We’ve had a winter here with rare amounts of snow in Chilliwack, BC. In an area that might see one snow day in a year, we’ve had three this week and at least three around Christmas time.

That’s meant I’ve pushed people out of the roads that aren’t plowed. I’ve shoveled for neighbours that aren’t physically up to the task. I’ve been stuck working at home rather than my office because my road bicycle doesn’t operate in the snow.

Lucky for me all these distractions from ‘work’ haven’t really been that big a deal, because I’ve created a business and life with Margin.

Today we’re going to look at the book Margin, and how it teaches you how to build that space into your life.

Margin by Richard Swenson begins by defining the problem it’s supposed to solve right in the first few pages.

Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctors office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the bank because you were ten minutes late dropping the kids off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station and you forgot your wallet.

Margin, on the other hand is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.

How many of us are living in the realm of a marginless life? How many of you want to have that second life, one of margin as your default state?

To help us achieve that life of Margin, Swenson has divided his book up into three main sections. He starts by defining the problem (pain) of no margin in life. The second section covers the prescription, margin, and the third part is all about the prognosis, health. Yes, just from the section titles you can tell the author is a physician.

Inside each of these sections the author presents many axioms and prescriptions for you to take away. In many ways this is one of the big weaknesses of the book. So many of his axioms start with a general topic and he then presents five additional axioms and prescriptions, saying the same thing but applying it to a specific situation.

The second big hurdle for many readers in the book will be the faith of the author. I’m a church goer and I’d guess that my beliefs around faith would line up fairly closely with Swenson, but even with that common experience I continually found myself sighing as he brought faith into the mix. Where he was attempting to use faith to add weight to his argument, I felt it continually weakened the argument, especially for those that are turned off by faith.

Despite these two weaknesses, there is much to pull out of the book. Let’s look at some of the great takeaways in each section.

Part One: The Problem Pain

Swenson uses Part One to define the source of the lack of margin in our lives. He places the blame squarely on progress, and like many writers today, spends much time telling us how we’re in an unprecedented time of accelerated progress and prosperity–and that this is simultaneously the source of greatness and our lack of margin.

Margin has been stolen away, and progress was the thief. If we want margin back we will first have to do something about progress.

If we agree with the general hypothesis that progress has been the thief of our margin then wouldn’t we need to know how, exactly, progress has stolen that space we need in our lives?

According to Swenson, progress always wants more from us faster and faster. Progress is continually putting us out in the world more and reducing our privacy and margin.

The manner in which progress evolves, therefore ALWAYS results in more and more of everything faster and faster. It is impossible for progress to give is less and less slower and slower.

Take our smartphones for instance. Progress has allowed me to sit anywhere with an Internet connection and get some work done. The insidious thing about it at the same time is that I never have an excuse to not be working. While my phone can help me get more done, it does little to help me use it in an effective way that lets me keep margin in my life.

While we could hope the companies that make our technological marvels will help us limit their use, the truth is that it isn’t in Facebook’s interest to encourage our offline friendships. It’s in Facebook’s best interest to keep us scrolling through our feed.

While there are some people that feel Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Apple, and the other tech companies that provide us with progress have a responsibility to build services that don’t continually draw us back in, I don’t believe that Swenson would put any stock in that actually happening.

It’s up to us to build the boundaries in our life so that we can participate with those around us, and not get sucked into the devices that give us a pale warm glow year round.

As we subjugate progress, we first make it subservient to our greater goals and needs, especially relationships.

For you it’s about building a DON’T DO list. Populate it with things like, “I won’t play any games that want me to spend real money for fake in game currency” or “The only place my phone goes in the house is inside the drawer we use to charge devices.”

Implementing these things in your life will build the Margin that we need, which means we’ll have space to be with our loved ones. The DON’T DO list will specifically help us deal with the continual addition of choices and detail in our life.

The spontaneous tendency of our culture is to inexorably add detail to our lives. One more option, one more commitment, one more expectation, one more purchase, one more debt, one more change, one more job, one more decision

The hard part about NO is that we’re trained to almost never say it. We continually add one more thing to our list of responsibilities and then brag about how busy we are or how little sleep we get.

We hear that everyone else is ‘busy’ and they wear it like some silly badge of pride, and we let that social pressure push us into being just as ‘busy’. As if having no margin is a thing we can win at, and that we should want to win at.

Instead, as Swenson says, we need to…

Each of us needs to seek his or her own level of involvement and not let the standard be mandated by the often exorbitant expectations of others.

With the problem well defined in such a way that every reader will see part of themselves in the problem, Swenson moves on to the solution/prescription to the problem.

Part 2: The Prescription Margin

A few weeks ago, in the midst of one of our big snow events, I took the time to shovel out my walk and my neighbour’s walk, and clean both our cars. I then let my wife sleep an extra ninety minutes so I didn’t get to my ‘regular job’ until around 10 a.m. I didn’t stay till 8 p.m., but was home by 4 p.m. to hang out with my kids and help with dinner.

I can do that because I have space between my load and my limits.

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.

This space isn’t just in time, either. Our car broke down this winter just before Christmas and while it was not in the plan to spend $700 on the car, our large emergency fund allowed us to cover it.

We also had a death in the family two weeks before Christmas and had to fly my wife back across the country. We didn’t even have to think about the expense because of that same emergency fund.

