My simple definition of burnout is doing too much, with too little, for too long. And burnout is not just a scheduling problem. Stress and burnout are often made significantly worse by bitterness and resentment. “I’m the only one who works around here, what do the rest of you lazy bums do?” You can hear the frustration and bitterness building. However, it is important to manage your activity and workload as well. Working under constant pressure and facing steep demands with limited resources can drain your drive and strain your resolve. Therefore, it is vital to not exceed your own personal emotional limitations.
The Concept of Margin
If you have $100 dollars in your checking account and you spend $110, you will bounce the check. You have over-drafted your account, exceeded the limit, and are now overdrawn. There is not enough money in your account to cover the payment. At some banks there are consequences for this action. You may have charges at the bank, returned check fees at the store, late payment charges, added credit problems, and the strain of the whole mess. Some people live in the shadow of this looming misfortune, and it adds a lot pressure to their daily life.
Margin in Money
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little margin in your account? Even just a few spare dollars would make a difference. With a small reserve, you avoid unnecessary fees and live with far less dread and anxiety. Imagine, if you will, two men who both need tires on the front of their trucks. The first man, on a Saturday, looks online to find a tire discounter who is having a sale. Later that same day he purchases two tires, with cash, and has them placed on the front of his truck. The second man also needs tires, but he doesn’t have any money, so he ignores the problem. Monday morning, on his way to work, he has a blowout on the freeway. He has his truck towed off the freeway to a gas station. They sell tires, but are not a discount place and they are not having a sale. The man pays full price and due to some unscrupulous sales tactics he is talked into four tires. He pays with a credit card bearing 21% interest, pays for the tow truck, and misses a half day of work. This little scenario illustrates the adage, “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” It demonstrates the ever-mounting impact of not having margin. This concept of margin not only applies to managing money, but is also relevant to how we manage our time and personal energy.
Margin in Time
Life seems to get busier as time passes. Duties and responsibilities take over the territory of time like an invading army. John Maxwell wisely stated: “time management is an oxymoron.” Time can’t be managed; time just keeps clicking on, tick, tick, tick. What can be managed is priorities. Being overscheduled can greatly increase stress in our lives. Imagine, for a moment, a busy man with a full schedule including: his work, spending time with his family, sleep, going to AA meetings, and playing his guitar. These activities add up to 110% of time available. This of course is impossible; his schedule cannot exceed 100%. To make this work he slights or cheats one area in his life. The first to be curbed might be sleep. For the sake of illustration, let’s say that simple reduction in his schedule is still not enough. He then rotates through his life stealing time where he can. To make life work, he skips an AA meeting, quits playing the guitar, spends less time with his wife, and calls in sick from work. He is stressed, always late, feels guilty, and is constantly tired. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the important areas in his life added up to 80% of time available, giving him margin, some free time, and some peace.
Margin in Personal Energy
The third critical area in life to have margin is personal energy. Having trouble managing the two areas above, time and money, can create increased frustration, stress, and cause you to feel emotionally over-drafted and spent. When the glass is already completely full, one more drop of water causes a spill. To constantly live under monumental stress takes a toll; it results in increased irritability, low frustration tolerance, depression, worry, and feelings of panic. When you’re bouncing checks emotionally you are likely inaccurate in your assessments and overreactive in your responses. You may find yourself constantly upset and bitter, spewing toxins toward your loved ones in every direction. Like the other two areas in life, it is essential to have margin in this area as well. When you do, you can target what is important and ignore what is not. You will have emotional resources in reserve to draw on if an actual critical event were to occur.
Set important goals. Good goals are critical, they help establish direction. If you do not have a clear destination, the work of navigation just seems pointless.
Establish boundaries. When asked to take on another project, a friend of mine used a tactic that simultaneously seemed cooperative and yet set firm limits. She stated that she would love to get involved in that new project, however, her plate was already full. She would say, “let’s sit down and go over what’s already on my plate and talk about what can be removed so I can add this new duty.” Her boss would often say, “never mind, I’ll find someone else.” Communicate your request firmly and with kindness. Make sure your boundary is reasonable and realistic and protects your newly established margins.
Do the difficult things first. Consider the hardest thing you have to do each day: the most difficult conversation you’ll have, the hardest email you need to write, scheduling the appointment you do not want to make, working on the legal situation you do not want to address, or visiting the person you do not want to see. Rather than spend the entire day worrying about the difficult things and then finally doing them, do them first, get them over with, and enjoy the rest of the day with pride in your accomplishment.
Know yourself. Understanding how you work best can be instrumental when trying to create margin in your life. Do you work best alone or in a group? Are you more productive early in the day? Although everyone ends up doing some things they do not like, spending time in your areas of interest can improve your productivity and raise your self-confidence.
Gaining Control over Life
In the example about money, having margin saves money. Having margin in your schedule saves time. Having margin in your personal energy protects your emotional life. And having margin in all three areas will protect your recovery.
Recovery is a journey. Enjoy the ride!