Living within the margins

Remember that phrase “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up so much space”? No? Cast your mind back to the early 2000s… (check out the styling of this book cover for inspiration). It was inspiring: take risks! Go all out! Don’t play it safe!

But over the long-term, living on the edge is tiring and dangerous. Because on the other side of the edge is bad stuff: burnout, poor health, broken relationships, despair, just plain crazy and overwhelm. While you don’t want to play it so safe that your life is so much smaller than it has to be, there’s no point courting burnout by living right up at the level of your limits.

Because those limits will be tested; something always happens. Whether it’s sickness, an unexpected transition, or even a new opportunity you just have to take. If you’re so close to the edge, anything extra tips you over.

That’s why we’ve got to live within the margins.

Remember margins?

If you’re writing a document in Word it will automatically arrange the text within the boundaries of some pleasing margins. You can adjust those–narrow, wide, or custom–but there’s always going to be some margins. Partly because of how many printers work, and partly because the eye simply cannot cope with a page filled with text. It is an affront to the brain, and simply overwhelming.

Margins create white space, which we know brings clarity and peace.

There’s a temptation to live outside the margins. To fill life right up to the edges. Sometimes it’s because there is so much stuff we love to do, so many people we love to be with, and so many opportunities to do all that. But sometimes we feel like we should be living life right to the edge of our capacity because that’s what a good person/employee/parent/spouse does. Or perhaps even you feel like there’s a burden to max yourself out for a higher calling, the kind of higher calling that prioritises service to others over self-care. I’m guilty of this one, and my counsellor has called me out on it. That’s acting out of obligation or self-shaming, and not love. I am captured by how The Passion Translation puts Romans 8:15,

“you did not receive the ‘spirit of religious duty,’ leading you back into the fear of never being good enough. But you have received the ‘Spirit of Full Acceptance,’ enfolding you into the family of God”.

Romans 8:15 TPT

The religious obligation to live right to the edges of your capacity was not something that you received from God’s Spirit, it’s something you put on yourself, or that we put on you. Sorry.

Limits are not a bad thing. Boundaries are not a bad thing, they just are.

Too often I’ve lived within the framework of being frustrated at my constraints. If I could only get some more time, then I would be able to x, y, and z!! Again and again I have wished the boundary lines were different: the hours in the day, the care a child requires, the workload of managing a household, the effect my mood has on that household. They’re boundaries, and I can’t, and don’t, want to change many of the things that those boundaries enclose and protect. So I’m learning to confess that those boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6), and to live within them.

On a very practical level this looks like structuring my life so that there is margin space. Space to breathe and space to accomodate the unexpected.

At a good friend’s suggestion I have mapped out my weekly schedule in a pretty formal manner. It seems a bit pedantic, but when you’re juggling a lot I find it’s helpful to be able to see it all before me. (I downloaded this printable from here). It’s also a great opportunity to use the collection of beautiful pens my brother gave me for Christmas to colour-code my life. And within that schedule there are intentional “buffer” times. Those slots where nothing in particular is planned, but I’m going to keep them clear so that if something crops up there’s space for them to go. And if nothing does, well, enjoy a night off!

Thursday night Buffer night

This is so much better than when I was trying to maximise every time slot, optimising every possibility. And when something came up, as it inevitably did, I was under so much pressure to fit it in and I ended up making choices that were either unhealthy or I was unhappy with. Usually it was my PhD time that suffered, and that grates on me so much, because no one ever gives back to that time, so I try my hardest to ring fence it.

That’s one way that living within the margins looks like for me, and I’ve finally managed to establish it in my life. Next I’m working on recognising those reactions and feelings that alert me that I’m getting close to the edge, those emotional red flags. For me it’s things like irritability, and saying to myself “just keep going”. If that phrase appears in my self-talk it’s an alarm bell screaming “you have got to take a break, or you’re heading for a meltdown”. Do I listen to it? No. I usually just keep going… and melt down.

Ah, it’s a journey!

What does living within the margins look like for you? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

PS. Some of these thoughts were inspired by a recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts: Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing. You can check out that episode here.


2 thoughts on “Living within the margins

    • Maja Whitaker says:

      Well, the first date night of the week is supposed to be with one of the girls. I say “supposed to” because it’s a great example of where the schedule represents intention rather than reality! I’m struggling to make that slot work, but I haven’t really given it a good nudge yet. Next week!


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