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.  If you're not familiar with the idea of "margin", here's a telling snippet from the 1st chapter:
"Progress has given us unprecedented affluence, education, technology, and entertainment.  We have comforts and conveniences other eras could only dream about.  Yet somehow, we are not flourishing under the gifts of modernity as one would expect.  ... How is it possible that the homemaker is still tired despite the help of the washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner?  If we are so prosperous, why are the therapists' offices so full?"
"Margin," he writes, "is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.  Marginless is being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift."

He makes the point that some people believe that nothing's different now; "we've always had stress, it's just different stress now", they say.  His reply?
"I'm not the one who's making the fuss; I'm only writing about it.  I'm only being honest about what I see all around me.  Something's wrong.  People are tired and frazzled.  People are anxious and depressed.  People don't have time to heal anymore."

Dr. Swenson boils it down to this simple situation:

  • Symptom: Pain
  • Diagnosis: Overload
  • Prescription: Margin
  • Prognosis: Health

He prescribes building margin into our lives in order to restore sanity and build up a "reserve" in our lives, so that we can focus on and do what is most significant.

The Link Between Progress & Margin
I'm interested to read his recommendations for how to deal with stress and "marginlessness" in our lives, because he makes the point-- an interesting one-- that the decrease of margin in our lives is directly correlated to the march of progress.
"In a general sense, those cultures with the most progress are the same as those with the least margin.  Margin has been stolen away, and progress was the thief." 
One example offered is that when progress meets a tree, it makes "tables, chairs, bowls, and toothpicks."  Progress always changes, and gives us increasing amounts of things at increasingly faster speeds.  And yet, in the midst of all these efforts to make things bigger, faster, more intense, and better, human beings still exist with fixed, human limits.  There is only so much we can do in a day, only so hard we can push our physical bodies, only so much pressure our emotions can handle, etc.

From what I can tell of Dr. Swenson's recommendations just four chapters in, the goal of this book is not to encourage us to stop progress, hide in a cave, or become Amish.  I like how he closed up chapter two:
"Please understand: progress is not evil.  Similarly stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload are, for the most part, not enemies.  But we have different conditions at play than at any other time in our history and we must discern our course carefully lest we be overwhelmed by forces out of control.   
"We must have some room to breathe.  We need freedom to think and permission to heal.  Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity.  No one has the time to listen, let alone love.  Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions.  Is God now pro-exhaustion?  Doesn't He lead people beside the still waters anymore?  Who plundered those wide-open spaces of the past, and how can we get them back?"

Do these questions and concerns resonate with you?

Do you feel maxed out and spent?

Do you see a connection between the rise of technology/progress, and the lack of "margin"/space in your life?  Isn't it ironic that the more "in touch" we are with one another (Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc.), the less human-to-human interaction there really is?  Perhaps you've read this book, or another one on this subject?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Image: m_bartosch /


michelle said...


The lack of margin in our own family's life has been on my mind a lot this past month. I have not read the book you mention, but it has been recommended to me. Your post definitely resonates with me. I just can't seem to grasp how to regain margin once it is lost. Does he offer any practical ways to do this?

Thanks so much!

Ruth said...

This does resonate with me. I have been noticing lately how much people fail to relate and care for other people. We get in elevators and everyone is checking their phones instead of saying a pleasant hello. Often times store clerks don't even look you in the eye; they just robotically take the next customer. I can't even call the pediatrician's office without going through pre recorded messages and holding for half an hour. Families sit at a table while everyone is on their own source of media. Our mall recently hung giant screens in the hallways so that now we can watch media as we walk the halls. It wasn't enough to have them all over the food court. Now the hallways have to have huge screens as well. I do love the opportunities media provides for encouragement and information, but I see some terribly scary things happening to the souls of people and sadly to children growing up who don't know anything different.

Jess said...

Thanks for your comment- yes, I'm about 7 or 8 chapters in, and I'm continuing to write up a summary every couple of chapters... I'm not yet to the "solution" part, but I am appreciating the insight he gives into the problem. Keep reading & I'd love to hear your continued comments.

The things you have written really are alarming and cause me to realize how things have changed. You're right; I hadn't even spent much time thinking about the decrease of community interaction (like with store clerks & in elevators) because I've been so shocked (after returning to the US in March) at the decrease in interpersonal/face-to-face communication even in friendly circles, the church, family meals, that kind of thing.

Thanks for speaking up! I hope you'll continue to weigh in in the coming installations as I share about the book.

