Although I posted this recently, it’s worth a re-read. In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.
He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.
- I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
- Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
- I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
- I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
- Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
- I often worry about what others think of my performance.
- I too easily take things personally.
- I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
- I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
- My devotional times with God are mostly dry.
If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.
If that’s so, what should you do?
When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.
- Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
- Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
- Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
- Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
- Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.
After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.
What has helped you gain better margin?
I’m reading a great book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. In one chapter on ‘flow’ he describes the routine Michael Phelps has practiced before every race. For years he has kept the same routine… from the same time he shows up before a race… to the same number of warmup laps he swims… to the same time he removes the infamous ear buds from his ears. His routines have contributed to both his Olympic golds and his world records. Routines not only benefit Olympic athletes, but can benefit us as well. Consider these 5 brain benefits to creating routines.
- Routines help minimize uncertainty.
- Our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty engages the fight-flight-freeze-appease part of our brains (the amygdala) which can stifle clear thinking. Routines, however, help give you a greater sense of control which creates certainty, what the brain loves.
- Routines make space for clearer thinking.
- In the front part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, social intuition, and emotional control occur. However, that part of our brain tires easily. The more we use it, the more it tires which can affect our ability to think clearly, make wise decisions, and relate to others well. However, when we create routines and habits, the brain stores those routines in our habit centers (basal ganglia). As a result, routines free up working space in our pre-frontal cortex so that we can think and concentrate better on new tasks and relationships.
- Routines can reduce the drain on our daily energy.
- Ego depletion refers to the concept that we all possess a limited pool of mental resources available for self-control and willpower. And it gets used up during the day. If we spend that resource on activities that could be routinized, we waste energy that we otherwise could dedicate to more important tasks and relationships. Routines help conserve our energy for what’s most important.
- Routines help us focus and maintain attention.
- The ability to pay attention to what’s important is a key to successful living, leading, and learning. When we are scattered (Where did I leave those keys?) attention gets diluted. Routines, however, can help you direct your attention where you truly need to direct it.
- Routines help quiet the tyranny of the urgent.
- The tyranny of the urgent beckons us to worry about insignificant issues that seem important at the moment. The term rumination describes the mental process of rehearsing something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. The tyranny of the urgent breeds such rumination. McKeown writes that routines helps us focus on the life’s essentials rather than spending precious time trying to prioritize everything. Years ago Charles Hummel wrote a classic booklet Tyranny of the Urgent! If you’ve not read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s a real gem.
So, building routines into your life offers many practical benefits.
How have routines helped you?
Pornography is deadly not only to marriages and to our walk with Christ, but to the brain as well. Consider what science is now telling us.
Until recently the research on how porn impacts the body and brain have been correlative. That is, from a scientific perspective, studies did not show that porn use directly caused these problems (although common sense told us otherwise). The correlative evidence, however, is quite damning in itself. The problem has been that researchers have had trouble finding college students (the most often chosen group for guinea pigs in research) who have not used porn. And, even if they did, it’s questionable the ethics of introducing someone to porn.
However, new research is now showing clear causal relationships of porn use to damage to the brain. In fact, the variable (use or non-use of porn) is now becoming more available as a large number (over 75,000) of former porn addicts have formed an on-line community called NoFab. Through surveys, they are posting how their lives have changed for the better after getting off porn. Also, a recent German study has shown a clear causal connection between even moderate porn use and damage to the brain.
Here is what research now indicates that porn does to our brains and bodies.
- It becomes addictive. Overstimulation of the brain system that releases the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine (which internet porn spurs in massive amounts) results in the buildup of the molecular switch protein called deltaFosB, an ingredient common in most addictions.
- It impairs memory and concentration.
- It numbs you to other pleasures of life and real sex in marriage (called desensitization). You develop a tolerance and need for greater and greater stimulation because real sex has become dull.
- Sensitization. Because your reward system has been hammered, you have an amped up attraction to porn that can tempt you to view it through even simple cues like seeing your computer monitor. Your brain goes into autopilot and your reward circuit says, “Do it now!”
- It diminishes impulse control and willpower. The fight between clear thinking and temptation is heightened and you have less willpower to say, “No!”
- It increases sensitivity to stress. Even minor stresses can lead to cravings and relapse because they activate powerful sensitized pathways.
- It literally shrinks your brain. Studies actually show that even moderate amounts of porn can shrink grey matter in areas associated with cognitive function related to our ability to focus. Porn users report pervasive brain fog.
- It causes depression and low energy because it interferes with normal dopamine production and signaling.
- You become more susceptible to risky behavior. Since porn addicts need a bigger and bigger hit they gravitate to more degrading kinds of porn and risky behavior to get that hit with diminished fears of experiencing negative consequences (i.e., getting caught).
- Erectile dysfunction. Porn users become less sensitive to real sex with their spouses and need more and more stimulation to get aroused. Ex-porn addicts report that porn created significant sexual problems, specifically ED.
That’s the bad news.
The good news, however, is that because the brain is plastic, porn users can break free from porn and change their brains back to a healthy view of sex and sexuality. With Christ’s power, men (and women) can find freedom from the devastating effects of porn.
Starting each day well is certainly important. We must prioritize our goals, prepare our soul, and schedule our time wisely. When we discipline ourselves to begin each day with intention and thoughtfulness, we do ourselves and others good. I suggested 7 questions to ask yourself each morning in this post. But what about preparing to end your day? How can we end it well? Consider these 7 questions to ask yourself as you end your work day or before you go to bed.
- Did I treat others with respect, kindness, and God-inspired grace?
- “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34-35, NIV)
- Did I rush through the day, or take time to be truly present with others and with God?
- “Be still, and know that I am God….” (Ps 96.10, NIV)
- Did I treat myself well, respecting my limits and my margins?
- As Dr. Richard Swenson penned in his book Margin, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits and is related to our reserves and resilience.”
- Did I honor God with my time, the responsibilities He entrusted to me, and my competencies?
- Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…. (Col 3.23, NIV)
- Have I told my kids who live at home or my spouse, “I love you,” at least once today?
- The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love…. (Jer 31.3, NIV)
- Have I thanked God for at least one blessing He has given me today?
- Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Ths 5.16-18, NIV)
- If you were to add a seventh question, what would it be?
Ending your day well might be the key to beginning the next day well.
What was your seventh question?
I live in Canada and we celebrated Thanksgiving in October while the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving in November. Although a few other countries celebrate similar holidays, Canada and the U.S. make a big deal of it. Many people in both countries approach Thanksgiving with a desire to be more grateful, at least on those holidays. It’s great that we highlight gratefulness through a holiday, but did you know that gratitude is actually good for your brain and your body? Consider what science has discovered about this amazing brain fertilizer.
- Can give you more energy. In one research study participants kept a daily journal listing what they were grateful for. Another group recorded what annoyed them. Those who kept a ‘gratefulness’ journal had more energy and enthusiasm and were happier than the other group (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
- Can help you become more other-centered. In a study by the same researchers, participants also daily journaled what they were grateful for. In addition to similar results to the above cited study, they discovered an interesting side effect. Those in the ‘grateful’ group reported that they were more inclined to help others with a personal problem. They became what is called more “pro-social” (Emmons, 2006).
- Can help you sleep better. Our brains and bodies need adequate sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains can’t consolidate our experiences from the day into our long term memory. So, without refreshing sleep, our memory and cognitive function suffers. A Chinese study discovered that not only did gratitude improve sleep, but decreased depression and indirectly lowered anxiety (Korb, 2012). So, start and end your day with a grateful heart for more rejuvenating sleep.
- Can make you physically feel better. When we are grateful, we activate brain regions associated with the feel good transmitter, dopamine. Gratefulness also increases the mood neurotransmitter serotonin and the trust hormone, oxytocin. When dopamine is released, it evokes a “do that again” response. So, a grateful heart can feed on itself and help us want to repeat it. Its called the ‘virtuous cycle.’ We simply have to start the process by choosing to be grateful.
- Can help you become less materialistic. Several studies have shown that people with higher levels of gratitude are more likely to have lower than average traits of materialism (McCullough, 2002).This finding reminds of Jesus’ words, In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35)
- Can help combat negativity and the negative emotions that follow. Because our brain has five times more negative circuits than positive ones, we naturally tend to focus on the negative. It’s called the brain’s ‘negativity bias.’ When we are grateful it forces our brain to think about the positive. The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote Phil. 4.8. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.
Not only does science speak to gratefulness, it also fills the pages of Scripture.
- 1Th. 5.16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
- Psa. 100.3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
- Col. 3.16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God
If you want to learn even more about gratitude, watch this TEDx talk on The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance and read the book, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.
An old saying about gratitude goes like this.
If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.
Don’t forget the language of gratitude today!
- Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
- Emmons, Gratitude and prosocial behavior: An experimental test of gratitude [Internet]. Available from: <https://www.academia.edu/365898/Gratitude_and_prosocial_behavior_An_experimental_test_of_gratitude> [Accessed 26 November 2014].
- McCullough, Michael E. (2002) Savoring Life, Past and Present: Explaining what hope and gratitude share in common, Psychological Inquiry