The problem was that because of all of this, we started out tense. First, it was the tension on Friday night - we decided to get some takeout, and I called my husband when I was on the way home from the train station so that he could call the order in. Feeling like he had to decide what he wanted right then now made him tense. In retrospect, it would have been worth it to just have me come home and decide what we wanted together - and we probably would have spent less too.
Then Saturday, we had to run out to the doctor, followed by a series of errands, which turned into another stressful occasion. For some reason, we just couldn't get on the same page, into synch.
So about halfway through our errands, we stopped. We came home, curled up on the couch together, and just stopped. For about 30 minutes, we did nothing. And almost as if by magic, all our tension dissolved.
Why? We gave ourselves margin. What is margin? It's space, breathing room. It's permission to put down the to-do list and curl up on the couch. And do nothing.
In the book Affluenza, authors John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor quote lecturer Dr. Richard Swenson of Menomenie, Wisconsin. He found, in the words of the Affluenza authors that "too many of his patients were stretched to their limits and beyond with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation, and reflection. They showed symptoms of acute stress." In Swenson's words: " I recognized that people didn't have any space in their lives, didn't have any reserves. The space between their load and their limit had just disappeared".
Everyone I talk to these days is busy. Busy trying to keep the house clean, the errands run, make sure our bosses know that we're working hard, busy with kids and spouses and family and friends. Just..busy. With an endless to-do list. And we're all trying to find balance, whatever that is - to me, balance sometimes feels more like a description of trying to stay up on a high wire and not fall off rather than something appealing.
Modern life is a juggling act. How do you maintain friendships while carving out enough time for yourselves? How do you keep the house clean but not spend the weekend cleaning? How do you balance your Mom's needs on Mother's Day with your own desire for your husband to take the kids and just give you some quiet time for a few hours? And what on earth will we have for dinner?
The answer is you give yourself margin. You give yourself permission to have margin in your life. You shut off the cell phone and don't answer the house phone during dinner. You go for a walk rather than dusting the living room. You say no to an invitation. You stop answering email at 11 pm.
You have to create it though - no one is going to give it to you. And sometimes you can't - you just have to step up and meet that deadline, or show up when you would rather be doing something else. But whenever you can, stop and ask yourself "Is the world going to come to an end because I didn't rake the yard or clean the toilet today?" If the answer is no, then maybe you could do it tomorrow. Sure, it needs to get done. But starting to see your own downtime as a need - just as say, seeing savings as just another bill to pay - allows you to feel like it's okay.
The funny thing is, the sky doesn't fall when you do build in margin. We still got most of our to-do list done this weekend, and what we didn't, we'll do tomorrow, or the next day.
Creating this margin, of course, is easier said than done. Much easier. I know, because I struggle with it all the time - I am a compulsive doer. I have difficulty relaxing. But I am slowly learning that I must relax, I must do nothing in order to be a happy, healthy person. The minute that an invitation to dinner raises my blood pressure rather than giving me something to look forward to, I say no. I still juggle, because I cannot, and don't want to say no all the time. But I am trying to no longer punish myself by getting everything done. Because even if my to-do list is complete, there's another one, and living like that is miserable.
We are, as Joe Dominguez and Vicky Robin say in Your Money or Your Life, human beings, not human doings. We need to just be. Margin is a requirement, not an add-on.
Which is why I'm writing this in my pajamas, sitting in bed with a cup of coffee. I'll get up soon and finish all the things I need to finish, but for now, I'm content.
So if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to doing nothing.
I'd love to hear how you create margin, and manage all the competing demands of modern life. What have you learned about how to create space and time for yourself?