How to Create Margin in Your Overly Busy Life

Most people I know still feel overwhelmed by life’s demands. Despite all the gadgets and gizmos, they don’t have more time. They are only getting busier—and falling further and further behind.

Stressed Man Rubbing His Eyes - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/sandoclr, Image #53566

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/sandoclr

Sadly, many people are convinced their situation is temporary:

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  • “As soon as I get acclimated to this new job, I will have some breathing room.”
  • “As soon as I get my toddler into school, I will have some margin.”
  • “As soon as my spouse finishes his current work assignment, I will have some help with the kids.”

But, the weeks turn into months. And the months turn into years. People go from one “temporary situation” to the next. Before long, it’s permanent. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we’ve been boiled one degree at a time.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You really can live a balanced life. But first, you have to understand what is creating the busyness in your life.

In my experience, busyness come from one or more of the following sources:

  1. Cutbacks at work. The economic downturn has meant that most organizations are cutting costs. This means fewer people doing the same amount of work. Like the children of Israel under Pharaoh, you are having to “make more bricks with less straw” (Exodus 5:6–9).

    The good news is that if you’ve survived thus far, you’re probably great at multi-tasking, prioritizing, and working under tight deadlines. You’re adding value, and that’s why you still have a job. The downside is you’re not sure when your company will resume hiring and give you some relief.

    What to do? Just say “no.” At least to some things. If you don’t establish boundaries, you will eventually burn out or go through a meltdown—and then you won’t be of much use to anyone.

  2. Competition in the market. In the current environment, more people are competing for fewer jobs. More competition means everyone is working harder just to keep what they have. As a result, it is more difficult to stand out and get noticed.

    This means that you feel more pressure to perform. You don’t want to lose the job you have, so you add more hours, more meetings, and more trips—anything to add value. But when is enough enough? You can drive yourself crazy, constantly looking in the rear-view mirror and wondering when your competition will overtake you.

    What to do? Exercise faith. Fundamentally, it does not all depend on you. God is involved in the process. Work hard, but from a posture of faith, not fear.

  3. Online technologies and gadgets. In our increasingly connected world, we are always on, always accessible, 24/7. While new gadgets and software make it possible to do more in less time, sadly, we often fill this with more work.

    These technologies—email, texting, social media—may start out as a way to connect faster and more efficiently. But soon, they can take over our lives, stealing the last bit of margin we have left. While I am an advocate of technology and social media, there is a cost involved, especially if we don’t proactively manage it.

    What to do? Create boundaries. You don’t have to swear off technology, but you do have to be sensible. If you are accessible to everyone 24/7, you’ll ultimately be accessible to no one—especially those that matter the most.

Yes, balance is possible. But it requires that you recognize the forces that threaten to disrupt it and put into place the appropriate countermeasures.

Question: What is the source of most of your busyness? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Anonymous

    Michael, I love that closing line: “If you are accessible to everyone 24/7, you’ll ultimately be accessible to no one—especially those that matter the most.” It’s SO true!

    I made the simple decision just this week to turn the vibrate feature on my phone off. So my ringer is either on or off. When I’m at home, unless I’m expecting an important call, the ringer stays off. Same thing in meetings.

    I’m liking my decision so far.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Good for you. My oldest daughter sometimes reminds me, “Dad, you’re not saving lives; you’re just making books.” That’s the shot of reality I need. I don’t need to act like I am on-call 24/7. Thanks.

      • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

        But those books you print are helping to change and save lives. Still very important! :-)

      • Donna G

        Having worked in healthcare for a while, we use a similar phrase for decision making and for giving ourselves some grace when we have failed. “Will/did anyone die or was irreparable, long-term harm caused?” Sometimes we get caught up in believing we are more important than we are. I think it has something to do with our sinful nature wanting to elevate us to be on the same level as God. Which does not put us in good company…

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Good for you. My oldest daughter sometimes reminds me, “Dad, you’re not saving lives; you’re just making books.” That’s the shot of reality I need. I don’t need to act like I am on-call 24/7. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/B_Schebs B_Schebs

    For me, the biggest source of my “busyness” were mental blackhole items like Facebook, games and TV. I found that once I cut the cable, and went to Netflix only I am watching more meaningful programs. the vast amount of documentaries provide neverending knowledge. I also got rid of the smart phone. This was a bit of a shocker to everyone, especially since I work for a cell phone company. but not having my corp email and facebook and twitter blowing up every 30 seconds day and night had me making dinner with my wife on a daily basis, for the first time since we were married over 5 years ago. We were both on the go so much that making a meal at home was a once a month thing (only when her mom came to visit). removing the “tech busyness” from my life has dramatically increased my enjoyment of it.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielBecerra Daniel Becerra

    Great stuff Michael! I specially like the “exercise faith” point. I did struggle with this, not trusting them to do it, and I HAD to check constantly, but I exercised faith, and that has freed time and let worry out :)
    I also love the approach of Brian Tracy: Eat the frog in the morning, meaning doing the toughest, least-likely-to-get-done first. If we do the one thing we’ve been putting off for a while first in the morning, that will energize us and gives us a sense of accomplishment to get on to other things the rest of the day.

  • http://twitter.com/NewEnglandHiker Roy Wallen

    In these times, I think we all let the environment of instant messages, instant news, instant updates, instant responses, and othe rinstant interruptions get to us. A wise man once told me that a stable stool has for even-length legs:
    1. Stay close to God
    2. Stay close to your family (starting with your spouse, as applicable)
    3. Stay engaged in your work
    4. Stay committed to free time (time to do what YOU want to do)
    It has worked for me.

  • http://www.brianhinkley.com Brian Hinkley

    I have a long list of thing to do when things settle down. Stuff I was going to do after we moved and the kids went back to school. With a two week old daughter I find I have less time. Some of us try to fool ourselves by saying that we are multi-tasking. I tried to check my Facebook and Twitter on my phone while feeding the baby until I was busted by my wife. Apparently there are things that require our undivided attention and the rest has to wait.

  • http://coachradio.tv/ Justin Lukasavige

    Great thoughts, Michael. I ink it all comes back to determining priorities and making those first.

  • http://twitter.com/ThatGuyKC K.C. Procter

    I think #3 is my biggest area of opportunity. Between work & home computers, smartphone, etc I truly am accessible to everyone AND no one.

    Thank you for the candid advice.

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  • http://twitter.com/MattBeard Matt Beard

    “Work hard, but from a posture of faith, not fear.” I need that tidbit right now. This season is one of uncertainty for me but I have to remember that I’m uncertain simply because I don’t know what the future holds. At times, it seems to easy to forget that I know Who holds the future.

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  • http://www.StephanieLJones.com Stephanie L. Jones

    Michael, thank you for a great blog! I find myself rushing and in a hurry – trying to make up for the years that I spent drinking, getting high, partying, racking up debt, etc…, especially lately. I don’t think a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me about having kids. Initially my answer was quite simple, “I’m not ready.” Recently, I’ve allowed it to put pressure on me. Is this wrong? Absolutely! God is helping me to work it out.

  • Anonymous

    You’re so right. I’m always hearing from people in my organization that “As soon as…….I’m going to get focussed and get go work.” The next week I hear the same thing. Like you said they think their situation is temporary. It seems to me that it’s temporarily permanent.

  • http://musicroad.blogspot.com kerrydexter

    I’d be interested to hear you go further with the idea of working from a position of faith. As someone who works for herself, that’s something I draw on all the time, and it’s been just as challenging if not more so, as it is for someone who works for someone else. but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this and how to refresh and renew that faith while holding to that in hard times. thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/lovinglyyoursG Georgiana

    I have learned that life is not about a destination but a daily journal that we travel one day at a time. It has it’s peaks and valleys of busyness and it’s those times that pace and balance are needed. Priorities need to be accomplished in a timely manner. God never gives us more than we can handle and we can do all things in His strength.

  • http://twitter.com/samdavidson samdavidson

    Balance is important, as you recognize. For me, I don’t view balance in life like a scale, where everything is weighted equally. Life is too dynamic for that. I look at balance like a gymnast on a balance beam. Everything is in constant motion, but it stays balanced. That’s the true trick for those of us with jobs, family, a passion to chase down, and hobbies to enjoy.

    Thanks for shaing these tips.

  • Ben

    I like what you have to say most of the time, but this post left me frustrated. I’ve been thinking about it all weekend. Can you give some practical advice on how to say, “no” to your boss?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      You have to provide an alternative, like, “I already have a commitment for this evening (hence, I can’t work on this tonight), but I could get it done by Thursday. Will that work?” Or, I’m currently working on Project X, which you had previously said you wanted by the end of the day. I can’t add this additional project now, unless you want me to do it first, instead of Project X.”

      You have to establish boundaries and then be creative. Good bosses will respect this.

  • Dblindseyjr

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Michael. I agree: we don’t have to unplug, so long as have balance. But unplugging (for a short time) was recently used as a method for people to learn how to regain control their lives, rather than allowing technology to control their lives: http://www.covenanteyes.com/2011/01/04/what-if-you-unplugged-from-tech-for-a-week/

  • Dblindseyjr

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Michael. I agree: we don’t have to unplug, so long as have balance. But unplugging (for a short time) was recently used as a method for people to learn how to regain control their lives, rather than allowing technology to control their lives: http://www.covenanteyes.com/2011/01/04/what-if-you-unplugged-from-tech-for-a-week/

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com Nikole Hahn

    It’s a struggle. Between family time, rest time, church time, work time, etc, it can feel as if I spend my day running instead of enjoying the place where I am in my life. It’s a daily goal I strive and most of the time succeed. I have to say no. I have to turn away from the computer in order to get rest. It’s a dance.

