The Focus Course

Margin Exists for Relationships

How we treat people is often a good indicator of how much (or how little) margin we are operating with.

In other words, relationships serve as a barometer of margin.

And the reality is we are relational beings by nature.

Back in 1997, when new technology was changing the possibilities of neuroscience research, a team from Washington University led a series of studies on the activity of the brain under varying circumstance. They wanted to see what parts of the brain were active while engaging in various activities. But what they ended up finding was what activity the brain defaulted to in-between cognitively demanding tasks. Essentially, they found what regions of the brain are active when we’re doing nothing.

And what they found is that “when given downtime, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.”

These experiments represent only some key highlights among many from a vast social cognitive neuroscience literature that all point to the same conclusion: humans are wired to be social. — Digital Minimalism

So there’s that dilemma.

The second is, there is no shortcut to building friendship. No matter which way we cut it, relationships are built through time. There is no app, shortcut, or automation that replaces time invested with another human.

So while most every human being on the planet is feeling a shortage of time and simultaneously feeling overwhelmed and stressed, the reality is we are wired for human connection.

But we’re stuck. The blinding speed of our daily experience pulls us in the complete opposite direction of the pace at which relationships thrive: slowly.

We live in a crazy-making world. So much stimulation rushes at us with such unrelenting fury, we are overstimulated most of the time. Things that nourish us—a lingering conversation, a leisurely stroll through the park, time to savor both making and then dinner—these are being lost at an alarming rate; we simply don’t have room for them. Honestly, I think most people live their daily lives along a spectrum from slightly rattled to completely fried as their normal state of being. — Get Your Life Back

If we’re honest, this is the common experience of life. Overload and overwhelm. Too much information all the time.

Moving toward meaningful connection with others means a necessary move toward margin in every area of our life.

As a reminder, we have five different areas of margin.

  1. Physical
  2. Financial
  3. Emotional
  4. Mental
  5. Time

Financial, time, and physical are the most visible to measure. How much do we have, or how much are we lacking. Emotional and mental are much more nuanced to quantify, which leads me back to my opening statement. The way we treat people is a good measure of how much (or little) margin we’re living with.

I’ll make it personal. When I’m redlining in every area of margin and on the verge of complete overwhelm, I’m not very pleasant to be around. I drive annoyed. I function in the world through the filter of what do I need? I have little to no empathy for others. Showing kindness in any form is almost too much to think about.

I felt I was reading the state of my own soul in John Eldredge’s new book Get Your Life Back.

It made me wonder—am I becoming a less loving person? I had little capacity for relationships and the things that bring me life… Then I realized—it wasn’t a failure of love or compassion. These were symptoms of a soul pushed too hard, strung out, haggard, fried. My soul just can’t do life at the speed of smartphones. But I was asking it to; everybody’s asking theirs to.

The never-ending barrage of messages, news updates, likes, and DMs has led us to believe we are connecting while simultaneously eroding our finite mental, emotional, and time margins. But the fact is, these digital tools are suffocating our ability to truly connect on a human level.

We crave social interaction, so we check Twitter. We feel lonely so we scroll Instagram. But the truth is, these social channels add no true value to our social life, and they deplete our margin reserves while we’re at it.

So we’re left unsatisfied, slightly irritated, and more stressed than when we picked up our smartphone.

The loss of social connection, for example, turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain—explaining why the death of a family member, a breakup, or even just a social snub can cause such distress. — Digital Minimalism

Technology advancement promised more connection and more margin, but as it turns out we’ve been robbed of both.

The past two decades, by contrast, are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools … which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and must less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect. — Digital Minimalism

As we discovered earlier this year, one of the ways to regain mental, emotional, and time margin is through ruthlessly eliminating digital tools that do not align with our underlying values — our technology philosophy.

Now, I’m operating from a healthy level of margin, and by that I mean I’m living within my means, I’m able to make my way in the world with an entirely different mindset. I’m able to be others-oriented — whether that’s in dealing with a more personal relationship with my wife, or with a complete stranger. Kindness, playfulness, empathy, and compassion are readily accessible when I’m living with margin.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Dr. Richard Swenson from his book Margin.

Margin, however, knows how to nurture relationship. In fact, margin exists for relationship. Progress, on the other hand, has little to say about the relational life. Even our language gives us away. When we talk of progress, we do not mean social, emotional, and spiritual advancement. In analyzing our age, commentator after commentator will demonstrate how much better-off we are. Yet, invariably, they are talking about money, energy, transportation, housing, communications, technology, and education. People, however, have emotional needs that go much deeper. And while all the focus was on the material and cognitive, our relational environments suffered from neglect.

What's Your Focused Life?

Take our Focus Quiz and find out how to get back more time and do more with your day.

Start the Quiz