Kate said...

I've had that book on my amazon wish list for a long time, seems fascinating. From what you've shared, his hypothesis makes a lot of sense. But it's something you really have to stop and think about to see it. The problem of lack of margin is sort of hidden under all the "benefits" of our bigger, faster, stronger, better cultural developments.

Yes, our mental, emotional and physical capacities are just as finite as they were 200 years ago. I think a lot of these technological advances come from a place of laziness and probably greed too. The major chain supermarkets have rewards cards that the cashier scans while looking sullen and despondent, then your name pops up from the rewards card info and they mumble "Thanks Mrs. Jones" as if this equates to friendliness. It's just a sad, contrived scene.

Personally, as a family who has been very 'low-income' for years, we've/ I've struggled in many different situations where a heavy load of assumptions are in place, based on our margin stealing culture. Like, I am made to feel like I'm losing the game of life because we can't afford to give gifts most of the time, or "afford" to have fun with my family, or pay for family portraits and basically we can't afford to have friends and on and on. But the thing is, considering our income, the only way we could afford to do things other than survive, we'd have to live in basically a studio apartment... oh but wait, we can't because it's against the law for 4 people to do that. There are LAWS that are built in to restrict margin. But we're "benefiting" from the larger apartment, so that people can play the game and show their love for us by buying us piles of toys that we don't need instead of investing relationally.

This topic is worth some deep thinking, glad you brought it up!

Jess said...

When I'm done with it, I can mail it your way if you'd like.

Diana said...

I have not read the book (a little too dense for me!) but I am familiar with the concept, have heard Swenson speak, and try to put margin in my and my family's life.

However, I think corporate America is in the business of stealing margin, especially with the downturn in the economy. In our experience, they capitalize on the fact that people are anxious about being out of work to demand more and more outrageous hours from their employees.

In addition, they pare their departments down to bare minimum meaning the guy who actually knows what he's doing gets called all the time, even when he's not on call. DH always works 50 hours a week, sometimes 60, and occasionally 80. He does what he can to keep it under control, but it's very difficult.

I find myself saying no to things I want to do to make up for the lack of margin in dh's life.

Angie said...

I have also heard about this book but not have not taken the time to read it. I do have one next on my list about homeschool burnout though and I wonder if there will be some similar ideas? I especially think about it during this season when it seems so rushed to go to events and get shopping done all to tell people you love them. My love language is quality time and words of affirmation so I can see how creating a margin in our life would be like a breath of fresh air. I am looking forward to reading your summaries and will be checking to see if this is at our library. Thanks so much for your insights. I always enjoy reading your posts.

Mrs. Cheerio said...

I would love to read this book! I will make a note to add it to my list.

Our pastor has discussed this very topic on a number of occasions. One of the biggest symptoms, he says, is our culture/society's lack of attention or impatience. We are distracted from everything all the time because there is always something new, fast and fun to tinker with. He speaks on this in general and also as it relates to social media. We have trained our brains to want instant gratification and get it quickly these days.

Great post!

Thia said...

Good post and good comments! I have not read this book, but it's going on my amazon list. I am interested to know what he says about the things we have little control over...such as the apartment situation or work situation. I suppose, he'd say to switch jobs? But that's the easy, pat answer which really is not helpful because the sole breadwinner of the family cannot just get a new job these days, not with the economy and so many companies expecting too much etc. My personal margins have decreased until I have very little time set aside for my introvert self. I feel the need to protect this time and end up guarding it too closely.

Betty A. said...

As an older reader (77) I remember when no lawn mower could be heard on a Sunday in our small town. Everything stopped for one day in seven. Sunday was a day of worship and family time together. Stores were closed. I believe the Lord gives us one day in seven for margin in our lives--and for our good!
Betty A.

Jess said...

Thia- tune in... like I said, I'm in the middle of the book, but I'm writing up synopsis of his points/suggestions every 2 chapters, and so far it seems really practical, so let's see what he says as it keeps going...

Thank you for speaking up! We've kept a family "sabbath" every Saturday while we lived in Turkey, and it was always so restful. Not sure how we'll handle that here in the US, but it sure does make a difference to leave out a day of real rest. And you're right-- God built that in to be a part of our lives.


Ashley L said...