To have that margin, I also rent an 1100 square foot townhouse and have three kids in it, plus the dog. Where many of our friends have much larger homes they also have much smaller margin, so every little bump in the road is actually a huge pothole that can barely be navigated, with teeth gritted.

Stop right now and look at your schedule. How full it is? How many events are you running between? Even if you want to go to them, are they really providing benefit to your life?

Swenson’s prescription is for margin in four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. It may seem like a tall order to have margin in all of these areas at the same time, but without that margin we’re in for needlessly increased stress in our lives.

If that is too tall an order for you to start with Swenson says start with emotional energy.

Of the four margins — emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances — margin in emotional energy is paramount. When we are emotionally resilient, we can confront our problems with a sense of hope and power.

Clearing out the people we have to carry emotionally will mean we can then put energy towards the other areas of our life that need conscious effort to build space in them.

I know on my end there are family members I avoid talking with because of the emotional energy required to even spend ten minutes with them. When the phone rings and they are on the other end I only pick up if I feel I have the required energy–energy I don’t need to apply in other areas.

To achieve margin in these four areas Swenson provides us with many, many prescriptions (Rx in doctorese), which as I said in the beginning, are often redundant.

Some of the highlights are:

Rx: Cultivate Social Support

Whether family and friends or community and church, the existence of intact, functioning, healthy, nurturing systems of social support are as good a resource for replenishing depleted energy reserves as can be found.

In The Happiness Advantage (my review) we see this same need for social support being a key factor in success at work. Achor’s Principle 7 is summarized in this quote from the book:

…the heart of Principle 7 — that when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go. – The Happiness Advantage

So we need to put away all the busyness around us if we want to be really successful through the trials that come our way. By putting away all that busyness and investing in the relationships that matter, we’re setting ourselves up to have the support we’ll need when things are going south in life.

Now that doesn’t mean we always spend time with people though.

Rx: Rest

Be with people and serve them. But be sure to get away and rest occasionally. Escape. Relax. Sleep in. Take a nap. Unplug the phone and turn off the beeper.

For me this is putting my phone away in that charging drawer, or when we visit a friend’s house as a family, just leaving it in the car because the only people that would need to reach me in an emergency are already with me. That means I can remove any temptation towards distraction.

Rx: Take Personal Responsibility (for health)

Until we accept personal responsibility for our own health, the road to the future will remain paved with aches and adipose.

As we look at our health, this is not what anyone wants to hear. In fact, almost no one wants to hear in any realm of their life that their problems are in part their own fault, and they should be taking responsibility for working the solution to the problem.

If you want to be healthy, make better choices about food. Take a walk or run or work out. Don’t jump on some magic diet, put together great processes to help you make better decisions. This could be your don’t do list that says you won’t order anything sweet when you’re eating out.

Decide that it’s time to value sleep instead of priding yourself on how little sleep you can survive on.

Rx: Value sleep

Don’t get caught in a web of shame spun by other people. A good night’s sleep is not an embarrassment.

When it comes to our finances Swenson says:

Despite our bounty, our list of economic woes is a long one. The ever-expanding invoice of problems requires an ever-expanding ocean of money, yet our government – along with a huge percentage of its citizens – is broke.

Dave Ramsey often says something along the lines of “You buy stuff you don’t need to impress people you don’t like with money you don’t have.”

Instead we should be putting the fourth Financial Prescription into practice.

Rx: Live Within Your Harvest

As the proverb suggests, make do with what you have

That means no credit cards because it’s much too easy to spend more than you figured. Spend cash instead.

Just because you get off the train of purchasing things doesn’t mean the world will come to an end.

The world does not stop nor the family fall apart when we unplug from the treadmill of consumerism.

With the prescription covered, in many ways redundantly covered, we can move on to the prognosis for our life moving forward with margin.

Part Three: The Prognosis–Health

Simplicity does not guarantee margin. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

It’s in this third section that I feel faith has it’s biggest diluting influence on Swenson’s work. Every third sentence seems to call in faith and distracts from the strong message of a striving towards simplicity.

Putting that aside, there are some great concepts in this section we should be putting into practice. Like partitioning our time.

Partitioning our time is probably the most important practical issue in achieving balanced living. Yet rationing it wisely presents a dilemma for each of us. How do we do it? First and most important, balance cannot be achieved unless we are willing to say No.

I’ve told you before to define your ideal week which is all about partitioning your time. I only take calls on Tuesdays which means I’m sitting here on a Wednesday with an entire day to read and write as I’m between client projects.

And really that’s it. Having margin in your life is all about consciously setting up those things that are good for you to do and saying no to those things that distract from your purpose.

[Tweet “Margin is setting up those things that are good for you and saying no to things that distract you from your purpose.”]

Margin is about jumping off the bandwagon of purchasing more and more and deciding that your five-year-old computer still works just fine so you’ll keep using it.

It’s about only saying HELL YES to those things you can’t imagine not doing, and not getting caught up in keeping up with everything that those around you are doing.


While there is much good in Margin by Richard Swenson, there is a great deal of repetition in the content. He continually repeats axioms and prescriptions, with merely a slight tweak for nuance. Now that does mean you can do much more skimming of the book so it’s shorter than it initially appears.

It also suffers, especially in the third section, from a much too huge push for faith. If reading about how someone’s faith (Christianity in particular) is intertwined in a book will put you off, then don’t bother.

If you’re looking for a reminder and some good tips to bring margin back in to your life then you should get Margin.

Get Margin on Amazon

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc