How Great Leaders Gain Margin

We are nearing six months in this COVID season, and stress is rising among so many leaders.

The greater the stress and pressure, the greater the need for margin in your schedule.

It’s a strange time for a number of reasons, but one reason is that it’s difficult to sense or measure progress, and leaders have an innate drive to make progress.

I was recently asked about the size of 12Stone’s attendance. I paused and stuttered, “I don’t really know.” That’s one of the strangest leadership moments I’ve experienced in decades. 

More accurately stated, it’s difficult to measure progress in traditional ways.

In the most important things, we can still keep track of our progress through stories of life change, from salvations to restored marriages to freedom from addictions, and much more.

The last thing a leader wants is to spin his or her wheels. Working hard but not seeing results. In that scenario, the temptation is to work harder.

Working hard is important, but there’s a limit to productivity without margin. We need to gain margin that allows space so that we can convert spinning wheels to real traction.

Stress is connected to pressure, and pressure (essentially solving problems) eats up margin.

Let’s take a closer look.

Pressure isn’t bad; it’s part of a leader’s life, but how you handle it makes all the difference.

This next brief section is adapted from my book Confident Leader!

There are two kinds of pressure:

  • Internal – the expectations you place on yourself
  • External – the expectation others place on you.

A good place to start is knowing which one is producing a greater load on you. That will determine how you approach healthy solutions.

1) Pressure is always about doing more and eats up margin.

As a church leader, your work is never actually done. There is always more to do. As the size of your ministry grows, the greater the demands become, but you have limits.

Richard Swenson defined margin as “The space between our load and our limits.”

When you don’t have time for these things, you deplete yourself at a soul level. The less margin you have, the more you short-circuit your ability to lead over the long haul.

2) The reduction of your margin increases your pressure.

Margin is your time to think, rest, play, dream, plan, and create.

3) The pressure left unregulated drains you and reduces your capacity.

Sustained pressure will undo even the strongest leaders, and the results of this sustained COVID season on leaders are beginning to become more evident.

The goal is not to eliminate all your pressure; it is to increase your margin so you can handle your pressure.

5 steps to increase your margin:

This is not something I’ve achieved, but it’s something I work on, so this is real and practical stuff.

1) Embrace the idea that margin doesn’t mean idle; it means space to renew and create.

Margin definitely includes rest and play, but it doesn’t mean idle. Margin is incredibly productive but in a restorative way.

My guitar teacher would love it if I practiced more, but when I allow my schedule to be robbed of margin, that’s one of the first things to go. That often seems like the right decision, in light of higher priorities, but it’s usually the wrong decision.

Practicing my guitar is a great place for renewal, creativity, and to make space to think from the other side of my brain.

It’s a legitimate break from the pressures that drain me and takes advantage of a few minutes of margin, ultimately allowing me to lead better.

The same kind of thing will apply to you too.

2) Assess how much margin you currently have and what you do with it.

Take a look at your last two-week period or up to one month and list out the times when you are not engaged in specific and required responsibilities.

You can jot down some notes on a pad, a favorite app, or a word doc. Group them up in categories such as think, rest, play, dream, plan, and create.

You don’t need to use all these categories, and you are not limited to these categories.

You may want to swap out one or two of mine for words that mean more to you. It’s important, however, to not make it too complicated.

As you review what you see, what seems good, and where do you want to improve?

3) Capture and protect small pockets of margin, build slowly.

Now that you have an idea of the margin you have and what you use it for, it’s time to capture more margin. (Unless you have assessed that you have enough already.)

I’m intentionally suggesting that you attempt to set aside small additional pockets of margin. If you shoot for too much too fast, you may get discouraged and quit.

For example, here’s something really small but helpful. Rather than put all my appointments back to back, sometimes I’ll add fifteen minutes between each one. That allows me to think through any loose ends and do any immediate follow-up, such as an email.

You would be partially right if you said, “that’s not margin for the stuff you’ve been talking about.” But here’s how that works.

First, that reduces stress, and second, if I have four of those in a day, that saves me a full hour for quiet think time all at once. That is real margin.

4) Eliminate a few non-essentials and use your margin intentionally.

It’s more important first to learn to use your time margins well rather than stock-piling margin that you don’t use smartly.

Assessing intentionality in the use of your time margins is not about how much more productive you are, but how much better, at peace, and creative (ideas) you are. Yes, the two are interrelated, but one is about doing and the other is about being.

You probably won’t get all the margin you sense you need unless you eliminate (say no to) a few things that are important, but not essential.

Recommended reading: Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

For example, I’m moving a couple of administrative things off my plate, and I’m working on more margin primarily to think (deeper problem solving – chess not checkers), secondarily to write, and last, but it made the list, to play my guitar.

5) Don’t make margin a “thing to do” but a way to live.

It’s good to approach gaining margin more like prayer or tithing; it’s a practice that is life-giving, not one that is another thing to do. And God seems to bless our modest investments with great kindness.

You may pray for 15, 30, or 60 minutes each day. You may tithe 10% or more. But compared to all your time and money, it’s a small investment that God honors in a big way.

Margin is like that. Of course, it obviously doesn’t rank as high as prayer and tithing, but you get the picture.

Modest intentional investments make a really big difference.

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