  • http://brandonwjones.wordpress.com/ Brandon W. Jones

    Michael,
    You brought up some very valuable points. Even though we have advanced in so many ways, we have also gone backwards in other ways. Our oral and interpersonal communication skills are suffering because we are always texting, emailing, tweeting, etc., but we are not talking to each other. It is very important that we set our overall priorities straight and then follow them consistently. By doing that we will keep everything in order. Thanks for the great post!

  • http://twitter.com/jimsimply James Cain

    I always appreciate your posts. Busyness is the elephant in the room, particularly for young families in the suburbs. I’m a bit skeptical about multitasking though, at least as it usually plays out. Are we better at what we do when we focus our attention? And is that worth reordering priorities?

  • http://twitter.com/jimsimply James Cain

    I always appreciate your posts. Busyness is the elephant in the room, particularly for young families in the suburbs. I’m a bit skeptical about multitasking though, at least as it usually plays out. Are we better at what we do when we focus our attention? And is that worth reordering priorities?

  • http://twitter.com/jimsimply James Cain

    I always appreciate your posts. Busyness is the elephant in the room, particularly for young families in the suburbs. I’m a bit skeptical about multitasking though, at least as it usually plays out. Are we better at what we do when we focus our attention? And is that worth reordering priorities?

  • http://twitter.com/jimsimply James Cain

    I like what you say here–these things all eat at my margins. An additional challenge is determining when multitasking starts to hamper your effectiveness. I’ve read a bit about the “myth” of multitasking, and I’ve found that what I do (and who I am) is far better when I fully attend to what or who is in front of me.

  • http://debomendoorhetbosch.blogspot.com/ André Bor

    Thanks for this great post. I would say “The graveyard is full of busy people who thought they were irreplaceable”. And the world keeps turning…

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  • RebeccaLivermore

    This blog post really hit home for me. I’m self employed, so I don’t have the issue of having an employer, but instead I have multiple clients. Though I don’t have a traditional job, I still have to please people.

    I really like the point that you make about working hard, but not out of fear, but faith, recognizing the part that God plays in our security and success. It’s so important to remember that ultimately God is in control and that we have to focus first on pleasing Him and then trusting Him with the outcome. Thanks for that reminder.

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  • http://www.logan.cc/blog/ Bryan

    Two things that I’ve found have saved me a bunch of time.

    1) If you don’t have a DVR, get one.  You go from “watching whatever is on now until what I want to watch comes on” to “watch what you want to watch and skip commercials.
    2) Get rid of TV altogether. Spend that time doing what you want.  But don’t replace it 100% with video games or you gain nothing.

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  • Mary Catherine

    great reminders Michael – I am working hard to make sure we have the grants to support our staff. I have a boss who relies on my ability to get the grants out the door.. I am working hard to prioritize so that I worker smarter not harder. I am using a software that tracks my usage on my computer so I can focus more on getting specific tasks done and I am not losing time in e-mail and social media

  • jm101699

    It is a matter of priorities however when it is game time it is very hard to stop and re-evaluate when too many people and things are demanding for your attention. Great post.

  • Erich Robinson

    Thanks for tweeting a link to this older post (I missed it when you first posted it). This is a theme/issue that is near to my heart (something I’m always working on). I recently shared a post to feature 3 resources to help with an overloaded life. You can find it here: http://resourcesforus.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/three-resources-to-help-you-deal-with-an-overloaded-life/

  • Sean

    Actually, I make it a policy not to be overly busy. I say “no” so stuff (very valuable word: “No”), weighing how much doing more would cost me in terms of “me” time. One only has so much time to do justice to one’s commitments. You cannot do everything–once you admit that, you’re already a lot better off. You can have it all, but it may not be all at once; it may come in stages. That’s fine. And if you don’t get it all, maybe what you don’t have wasn’t that important anyway. I’ve also had to stop comparing my life to others’–stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. Balance, balance, balance, and my life goes better when I live MY life, not somebody else’s.

  • Don Olund

    Margin is key to longevity in personal and professional health. I regularly establish “planned time” and take advantage of “pockets of time”. Planned time is on my calendar (date nights with wife, playing basketball for me). Pockets of time (usually an hour or less) show up during the day and give me time to connect with myself or with a family member. It does a good job of filling my emotional tank and clearing my head.