This is totally along the lines of something I've been thinking about (and just blogged about the other day!). I would love to read this book sometime! We just got back to Russia after 4 months on furlough, and my life here feels so much healthier and more sane! A lot of it is because we DON'T have a lot of the modern conveniences (dish washer, dryer, convenience foods...), so I am forced to do a lot of mundane but stress-free stuff everyday. I have often sought to minimize the amount of time I spend on these things but after this summer have seen them in a totally new light. I am so grateful for these quiet times, that though they involve work, they rest my mind and give me time to re-charge emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually as I can pray or meditate on scripture during these times. I had been so excited to see that dish washers are becoming more mainstream here, but I am now thinking I don't need one anymore. I think I like the quiet mental time that I get as I scrub dishes each day. =)

Jess said...

That's actually one of the points he makes in a later chapter-- that, in the process of modernizing to machines that do our mundane tasks, we have lost the mental time we had while doing those mundane tasks to have time to think, assess life, and just take time to watch the children playing outside while we did those mundane tasks.

From what I've read thus far, he absolutely does not call for a return to the "olden" days, which would be unrealistic anyway, since most people can't do that. But I think I'm getting more to a place in the book where I'm seeing where his solutions are leading... I think it's all about being intentional in whatever situation we find ourselves in, to build in that "margin". So for you, it could be not getting the dishwasher. Or it could be going ahead and getting the dishwasher, but thoughtfully building in other times in your life when you can have time to just think and be.

Maybe more like a sabbath mindset, like Betty A. mentioned, where we insist on building that "extra" time into our lives, in whatever ways are suitable to our particular situation. I'm looking forward to reading and learning more from this guy.

Beth Celestin said...

Jess, I'm reading A Minute of Margin by Richard Swenson. It's been eye-opening. I used examples from it when leading our women's Bible study this Fall. I had never heard of the idea of "margin" in one's life. In fact, I don't think many people have. It's like we don't notice the gradual changes so we just think it's all normal and natural. As a person who is always trying to simplify my own life, I think this book is a great resource. I loved the thoughts in your post as well as all the thoughts from your readers!

Kate said...

Yes, I would like to hear what the author suggests how to go about restoring a margin to our lives.

Allison said...

This really strikes a chord with me, as I see it has with many others. What I want to know though, is what do you do when you've already pared down your life to the bare minimums? I mean, we aren't involved in any extra activities aside from church (our kids are still little),and we do eat most meals together as a family, but my husband is still in seminary, so we are both working part-time so that we can get by without putting the kids in any kind of childcare. And I am exhausted. We both are. A friend of mine recently advised me that I can't keep burning the candle at both ends, but I don't know how to stop! How do I simultaneously create more margin without neglecting the necessities (like doing the dishes, cooking dinner, and making enough money to survive)?

Jess said...

At that point, I think you share your burden with your Lord, and your husband, and your local church Body, and see how God meets your needs and helps you with the burdens you carry.

Part of the current problem that Swenson identifies (and that we all can relate to) is that most new couples and new parents start jobs/life away from their extended family, and don't have built in supports like people used to have. Even if you have great encouragements and Titus 2 women in your life, it's still not the same as a mom seeing the burden her daughter is carrying and (even if SHE's exhausted) saying, "let me take the kids for the morning/afternoon/weekend". It's just not the same....older women in the Body of Christ are often working long hours themselves, and not eager to take on someone else's kids to whom they have no natural attachment.

When we lived in China & Turkey, one of the things we've noticed is the way that extended families live together and all pitch in when there's a new baby. We don't do that so well in modern America.

And so we march on carrying burdens that the rest of the world (even though they, by and large, have WAY more "margin" than we do) recognizes are too heavy for one (or two) person(s) to carry.

To answer your question- I don't know... each of our lives, skills, and what "load" we can carry look different from one another. What about trade-offs with other seminary wives, kind of like a rotating mother's day out? Would a different meal-making formation help (i.e., once-a-month cooking, or one night a week where you trade off cooking with another seminary wife (i.e., Thursday night this week, you cook for both families, and she has a night free from cooking/dishes/etc, and then the next week, it's her turn? and then you both get fellowship and a night of relative freedom?)? I think building in ways of supporting one another in our church communities may be *part* of the answer.

I hope you'll stick around and continue to share your thoughts and struggles as I keep writing about ideas learned from the book. And maybe other women can chime in with ideas/strategies that have worked in their own lives, in similar situations?


Anonymous said...

I have completely enjoyed this article and all the comments. I never heard of the term "margin" before but I do see the definition played out every day.

This is geared toward Allison.

