Creating Margin in Your Life as an Academic

“Margin” by Richard A. Swenson, MD

As academics in medical education and beyond, we often find ourselves in a unique position where our work hours are not clearly defined. With contracts that require us to work until the job is done, the line between our professional and personal lives can easily blur, especially when the job parameters are vague. This is especially true for those involved in research, educational leadership, or newer faculty members striving to establish their practice as educational practitioners. The constant pressure to perform and excel can take a toll on our well-being and family life.

“Extroverts usually don’t understand introverts and try to push them into situations where they simply don’t wish to be.”
 Dr. Richard Swenson

In his book “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives,” Dr. Richard A. Swenson addresses the importance of creating margin in our lives to overcome the pain caused by progress. He argues that progress has been one of the major causes of wrecked lives, resulting in problems, stress, and overload in people’s social, emotional, and spiritual lives.

Key points from the book:

  • Margin grants freedom, permits rest, and is the opposite of overload: In our fast-paced lives, we often feel overwhelmed and burdened by the constant demands on our time and energy. By creating margin, we allow ourselves the freedom to breathe, relax, and recover from the stresses of daily life. Margin is the antithesis of overload, providing us with the space to recharge and refocus.
  • Emotional margin requires cultivating healthy relationships, giving of oneself, and practicing grace, faith, hope, and love: Building and maintaining strong, supportive relationships is crucial for emotional well-being. This involves investing time and effort in connecting with others, being generous with our resources and emotions, and extending grace and understanding to those around us. By nurturing our faith, hope, and love, we create a solid foundation for emotional resilience.
  • Physical margin is gained by taking personal responsibility, changing lifestyle habits, and valuing sleep, nutrition, and exercise: Our physical health is a critical component of overall well-being. To create physical margin, we must take ownership of our health, making conscious choices to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. This includes prioritizing quality sleep, consuming a balanced and nutritious diet, and engaging in regular physical activity.
  • Time margin is a legitimate requirement from God, used for physical work, conversing, serving, resting, and praying: Time is a precious resource, and creating margin in our schedules allows us to allocate our time in a way that aligns with our values and beliefs. By setting aside time for physical work, meaningful conversations, serving others, rest, and spiritual practices like prayer, we honor God and create a sense of balance in our lives.
  • Financial margin allows us to serve God’s purposes and prevents nervousness, discontent, and greed: Managing our finances with wisdom and intentionality is essential for creating financial margin. By living within our means, avoiding excessive debt, and being generous with our resources, we can reduce financial stress and focus on using our money to serve God’s purposes. This helps prevent the negative emotions often associated with financial strain, such as nervousness, discontent, and greed.

Application to academics:
As academics, we can benefit greatly from applying the principles of margin to our lives. By creating emotional, physical, time, and financial margins, we can reduce stress, improve our well-being, and foster better relationships with our colleagues, students, and families. When we operate at a sustainable 85% capacity, we allow room for our brains to think clearly and creatively, ultimately enhancing our performance as educational practitioners and researchers.

Action steps for academics:

  1. Set clear boundaries between work and personal life, and stick to them: Establish specific work hours and communicate them to your colleagues and students. Be firm in maintaining these boundaries, resisting the temptation to constantly check emails or engage in work-related activities outside of designated hours. This will help you create a clear separation between your professional and personal life, allowing you to fully engage in each domain without feeling overwhelmed or guilty.
  2. Prioritize self-care by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep: Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your daily routine. Schedule regular exercise sessions, whether it’s a morning jog, a lunchtime yoga class, or an evening gym session. Plan and prepare nutritious meals and snacks to fuel your body and brain throughout the day. Establish a consistent sleep schedule, aiming for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Remember, taking care of your physical health is essential for maintaining the energy and focus needed to excel in your academic pursuits.
  3. Cultivate meaningful relationships with colleagues, students, and family members, and invest time in nurturing these connections: Building strong, supportive relationships is crucial for both personal and professional success. Make an effort to connect with your colleagues beyond the scope of work, perhaps by organizing social gatherings or participating in team-building activities. Foster positive relationships with your students by showing genuine interest in their academic and personal growth, and being available for guidance and support when needed. Prioritize quality time with family and friends, actively engaging in activities and conversations that strengthen your bonds.
  4. Practice mindfulness and incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine to manage stress and maintain emotional well-being: Incorporate mindfulness practices, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, into your daily routine to help manage stress and promote emotional balance. Take short breaks throughout the day to practice these techniques, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time. Consider exploring other relaxation methods, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery, to find what works best for you. By regularly engaging in these practices, you’ll be better equipped to handle the emotional challenges that come with academic life.
  5. Be intentional with your time management, allocating time for work, rest, and personal pursuits: Create a structured schedule that allows for dedicated work time, as well as periods for rest, relaxation, and personal interests. Use time-blocking techniques to allocate specific hours for different tasks, such as research, teaching preparation, grading, and administrative duties. Be sure to include breaks and buffer time in your schedule to account for unexpected interruptions or delays. By being intentional with your time management, you’ll be able to maximize your productivity while still maintaining a healthy balance.
  6. Develop a financial plan that allows for margin and reduces financial stress: Take control of your finances by creating a budget that accounts for your income, essential expenses, and savings goals. Look for ways to reduce unnecessary spending and prioritize your financial obligations. Consider setting aside a portion of your income each month as a buffer against unexpected expenses or emergencies. If you’re facing significant debt, develop a plan to pay it off gradually, and avoid taking on new debt whenever possible. By being proactive in managing your finances, you’ll create a sense of financial margin that reduces stress and allows for greater peace of mind.
  7. Regularly assess your commitments and priorities, and make adjustments as needed to maintain a healthy balance: Periodically review your professional and personal commitments to ensure they align with your values and goals. Be honest with yourself about what truly matters, and be willing to let go of activities or obligations that no longer serve you. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin, don’t hesitate to make changes to your schedule or responsibilities. This may involve delegating tasks, saying no to certain requests, or renegotiating your workload with your superiors. Remember, maintaining a healthy balance is an ongoing process that requires regular evaluation and adjustment.

As academics, we face unique challenges in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. By applying the principles from “Margin” by Dr. Richard A. Swenson, we can create the necessary emotional, physical, time, and financial margins to enhance our personal well-being and professional performance. I highly recommend reading the book and incorporating its lessons into your life. Remember, taking your personal wellness seriously is crucial for long-term success and fulfillment in your academic career.