I Got Rhythm, I Got Margin (Who Could Ask for Anything More?)

For those of us in ministry, fatigue can often seem like a badge of honor. “Look at me! I’m so sold out for God that I’m burnt out all the time!” But God didn’t design us to be perennially run down. It is possible—and far preferable—to steward our bodies and minds, living healthy lives instead of constantly fatigued ones.

To be consistently healthy, you need two things: rhythm and margin.

Rhythm: Familiar Yet Novel

God made the world according to rhythms, and there is something inherently beautiful about them. Rhythms combine our innate desire for the familiar with our equally innate desire for the novelRhythms are simultaneously comfortable yet exciting.

In Genesis 1, God created the universe in a beautiful, sequenced rhythm. The seasons follow each other in the same fashion. Our bodies reflect this rhythm, as our lungs and heart follow specific repeating patterns. Music, even the most bizarre, always follows a set rhythm. Stories, too.

Rhythm keeps you from running down. The alternative to following a rhythm is that you will find yourself rushing from one thing to the next, getting “inexplicably” tired. But it’s not inexplicable: it’s by design. Running wide open in everything you do wears you out.

Many people feel like adopting a rhythm or pattern in personal areas of life means that they’ll become routine and stale. When we schedule something, we think, we risk cheapening its authenticity and sincerity. But I’ve found the opposite to be the case. If I don’t make intentional for most things, they don’t stay fresh and authentic—they simply don’t happen at all.

Take, as just one example, reading books. People often ask me how I read as many books as I do. A lot of that is that I set aside 30 minutes every night to read. It’s a part of my daily rhythm. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish when you have designated time in your daily or weekly rhythm.

To recover a rhythm in your life, you need intentionality and constancy. Designate a recurring time for the important parts of your life, and stick to it. Do your quiet time at the same time every day. Carve out time with your spouse and your children. And if your work is like mine—requiring many of the same activities week after week—then follow a pattern. Brainstorm, execute, celebrate, rest.

Most people can sustain tremendous amounts of strain if they know what to expect. And that is precisely what rhythm accomplishes.

Margin: Don’t Max Out

Margin dovetails in to the idea of rhythm. A rhythmic life will be one that has plenty of “give” to it. Stress doesn’t just come from challenging tasks, but from maxing out all of our capacities. Margin means we intentionally keep ourselves from constantly running “in the red.”

So pull out your calendar and ask yourself: what do you need to do in the upcoming week? This should be a short list. Eat. Sleep. Grow spiritually. Perform your job well. Love your family. These aren’t necessarily easy tasks, but they should be simple to come up with.

The next step is always easier to say than to do: ensure that you have time for these “big rocks,” and keep the peripheral items peripheral. You need to take control of your calendar, because if you don’t, someone will take control of it for you.

As Reggie Joiner says in Parenting Beyond Your Capacity,

“By prioritizing what matters most, you end up with more time. Well, maybe not more actual time, but more margin. You cut the clutter out of your life. You begin to sort through the issues that both positively and negatively affect your capacity. You’ll tend to learn what’s most important because you’re doing more important things.” (173)

More margin means more energy. Asking ourselves some simple questions can identify whether we’re recharging how we should be. Do I regularly exercise? Do I know how much sleep my body needs, and carve out time for it? (Approximately 1–3% of the population can legitimately get by on less sleep. Be honest: it’s probably not you.) Do I know my body’s diet needs for maximum energy? Do I regularly retreat to find beauty in nature, literature, music?

One particularly dangerous thief of margin is social media. When it comes to social media, there are a lot of benefits. But nothing can eat up margin (and subtly increase stress) like Facebook and Twitter. Social media jumbles up the brain, amps up anxiety, and reduces motivation. It’s a mess.

So what to do? This article had some helpful tips. For instance:

  • Schedule your social media time, and stick to it. You can still look at Twitter, but set aside a 15-minute slot to do it, and be strict with yourself.
  • Don’t check it at night. Social media is a stimulant, so checking it just before bed keeps you from winding down. If I check out Twitter before I lay down, I find myself jittery and unable to relax.
  • Unfollow some of the people you envy. Nothing can kill my motivation like seeing a few tweets from successful people. The tweets themselves may be wholesome and helpful, but they often draw me down a road of jealousy. Next thing I know, I’m bitterly focused more on what I’m not doing than what I am doing. That’s not healthy for my heart or productive for my time.

It’s no sin to be exhausted. But too many of us are needlessly exhausted. Cultivate a life of rhythm and margin and trust God to work, even while you are resting.

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