Allison, I think I understand your situation: husband in seminary, young family and both parents working, no free time and no family time. During that time in our lives, I spiritually was not where I needed to be. I didn't care about anything, just making it through the next day. My husband knew me better than I knew myself those days. In the middle of a semester we moved home. Literally with no job and little money we got out of there. We only had to live with family for a couple of weeks, and then another place for a couple of months until things really settled down. I was able to stay at home in a town with a lower cost of living, my husband got a job he wanted and was able to finish his degree at a slower and less intense pace at an extension campus, which actually made it more affordable, just over a longer period of time.

I don't know if any of our story could help you, but you are burning the stick at both ends. I hope you can find a better solution than both of you working to put food on the table and pay for seminary.


Jess said...

Wanted to share this great quote I just read:

“We simplify, not just to be less busy, even though we may be right to pursue that. Rather, we simplify to remove distractions from our pursuit of Christ. We prune activities from our lives, not only to get organized, but also that our devotion to Christ and service from His kingdom will be more fruitful. We simplify, not merely to save time, but to eliminate hindrances to the time we devote to knowing Christ. All the reasons we simplify should eventually lead us to Jesus Christ.” Donald S. Whitney

Jessika said...

I am slowly reading both this book and "Simplicity Parenting". They make a great combination.
"Simplicity Parenting" looks at stress children feel and how to reduce that by clearing the clutter from their mental and physical space as well as their schedule. We homeschool and both of my kids have recently been feeling stress that I have been able to reduce simply by suggesting that we clear out some activities. I've also been able to help my kids and myself by not listening to NPR during the day. The world news was making all of us more worried than informed. Our mental space was cluttered. Thanks for posting about this. I think it's such an important topic, but a hard thing to impliment in our lives.

Jess said...

And one more:

Quote from Cynthia Heald: “My concern is that we live in a world where doing, communicating, and possessing so rule our lives that we have allowed even good things to overtake our time and distract from the best. The purpose…is not show you how to downsize, declutter, or say no to everything. The purpose is to encourage you to live life the way God has planned for you. I think His way is one of inner peace and rest in the midst of a complex and busy world. My definitions of a woman of simplicity is one who lives a God-paced life. She waits for God’s leading, and she has time to be still and know her Lord. She has a deep abiding rest in her spirit. She is a woman of profound simplicity because she has only one focus: being simply and purely devoted to Christ.”

These are timely quotes!

Polly said...

I read Margin several times, several years ago before I had children, and I've given it as gifts to several people! So yeah, I liked it. It helped validate my feeling that I was too busy, and helped shape the vision for the life we lead now....which has margin. ;) I created margin in my life by leaving the full-time practice of law, committing to being debt-free (we only had a mortgage but we wanted it gone) & in subsequent years, pruning activities, prioritizing, etc. The book was a great catalyst for these changes.

Allison said...

I really appreciate the response to the question I posed several nights ago. I came across this blog post on a day in which I was especially struggling with this issue, so my post was probably a slight exaggeration of my circumstances. In other words, okay, so it's not ALWAYS that bad.

That said, my need to create more margin is definitely there! That same night, I did two things to create more margin. One, I canceled a big out-of-town trip that was going to take alot out of us (my husband was already unable to go). Two, I re-scheduled an exam I'm taking next month related to my job as an RN. Now I have two additional weeks to prepare, so the pressure is greatly reduced. I feel so much better already!!

Liz said...

Jess, I am just now getting caught up on reading your blog... and I was reading Margins last fall too... I"m falling out of love with Progress, as it has been called.

Always enjoy your blog - come away with something to think about it. Its really uncanny how we're thinking about the same topics so often.

Maybe we will eventually get to that IRL meeting...

Kieran said...

Ever notice that stress has increased since the tradition of taking a day of rest has been less widely observed? There is a reason (well, several) why keeping the Sabbath is a commandment. It is necessary for us. Jews on the Sabbath do no work, no heavy lifting, no cooking, use no electronic devices and remember the history of salvation in a concrete way (the Shabbat meal).
Another thing that Shabbat teaches us is preparation. A day of quiet and rest doesn't come free. We have to prepare food ahead of time, have ingredients ready, be prepared to ignore phone calls, texts and emails. You may need to make a stand to protect this sacred time. You have to decide what it's worth to you.
It will cost you. But it will be worth it.

If you say you can't possibly keep Shabbat because of sporting commitments, work, because you NEED to be 'connected,' fine. Just be aware that you have made your decision.