There has never been a day where we are more bombarded with tools, programs, planners, and apps designed to create focus and balance in our lives. But even though these things are at our fingertips, we as a society have never been more stressed, sleep deprived, and overwhelmed.
The problem is two-fold: First, many people look for a new program to fit our hectic lives into instead of starting with a godly plan and effectively walking it out day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, and year-by-year.
Let me also say that I am not the expert on this subject. I struggle with finding this “sweet spot” just as much as anyone but the Lord has taught me much on this subject.
Secondly, the key to having margin in your life is not balance, it’s priorities. We hear all around us, “You need balance” or “I need more balance in my life.” Hear me clearly, that is false! Balance is what happens when you have the parts of your life equal with one another. Jesus doesn’t want to be balanced with anything in your life, He wants to be first and most…always. And He also has given us a plan for priorities that will help have the right amount of margin in our lives. Here are six steps that I strive to implement into my daily routine that have helped bring some success in this area.
Many studies have been done showing that waking up early and making the most of the morning hours is key to getting things done and being successful that particular day. For the believer, this is not only a smart habit but a godly one. Hudson Taylor said, “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instrument afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.” David says in Psalm 5:3, “In the morning, O Lord, You will hear my voice; In the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch.” Something happens when we start our day early by tuning our hearts in prayer and communion with the Lord.
For those of us who are leaders and have families, it is also crucial that your family sees you start your day with the Lord. Some of the sweetest moments in my life are when my children wake up, walk downstairs with sleepy eyes to see their daddy in the Word of God. I remember seeing my father do this, and I want to create the same memory within my children. George Muller said, “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glory the Lord, but how I might get my soul in a happy state, and how my inner man may be nourished…I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it.”
Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Investing in the value of the morning is essential to a day that is aligned with the way of God, in tune with the word of God, and in sync with the will of God.
The second key to margin is having a clear agenda for the day. For so many years, I thought my morning devotions with the Lord was a spiritual decision, and the agenda for my day was a business or professional decision. Until one day, one of my mentors blew up my thought process when he brought me to Psalm 139:16 where it says, “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” He said, “John, if God has each one of your days ordained for you in His book, then don’t you think you should bring your day to Him and ask Him what he wants for your agenda to be and then put them in your book?” I can’t tell you how freeing it was to begin to bring my agenda planning before the Lord every morning during my devotions and ask Him what His will is for me was that day. Although my time with the Lord always evolves a bit, for the most part I structure my devotions and agenda planning like this:
Read a section of scripture: This could be multiple chapters, a few verses, or there have been days where after reading one single verse, I’m stopped with the depth of that truth and that’s as far as I get.
Write in my journal: I’m never been a big “journaler”, but I have come to appreciate the value of writing down what I feel the Lord is saying to me through scripture.
Prayer and Meditation: One tool for prayer you can implement that I use often is A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication)
Creating an Agenda: I then bring out my pocket Day-Timer and begin to write down the items that need to get done today (and move over the items from the day before that didn’t get done).
Prioritize Agenda: After I write down the agenda for the day, I’m not done yet. The next step is absolutely crucial to success with creating a plan. I prioritize each of them into 3 categories. NOW, SOON, ANYTIME. Then once I have that, I assigned each category numbers to assign importance, starting with “1” to show which item has to be first. Once done, I have a clear plan of which items need to be done and in what order. Now I’m ready for the day.
Having an agenda doesn’t mean you’ll get to everything. In fact, there are many days I only get to 1 or 2 things on my list because of unexpected interruptions. But I’ve learned that if God has ordained my day, the interruptions are part of His plan. By having a clear agenda, it actually gives me freedom to have margin daily for what’s not on my agenda and still feel accomplished and on track.
True rest is something that so many long for but so few actually find on a consistent basis. God created our bodies to need a break to function properly. Therefore, if we want to be our best, we have to take this seriously. In Mark 2:27, “Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’” I have found the target for rest is to think of it daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, and yearly. Of course, how you work this into your life depends exactly on what you do, your schedule, and flexibility. But no matter your situation, I think it’s healthy to think of it in these terms.
As I look at scripture, I find 4 things you need to find true rest for your body, mind, and spirit.
“Mark 6:31 “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” We are bombarded by noise 24/7. I even have a sound machine that makes “white noise” when I sleep (which I love by the way!). But when it comes to true rest, we need to get away and get quiet.
