Margin & Intentionality

A blog by John Camardo

What is margin?

That is a question I was recently asked. I use this word so often that up until recently I didn’t recognize that it might not be commonly understood in the context of leadership. Is it possible I am guilty of using a corporate buzzword? I hope not…but if so, I think this is a word that should be redeemed nonetheless because it is so important.

The dictionary defines margin as “an amount allowed or available beyond what is actually necessary; a border or an edge.”

I would use a slightly different definition for our purposes.

I believe it is creating space in our lives for the things that we value the greatest and believe are the most necessary and important.

Creating space like this requires incredible intentionality – doing something on purpose. You won’t simply fall into the most important and necessary things in life. You will need to give ongoing energy to it in order to keep the “first things first”.

Why is margin important?

In a world filled with endless choices and options (some which are very good), how are we focusing on what is wise and best over what is simply good (or maybe even very good)? I believe there are two major areas of life that warrant our attention in this regard: our consumption and our distraction.

Our Consumption

I believe the ultimate source of wisdom is the God of the Bible, so my default is to see what Scripture has to say about margin in our lives. There are certainly a number of examples in Scripture (Matthew 6, Acts 20, 2 Corinthians 9), but the one that speaks most clearly on margin is Leviticus 19:9-10 where God commands His people to leave the margin/edge of their fields for the poor and foreigner.

In short, don’t be the kind of person (or a community) that consumes all on yourself. This is true of our time, talent/gifts, and resources.

If we believe this to be true, then what Richard Foster says in The Discipline of Simplicity becomes even more challenging to us. He says, “If our goods (resources) are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods.” So, consuming all that I have been given on myself is not only a stewardship conversation but a moral one.

In this latest season of my life, I have personally had to create margin in my calendar (both at home and at work) in order to focus on the best things. I was doing plenty of really good things (at least in my mind!), but some of them prevented me from focusing on the things that only I could do.

Our family has also made it a point to create margin in our use of resources. We want to be free to respond to needs when they come up, but more importantly, we want to be intentional and proactive to identify needs around us and respond…because that is what a generous life looks like!

Our Distraction

I believe we have a subconscious affinity for distraction. Here is a good example. How many of you would pride yourself on being able to multi-task? What if I told you that was one of the worst things you can do? Our brains are not designed to give focused attention to multiple things. When we attempt to, we are dividing our attention as opposed to multiplying it. This creates greater distraction in our life as opposed to clarity.

Here is another example. Consider all the opportunities we have for accessing information. We are bombarded with information at every turn! Think about why social media and the use of our mobile devices has become so prevalent across the whole of society. You are getting a dopamine shot every time your phone buzzes…which just reinforces the wrong behavior (causing you to keep scrolling!). Long term, this is not good for us physically or emotionally.

Simply put, distraction is not life giving!

Here is another form of distraction that we don’t often consider. My family and I have regular conversations around the “tyranny of the urgent”. This is where we let the most recent crisis (oftentimes imposed on us by others) to distract us or occupy our time unnecessarily. With a heavy load of responsibility, four kids and a busy household, there are certainly times for us to drop everything and respond, but I find them to be VERY rare. Most situations in life do not require an immediate response. This is another form of distraction for us.

Attempting to multi-task or allowing seemingly urgent things to shift our focus not only produces less results long term, but it also reinforces a cycle of thinking & behavior that has long-term consequences.

So – why do we need to pay attention to this?

How we use our margin affects our ability to lead well.

I think this is true in a number of ways. You can probably add to the list, but here are a few things that I know to be true:

  • As a leader, we are to be a good example to others. If I never have time for anyone or anything, what message does that say about where I am placing the greatest value in how I use my time? Am I demonstrating a generous life that is not consuming all of my resources on me but is putting others first?
  • Leaders need to ensure clarity in order to create momentum. Clarity requires that we are not enabling further distraction, but removing roadblocks to distraction.
  • If my focus as a leader is to develop others, I need to have space for that. In fact, I need to prioritize space for that!
  • As a leader, I need to be self-aware. I’m not sure if this is original to Carl Lentz, but he said, “Your reaction to pressure is a reflection of your margin.” Am I mindful and aware enough to see how I am affecting others? Ultimately, creating margin requires self-awareness so that you can develop and discipline yourself with the goal of growth and maturity. I covered these concepts in a few previous posts: Self-Awareness and Who Am I as a Leader.

So, in a world where we often have to multi-task, how do we maintain singular focus?

There is much research out there along these lines, but one of the best books I have read that helped to clarify this for me in the context of margin was The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. Another is Essentialism by Greg McKeown. There are certainly others, but these are solid recommendations for those who are trying to find ways to increase their ability to focus on the most important things.

In closing, here is a question for you to contemplate…

Where are you creating space in your life to ensure you are keeping the first things first?