As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Nowadays, with our fragmented, complicated and fast-paced lives, having deep meaningful relationships that we can count on are fast becoming a rarity that we can only yearn for. At work, we hope to work in a tribe with a great culture that gives us a sense of belonging. Socially, we yearn to reconnect deeper with our friends. At home, we desire to spend more quality time with our family.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the reality is far from this ideal. Our relationships are becoming increasingly superficial, as we drift further and further from one another, feeling more and more like strangers along the way. Over time, the sense of loss can only become increasingly painful, until one day we wake up and find ourselves overwhelmed by acute loneliness.
You may be travelling along this path and want to reverse course by rebuilding the connections of your relationships. To do that, you have to understand that you cannot exclude the most fundamental ingredient of awesome relationships: margin time. Without this fundamental ingredient, all your heroic efforts will be doomed to fail.
So, what is ‘margin time’?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at the concept of ‘margin’. In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson explained,
Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.
When you drive along a highway, there is always a margin between the edge of the road and the guardrails. As your car moves towards the guardrails (the limits), your margin diminishes and your tension level increases. Financially, the gap between what you spend and what you have is your margin. As your expenditure increases towards your financial limit, your financial stress increases.
Likewise, the gap between the time you need to spend and your available time is your margin time. As the gap narrows, you feel more and more uneasy. Once you cross that gap, you are said to be overloaded and you start to feel out of control and stressed. Margin time is basically your free time. It is basically the time you have left after doing the things you need to do. You can only relax, rest and wind down during your margin time. As Richard Swenson continued,
Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. Most people are not quite sure when they pass from margin to overload. Threshold points are not easily measurable and are also different for different people in different circumstances. We don’t want to be under-achievers (heaven forbid!), so we fill our schedules uncritically. Options are as attractive as they are numerous, and we overbook.
The problem with modern life is that we tend to fill up our time with schedules, responsibilities and tasks beyond the available time we have. And we deceive ourselves into thinking that with better ‘time-management’ skills, we can somehow further compress our time into the fixed container of 24 hours a day. As a result, we run our lives with zero (or rather, negative) margin time.
Now, get this: The magic that nurtures and flourishes relationships can only happen during margin time. That’s the time when everyone is relaxed and can pay full attention to one another. That’s when everyone can put aside what’s in their mind and be mentally present. It is during margin time when everyone notices the beautiful moments together that will be etched into long-term memory. It is during this time when bonding occurs and relationships get sealed. And when bonding occurs and relationships grow, the foundation of an awesome group culture is laid.
Conversely, without margin time, the foundations of great relationships, and by extension, great team cultures, cannot be built. In fact, negative margin time (that is when your load goes beyond your time limit) is a destructive force that gradually deconstructs from what is already built. The pressures and stresses of negative margin time put people into tunnel vision. Once people enter into tunnel visions, they become so preoccupied with the problems in their own little world that they cease to care about others. This can be perceived as selfishness, which results in hard feelings and isolation between people. That in turn narrow tunnel vision even further, which in turns starts another round of vicious cycle. When that happens, relationships within the group culture descend into a downward spiral.
Very sadly, the pressures of modern life put margin time into an existential threat.
At work, the pressure on management to squeeze out every ounce of financial and operational efficiency places staffs’ margin time at its crosshairs for elimination. Make no mistake: margin time is ‘inefficient’ by definition because it is seen as wasted slack. But without it, personal relationships fray, the team fragments, the culture of the work group suffers and staffs burn out. In the long run, this will result in less efficiency at best, or break up of the entire team at worst.
Next, we have technological devices demanding every second of our time as well. Emails, instant messaging, social media, smartphone apps, games, websites, Internet advertising, online services and other technological distractions are specially designed to manipulate us into giving away whatever is left of our margin time in the form of our attention.
In view of the existential threat to our margin time, we have to put our utmost effort to contend for it. We have to fight the hooks on our time, battle tooth and nail to remove those hooks and give our relationships a fighting chance to recover. Often, the battle is fought within ourselves in our mind. The hooks on our time are there because we allow them to be there in the first place. We are hoodwinked into believing that we need those hooks and that they are good for us. For example, when we do not know how to say ”No” at work, an unreasonable amount of obligations and demands start to pile up. We soldier on, believing many unconscious lies of what may happen if we say “No”. Such lies include:
- Financial catastrophe will eventually befall us
- We are irresponsible
- We will be disliked
- Our professional standing will be affected
- Our value as human beings will be diminished, and so on.
In actual fact, we don’t need these hooks on our time. They are gradually undermining our emotional and psychological well-being (and even our physical well-being) by nibbling away at the foundation of our relationships.
Even when we achieve victory in removing those unwanted hooks, we may feel a sense of unease as we adjust to the new reality of having margin time. We may start to feel some kind of emptiness and believe that we are somehow not living our lives to the very best. Remember, as I mentioned before, margin time is ‘inefficient’. But this ‘inefficiency’ is the very magic that nurtures and flourishes your connections to other people, which form the basis of awesome relationships. In the context of work, awesome relationships form the heart of amazing team cultures, which in turn foster a sense of belonging and group cohesiveness. Once you rebuild your connections with others, the initial emptiness of having ‘too much’ time in your hands will, in the long run, fill the emptiness of loneliness caused by broken connections.
You only live once. Do not overfill your time to live a life of misery. Leave some space for people connections instead.