Surprisingly Simple Strategy for Lowering Your Stress

Be intentional about building margin into your schedule!

We’ve all got those pesky margin munchers. The limiting beliefs, the bad habits, and fears that eat into the margins of our lives until our schedule is over-run with commitments, tasks, and responsibilities. When we take on more than we are designed to handle, something’s gotta give and it shouldn’t be our health, sanity, and most vital relationships. Unfortunately, when the load is too heavy, those three things are typically the first to go overboard. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Try the simple strategy outlined in this post and I think you’ll find you will regularly have more margin in which to really LIVE!

Compare the two pages in the graphic below.

The one on the left has no white space around the edges or between paragraphs. The monotonous text is never broken up with images or space. With text crammed from top to bottom and side to side, just looking at the packed page is a strain, I can’t imagine trying to read a book with that layout. It would be arduous to focus on the content, particularly if it was complex in nature or emotionally taxing.

Yet many of us live our lives like that. Never breaking up the monotony with some space for reflection, relating, and resting. No wonder we’re stressed out and exhausted. Does a life more like the page on the right look more enjoyable to live? Of course!

The margins are not superfluous. They are crucial.

We all know we need to be intentional when we say yes to something or someone.

However, faced with a multitude of requests from good people to do good things, our intentions will quickly become swamped by feelings of guilt and misplaced responsibility. And (let’s be honest) there is usually some element of stroking our ego and maintaining an illusion of control which causes yes to fly out when a no is actually more appropriate.

Simple Steps to a Saner Schedule

Get Clear On Your Priorities

There are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week, 365 days in a year. You’re not going to get more time. If everything is important, nothing is. So let’s be sure we have clarity when it comes to how we want to spend our time.

Knowing what is important is the first step. Get honest with yourself about your priorities.

Actually write your most important areas of your life down on a sheet of paper. For example, mine are:

  • Relationship with God
  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Health (physical, emotional)
  • Personal Growth
  • Service to Others

Now, use your list of priorities as a compass to navigate the rest of the process.

Ecc 4_6 NIV

Click the image to see the Scripture passage at BibleGateway.com.

Compare Your Reality With Your Ideal

Do a quick brain dump of your project list and calendar for the next 90 days. Be sure and include your day-to-day responsibilities (I tend to overlook those things like laundry, grocery shopping, and so forth that take real time on a regular basis). So take a second look at your list and be sure you have not only the glamorous but the mundane covered.

Now step back and evaluate whether your list reflects your priorities. Are all of your most important areas of life represented on your project/to do list? Are they getting the necessary quality and quantity of focus or are you short-changing these important domains because you’re spending too much time on urgent but less important commitments?

Is it realistic to think you can get to all of those things given the time you have available (without robbing time from sleep, exercise, and such to squeeze in a few more items?).

Ask yourself WHY each item is on the list/calendar. Is the reason in alignment with your priorities, values, and beliefs? Or, as most of us discover, are there tasks listed from one of those less noble motivators, such as:

  • If I don’t do it, it won’t get done (also translated as “it won’t get done like I’d do it).
  • If I say no it will cause a problem/inconvenience for someone else.
  • There’s no one else who is capable of doing X.
  • What will people think if I don’t help out with Y?

Put an X by any item that is out of alignment with your core values and priorities.

Put a M by those things motivated by ego or a desire for control.

Now, highlight those things that ONLY YOU can do. These are things for which God has given you unique stewardship (for example, only you can be your kiddos mom/dad. Only you can be a spouse to your spouse.) Highlight only those things that no one else could do—be honest with yourself!

Get Real About Your Stewardship of Time and Talents

Putting too much on our plate shows a lack of faith in God to provide. And it reveals we have too much faith in our own ability to provide.

We are guilty of pride if we think we are the only ones He has gifted and equipped to accomplish all those tasks/projects on our list. And, we’ll be so busy doing things He never called us to that we can’t exercise proper stewardship over our own calling.

In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey used the illustration of filling a container with various sized rocks. If you put the big ones in first, the little ones will fit in around them. However, if you put the gravel and sand in before placing the large rocks, you’ll never get it all in the container. What would you rather leave out? The grit and gravel or your most important priorities.

Let’s put our big rocks in first…

Put the tasks, appointments, and commitments you’ve highlight on your calendar/to do list system. Block out a little extra time around each one to allow for the unforeseen (but seemingly inevitable) hiccups.

Now, before you put anything else on your calendar / to do list block off some margin in your calendar. Yes, margin is a big rock! If you don’t plan it, your calendar will end up like that page on the left without white space around and within the text. You need to leave room for rest, reflection, and restoration. Think of those as the images on the page that break up the monotony and help you interpret the text around them.

Now, if you have space, energy, and focus left to allocate, you may add in additional items. Do it intentionally!

Free Guide to Getting the Right Things Done

Need a little more detailed step-by-step process? Try the tips and method I’ve outlined in the free cheat sheet, What To Do When There Aren’t Enough Hours in the Day.

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Send me the free guide!

Need Some One-on-One Guidance?

I’d be happy to coach you through the process. We can meet in person if you’re in the Georgetown/Austin area of Texas. Or I can coach you via the phone or Skype. Check out my coaching page for more details and to book a free consultation session.

I hope you'll jump into the conversation by leaving a comment. I would love for each post to be like a dinner party conversation in which many people participate, each adding their own perspectives and ideas. Just keep in mind that we want to treat others as we would like to be treated, so please keep your comments constructive and on topic. Feel free to post viewpoints and ideas that differ from mine or others but refrain from personal attacks or offensive language. I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or which demean or belittle another member of the Making It Real community.