In other words, while we should have considerable “margin” in our lives, we often take on so much that we lose this wonderful benefit of the academy. Dr. Richard Swenson, author of Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, defines margin as “... 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” (p. 69). Margin is essentially the emotional and mental space we need to make the kinds of contributions we all hope to make in higher education.
Why is margin important and yet so hard to maintain?
Maintaining margin is important for our health. Limited margin leads to increased stress and, in extreme cases, mental and physical exhaustion. When our margin is limited, so are our natural reserves. When we’re over-scheduled, overwhelmed, and just plain worn out, we can’t be at our best. We can’t think clearly, be fully present with our students or colleagues, and simply cannot contribute what we’re capable of.
I think working in academia is a little like eating at a really good buffet. It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a great opportunity. Maybe it’s an invitation to contribute a chapter to a book a colleague is editing. It might be a request from a student to work with you on an independent study. It might be a request from your Dean or a foundation representative to write a concept paper for a project you’d like to launch. The challenge is, each time we say yes to a new opportunity, we not only reduce our margin, we also limit our future options. We really need to be more conscious of what we say yes to.
How can we restore some margin in our lives?
Maintaining margin isn’t something I’m great at, unfortunately. When I read Swenson's book, however, I recognized the importance of making changes. Below you’ll find five of his strategies I’ve been working on and enjoying some success with. I hope they inspire you!
- Take a walk. When I’ve had a busy day and need to shift gears to teach a class, meet with a student or attend an important meeting, I try to get outside for a 15-minute walk. Fortunately, we have a beautiful walking path behind our building. Just these 15 minutes outdoors in nature helps me to clear my head and return to whatever is waiting for me with renewed energy, clarity and focus.
- Turn off notifications. If you’re like me, you frequently work on your computer, tablet and/or phone. Your devices attempt to alert you to all manner of updates – a text message, an email, a Twitter message, etc. Most apps have notifications turned on by default. The result is a seemingly never-ending stream of beeps, buzzes, and alerts. Turn off all but the most critical. There’s no need to be continually interrupted and further reminded of all there is to do. Trust me, they’ll wait for you.
- Schedule time to read. We all need to read to stay on top of new developments and contributions in our fields. Unfortunately, this is the kind of activity that while important, isn’t urgent. Consequently, it’s easy to put this off in favor of doing more time sensitive or pressing tasks. The solution? Put it on your calendar. Schedule reading time at least a few times a week – preferably when you know your creative energies will be low. For me, this is late afternoons, especially at the end of the week. Once it’s scheduled, don’t put it off. Consider it a commitment to yourself and your personal development.
- Reserve white space on your calendar. Whether you use a paper-based calendar or a digital version, it’s easy to see when your unscheduled time is shrinking. It’s critical to reserve some white space in your calendar – both as a buffer when appointments or meetings go longer than planned, and as a means to provide you with needed breaks. If you have to, block out some time each day as downtime. I even use a white label on my Exchange calendar so that it reminds me that I have some breathing room.
- Get your rest. We live in an always-connected world. We could literally work 24 hours a day with the Internet and access to our files from anywhere. Getting good rest (shoot for 7-8 solid hours a night), taking time off, and disconnecting from email, students, and colleagues from time to time is critical. While it can be difficult at first to set these kinds of boundaries, it’s critical for us to maintain our margin.
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