If you’re like me, this is what happens at the beginning of every new month: you flip the calendar page (if you remember), marvel at the fact that it’s already whatever-month, and decide to create more margin or be more intentional with your time.

And, if you’re really like me, you feel as though the transition from month to month should be akin to an Olympic track athlete springing gracefully like a gazelle over each hurdle. But instead, you feel more like a tired hippo hurling itself over the last barrier, perhaps knocking it over, and definitely not landing on your feet. 

I’ve felt this especially this year– 2016– like I’ve been hurling myself from one month to the next, hoping the weight of my exhaustion will lend me the inertia I need to get through the next slew of events.

What happened on vacation

I’ll be honest. I LOVED Mexico City, and will definitely be writing about it (there need to be more resources out there!). But I was stressed throughout the trip. My mind was juggling a hundred different things– professional, personal, relational, physical– and just because I had left the office and chosen not to do any work, the chaos from the past few months followed me.

I don’t imagine I’m alone here. Anxiety and worry are human tendencies. Some of us simply choose to indulge in them more than others.

What we need: margin, not balance

I wrote a letter to my newsletter community several months ago about the mythical idea of balance. Balance is what we think happens when we have just the right amount of everything; it’s quite an Eastern idea, actually, and a bit odd that we in the West are so insistent that it exists.

What I’ve realized more recently is that we need margin, not balance. Margin is empty space– and that emptiness is inimitably precious.

Margin is like silence in music– you have to play it. It’s the moment when the song takes a breath, intentionally, measuredly, confidently. It’s there for a reason.

So how do we create more margin? How do we play those rests with so much intention that we’re reminded they are there for a reason?

And, more importantly, how do we do it well enough to be back in control of our schedules?

I think it’s more than saying no. The “just say no” movement barely merits the designation of cliche; we all know that “saying no more often” is all too easy to say and all too difficult to do.

How to create more margin in your life- 6 essential steps to take

Identifying the challenges to creating proper margin

If you feel that your life lacks margin, you may be making a few of the following mistakes:

  • You don’t know what to do with margin. You’re not sure what rest actually looks like.
  • You aren’t looking far ahead when you need to. Or, you’re looking too far ahead when you don’t need to.
  • Your commitments don’t line up with your core values.
  • You’re not sure what your core values are.
  • You’re allowing someone or something control your daily routine more than it needs to.
  • You’ve overestimated your emotional, physical, mental and spiritual capacity.

With these in mind, I’ve written down 6 essential steps to create more margin in your life– and taking back your schedule.

How to create more margin: 6 steps to take

1) Determine your core values: separate urgent from important.

This is the most difficult part of creating the margin you know you desire: defining what it is that you always want to say yes to. Rather than thinking about your entire lifetime (which can be a bit overwhelming, but a valuable exercise at some point), think about your current season. What matters to you most? Select up to 5 major areas of commitment.

2) Look at your current commitments: compare them with your core values.

How many of the commitments on your schedule are actually connected to your core values? Is there a great discrepancy? If not, are you trying to accomplish too much in too little time? What’s urgent, and what’s important?

3) Discover who’s really in control.

Some of my friends live their lives around nap time. While parenting is certainly challenging, it’s all too easy to point to an important figure in our lives (our children, our bosses, our family members) and blame them for the fact that our schedules are completely beyond our control. Because other than modern-day slaves, I am aware of few people who actually have someone in their lives to whom they can never say no. It may be difficult to stay in control, but it is not impossible. Are you managing those relationships in such a way that over-compromise your agency?

4) Assess your capacity: use this quick exercise.

A few weeks ago, I spent my morning time taking inventory of my goals, how those translated into actions, and how much time those actions require per week. It’s a simple exercise in assessing your capacity. There are 168 hours per week. Fill in the time you spend eating, sleeping, working, and attending to commitments. How many hours are left? What can you do in that amount of time?

5) Tackle life, one healthy chunk at a time.

If I looked at all of my commitments between now and the end of the year, I would probably want to crawl into my bed and wake up in 2017. But if I looked only at the next few days, I would be ill-equipped for the near future. One way to stay abreast of your schedule without feeling overwhelmed, is to do a monthly, weekly, and daily review. Looking back and looking ahead are an excellent practice.

6) Develop a rhythm of purposeful rest.

What does rest look like to you? It’s so personal that it can be hard to make recommendations– but making choices that are good for your soul, good for your body, and good for your mind is where you should start. Research has demonstrated that spending time outdoors can have an excellent impact. And no matter what, avoid these common stress-binges that are somehow culturally acceptable.

The bottom line: Choose rest, or it will choose you.

Too many people are crippled by a lack of margin in their lives. Some accelerate toward an all-time low that forces them to reconsider their lifestyles; others simply chip away at their own wellness.

Building margin into your life may not prevent every all-nighter, crazy week, or even the onset of mental health challenges. But it does give you the long-term capacity to reach the goals you’ve set, and to say yes to the things that matter most to you.