Create and Protect “Margin” in Your Schedule

Credit: BananaStock / Thinkstock

One of my greatest weaknesses is that I say “yes” to way too many opportunities and I spread myself too thin. What usually results is increased stress and decreased rest. I fill up my time with activities – work responsibilities, ministry opportunities, even social commitments – to the point where my schedule is always full, all of the time.

This has been a life-long problem. It’s unhealthy, and it’s not sustainable. I’ve been on numerous short-term mission trips in my life, and you can keep up that level of activity for 2 or 3 weeks. But it will kill you over the long-haul.

I want to survive and thrive for years and decades to come!  For me, this means I HAVE to slow down, reign in my schedule, and learn to say “NO” to excessive activities, opportunities, and responsibilities.

There is a word for the blank space beyond the edges of print in the pages of a book: margin. This word “margin” has several meanings. With regard to scheduling and calendars, the margin is the unplanned or open places in your schedule or calendar. It’s your free time. It’s when you have nothing planned. It’s your opportunity to get bored!

I can’t even remember the last time I felt bored and had “nothing to do” – but it’s my own fault!

One of my lifelong problems has been that I fill up my time too much, and I leave no room for margin in my life. As a result, there’s no room for ANYTHING to go wrong:

  • No meeting can run late.
  • I can’t get sick.
  • It can’t rain.
  • They’re can’t be any traffic.
  • My car can never have any trouble.
  • I can’t accept any unplanned phone calls or receive any visitors that I wasn’t already expecting!
  • It’s ridiculous!

Below we have two pages for comparison. The page of notes on the left has plenty of blank space in the margins, while the margins on the page on the right are totally filled up with writing!

For me, the consequences of doing this to my schedule are that I fill up my life with stress, and the first things to get cut out of my life if I’m ever running behind schedule are the things that would actually alleviate my stress (if I would let them…) – mainly sleep and fun and time alone with God.

When I don’t leave adequate time in my week for rest, fun, and God, I get stressed out, the pressure builds up, and I explode at silly, insignificant stuff that doesn’t matter and isn’t worth my time:

  • When my zipper won’t zip.
  • When the key doesn’t unlock the door on the first try.
  • When the printer doesn’t print!

I have flipped-out over printers not printing more than over any other thing in my life!  But the printer is not really the problem – it’s just a symptom of a deeper heart issue in me that needs correcting.

One of my favorite bands, Waterdeep, has a song called “He Will Come”, and one of the lyrics from this song says,

He spilled his coffee in his Chevy on the way to work at 8:05.

He can handle any tragedy that happens, but not little things like this…

I identify with that song lyric so well!  I get to deal with some really stressful – sometimes even tragic – stuff in my line of work. The Lord’s grace is enough to see me through those tragedies. But the stress of those situations builds up, and I NEED a weekly Sabbath rest to decompress and to settle my nerves.

When I don’t, the pressure is too great when something small happens – like the printer doesn’t print – and I explode!

I’ve done some introspection on this, and I’ve asked God to help me understand WHY I fill up my life – why do my margins look more like that page on the right than the page on the left?  And I feel like He has revealed two things to me about myself:

The first one is, I simply like to be busy. I just enjoy having things to do – and that’s okay up to a certain point. I know time is a precious, limited resource from God, and so I hate ever feeling like I’m wasting time. I just naturally think that time spent doing nothing is wasted time. But the Lord is telling me it’s not. I need to have a day of “doing nothing” in my weekly schedule if I really want to survive and thrive in this type of work for the long-haul.

The second thing He is showing me is much more raw – it touches a deeper place in my life that I still struggle through every single day. And that is that I actually fear saying “no” to any opportunity – whether it be a work opportunity or a ministry opportunity – or even just a fun social opportunity when I know that I really don’t have time for it at that moment. I commit. I over-commit, and in rolls the unmitigated stress.

Not long ago, I read a short book by Doug Fields called What Matters Most: When NO is Better Than YES, and in that book, Fields says that when you say “Yes” to anything, you have to remember that you are simultaneously saying “No” to everything else.

That is a HUGE lesson for me to remember, as a person who is terrified of saying “no” to people or to opportunities!

The Lord is helping me to learn to say “no”. He is helping me not to always fill up all my schedule, cramming it as full of activities as possible…  As much as I may want to – or even feel compelled to by some unhealthy inner fear of missing out on something – the Lord is teaching me to value His gift of the Sabbath to me.

I must admit, I am a slow and reluctant learner…

…but with God’s help, I want to learn to make my life look and feel more like the page on the left. I want there to be margin in my life so that I can welcome unexpected phone calls and visitors – both at work and at home – without feeling frustrated and inconvenienced. I don’t want to be so over-extended that I burn-out. With God’s patient help, I want to thrive in this work for many years to come.

And I very much want that for each one of you, too.


Nick Cash is a faithful contributor. Thanks, Nick!

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