I know this is extra hard for you extroverts out there but look what Jesus did when He needed rest in Luke 5:16, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Jesus got alone and He did it often. We should follow this example by planning times to turn off our screens, turn away the people pulling at us, and get alone.
Sleep may seem like an obvious solution to rest but it’s one we need to preach to ourselves often. D. A. Carson, in Scandalous: The Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus, says, “If you keep burning the candle at both ends, sooner or later you will indulge in more and more mean cynicism – and the line between cynicism and doubt is a very thin one. Of course, different individuals require different numbers of hours of sleep; moreover, some cope with a bit of tiredness better than others. Nevertheless, if you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need…Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep – not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates you to get the sleep your body needs.”
I love the story in 1 Kings when Elijah is running from Ahab and Jezebel. He’s completely stressed out and on the verge of a mental breakdown, to the point where he wants to give up and die. How does he get through it with the help of an Angel? He sleeps… he eats…he sleeps… and eats some more. Rest, at its simplest form, is getting the sleep we need.
“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for He grants sleep to those He loves.” Psalm 127:2
Lastly, the most important part of rest is… Jesus. He is the only one we want with us when we are quiet, alone, and asleep. Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Many times, people go on vacations and leave their bibles behind. Or some don’t open their bibles, if they have them, because they have packed their itinerary so tight to leave no room for the very person that is the giver of rest. I know this because I used to be one of those people. Because I am in ministry, I felt like I needed to get away from all of the things that reminded me of “work” to get rest, but I was confusing who I was with what I do. Some of the sweetest times with the Lord is when I get alone and quiet with just him for an extended period of days. When that happens when you’re “away” or on a daily basis, Jesus will continue to bring true rest to your soul.
Something my wife, Paige, and I have started to ask each other in our morning routine is, “What are your giants today?” Meaning, what are the 1 or 2 big items you are facing for that day that is weighing on your mind. We need to determine those and attack them early when we are fresh and have the strength. What we probably do more times than we’d like to admit, is procrastinate on those big items because we don’t want to do them anyways. However, if we do that, we then find ourselves thinking about it all day and into the night, we become worried and anxious about it, regret not getting it done resulting in a lack of sleep because we’re up thinking about it. It’s a cycle that kills margin in our lives. When you attack your giants early, you will feel the weight lifted, your mind will release that space for other things in your life whether it’s other items on your agenda, or being completely focused and present with your family that evening.
I used to think delegating tasks and projects were more about giving away things I didn’t want or needed to do. But today, I see it more as investing in people. When you give things away to people (yes, even things you think you can do better than they can), you are showing trust, pushing someone out of their comfort zone, and investing in your “Timothy” to become better. An advantage of this mentality and discipline is margin. When I plan right, I know what tasks and projects I can give away to push people in the right areas, and in return, I have more time and margin for those “what only I can do” items. If you are one of those people that says, “No one can do it better than I can” or “It’s just faster and quicker if I just do it myself”, I would encourage you to think of giving away tasks as an investment in people and find the margin that it will give you in return.
6. “NO” – LEARN TO SAY IT OFTEN!
We have to say “no” more often. Many times, we as Christians equate opportunity with God’s provision. Therefore, we refuse to say no to anything because we feel every open door is a gift and something we have to walk through. Not true! In fact, I’m convinced that there are times in our life that God allows good opportunities to come our way to teach us to say “no.” I had an opportunity just this week that I was so excited about and have wanted to be asked to take part in for a very long time. But once I looked at my calendar and all the other things I already had on my plate, I realized it was a good opportunity, but just not for me this time.
Let me add one more tip here. As important as saying “no” is, learning how to say “no” is also just as important. When I was a teenager and was needing to say “no” to someone, my dad would tell me, “John just say, ‘Thank you so much for the offer. I’m honored you would think of me. But I’m unable to do that this time.’” Short, respectful, and true. Don’t make up an excuse, don’t try to show you’re doing something more important; just say “no” the right way and move on.
So, there they are…
I have found that these six steps help to create margin in my life. Remember, the target is choosing the right priorities, not finding the right balance. I believe if we are consistent with these six areas, we will actually find that we will live a happier, healthier life that has a much more powerful and multiplied affect for the Kingdom of God.
Carson quote: Scandalous: The Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus