There was the training class I was observing and co-facilitating, the important meetings with colleagues to figure out solutions to significant organizational change issues, last-minute details to iron out for my global team meeting of 50 staff members next week, the online college class I’m in the middle of teaching, the pending deadline for a magazine article, an upcoming client training event to prepare for, and as President of my local youth baseball league, getting a season’s worth of games scheduled and helping my 19 year-old son get the snack bar operation up and running.
It’s all good stuff that I enjoy doing and feel blessed to have the opportunity to participate in, and I have no right to complain since I made the choice to accept these various responsibilities. Many of these obligations are temporary, and once taken care of, I’ll have a healthy amount of margin restored to my life. Yet for many people, living life with no margin is a daily reality. Consider these statistics:
- 26% of adult Americans report being on the verge of a serious nervous breakdown
- 53% of employees would opt for a personal assistant rather than personal trainer
- Compared to 1970, American managers are working an additional month per year
- Americans are working more hours than any time since the 1920s. 63% of Americans log more than 40 hours per week at the office, and 40% log more than 50 hours per week
- 62% of workers routinely end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% report strained eyes, 38% complain of hand pain, and 34% report difficulty in sleeping due to work-related stress
- 66% of people read email seven days a week and expect to receive a response the same day
- 61% continue to check email while on vacation
- 26% of Americans take no vacations at all
- 88% of employees say they have a hard time juggling work and life
- 70% of working fathers and working mothers report they don’t have enough time for their children
The sad thing is that many of us bring this problem on ourselves. The reason we have no margin in life is that we suffer from FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out. Whether it’s our own competitive ambitions, workaholic nature, or the fear of economic uncertainty that drives us, we often feel the need to accept every opportunity that comes our way.
One of the biggest causes of FOMO is social media and our hyper-connected world of technology. I’m an advocate of the power of social media and the use of technology to improve our lives, yet it also has the ability to become a digital leash to work and rob us of margin. Daniel Gulati’s HBR blog article, Facebook Is Making Us Miserable, discusses how social media can create a culture of comparison which is a key driver of unhappiness. We see the posts of our friends and colleagues (which are almost always positive in nature) and feel that if we aren’t experiencing the same level of success or happiness then something must be wrong with us. So FOMO drives us to keep up with the Jones’ and we cram more stuff into our already hectic lives.
Succumbing to the dangers of FOMO reminds me of the airplane scene from the movie Jerry Maguire. Single-mother Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) is in coach-seating, sadly gazing at Jerry (Tom Cruise) in first-class who is engaged in spirited conversation with a beautiful woman colleague who seems to have everything in life that Dorothy doesn’t. Dorothy’s toddler son asks “What’s wrong, Mommy?” She replies “First class, that’s what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.”
So what can we do to help restore margin in our lives? Here’s five steps:
1. Be clear on your purpose and priorities — If you don’t have a clear purpose and priorities that guide your decisions, then other people will determine your course for you. Our current position and condition in life is the result of a series of small decisions we’ve made over the course of time. Sometimes there are big, life-changing experiences that cause stress and anxiety, but usually our feelings of being overloaded result from the accumulation of little commitments and obligations we’ve taken on without thoughtfully examining if they fit into our overall purpose and goals in life.
2. Say “no” — This is extremely difficult for many people! Most of us want to be helpful and serve others, yet every time we say “yes” to something, we are in effect saying “no” to other potential opportunities. Sometimes we say “yes” out of ego or pride. We think we can do the best job so we take on the responsibility. Saying “no” to opportunities that don’t fit your overall purpose and goal can give other people an opportunity to step up to the plate and experience growth and success.
3. Learn to be content with your limitations — We all like to think we can do anything we set our mind to, and it’s almost counter-cultural to suggest otherwise. The reality is that we can’t do it all. Those who are happiest in life are those that have learned to accept their strengths and weaknesses for what they are, and to focus their time and energy in areas where they perform best. There’s a tremendous amount of relief that comes from being able to say “You know, I’m not the best at doing that. Why don’t you give someone else the opportunity?”
4. Plan for problems — One of the reasons we are over-stressed is that we don’t plan for problems. So when problems inevitably arise, we don’t have any margin to deal with them. We’re always under the stress of deadlines, limited budget, and few resources. When accepting responsibilities, we should plan for contingencies. What if it takes longer than expected? What if I don’t have all the right resources? What if the budget dries up? What if the client changes her mind?
5. Take your vacation days — This may sound mundane, but it’s a practical strategy to prevent burnout. If you’re fortunate enough to have paid vacation days, take them! Vacation days are part of your paid compensation, and neglecting to use them is giving away money that you’ve earned. You don’t have to wait for that dream vacation to the Italian Riviera to manifest itself before you take time off work. Make the effort to intentionally plan time away, and when you do go on vacation, leave the smart phone and laptop at home.
Relationships are developed in the margins of life, and leadership is about developing people. If you don’t have margin, you probably don’t have time to be a leader.