Dr. Richard Swenson spent ten years putting this masterpiece of time and life-management skills together. In his book, he demonstrates that, despite living in a world where society demands more, in reality, less is often more. Swenson does this by revealing that today’s society lives in an unparalleled age where the pace and complexity of daily life produces extremely high levels of stress and eventually overload. Swenson strives to convey what margin is and he claims, “Since most of us do not know what margin is, there is no way we could know what margin-less living is.” Swenson defines margin as the space in various areas of our lives: the physical, emotional, temporal, and financial, all of which can protect us from being overloaded, when managed properly. Swenson then explains, “High levels of stress follow as naturally after progress as does exhaust after high traffic [and] margin has been steamrolled by history.” This progression has thus led to margin-less living, which Swenson demonstrates is the disease of the new millennium; but margin is its cure. As margin decreases, stress increases and burnout is inevitable. It is no longer a matter of if; it is only a matter of when. Swenson’s overall goal is seeking to restore balance and end the epidemic of overload and burnout.
Swenson spends the first part of the book discussing the problem of pain: the pain of progress, the pain of problems, the pain of stress, and the pain of overload. He diagnoses progress, cultural changes, and societal motives as the sickness that ends in stress and overload. Swenson contends, “The conditions of modern-day living devour margin [and] while one cannot blame all the pains of the world on lack of margin, it is fair to say that the lack of margin is a much greater component of our pain than most realize.”
Part two contains the prescription and cures for the problem of pain and society’s overloaded lives by applying margin: margin in emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. Swenson stresses margin in emotional energy is paramount and shows how margin is diminished because mankind is overworked, overcommitted, overspent, and overindulged. There exists little to no discipline and as society is continually overworked and often underpaid, the condition only worsens. We buy things we cannot afford to impress people we do not even like, we spend too little time in silence and solitude, we neglect nutrition, exercise, and rest, and we often neglect the most important relationships in our life. To be healthy, individuals must surround themselves with healthy people; instead, most have isolated themselves making them susceptible to overload and burnout. Swenson shows the need of lifestyle changes, discipline, and intentionality, all of which will help increase margin.
Part three deals with the prognosis of health when margin is built into our lives. One’s health is vital to maintaining or improving margin, so contentment, simplicity, balance, rest, health, and relationships must never be neglected. Swenson clarifies these areas are all motivations of the heart, and when the heart does not get what it wants, it leads to pain and margin-less living. Simply put, an individual’s internal anchor leads to their external joy.
Swenson states, “There can be little doubt that the contemporary absence of margin is linked to the march of progress… Margin has been stolen away, and progress was the thief. If we want margin back, we will first have to do something about progress.” Culture demands things be bigger, better, faster, and cheaper and while the rich get richer, the middle class is continually shrinking and the separation of those considered to be wealthy, compared to those living in poverty, is only increasing. So, if progress is to move forward or onward toward a destination, and if the destination is known to cause margin-less living, can it really be called progress? To answer this, we must understand how margin relates to the space between our load and our limits. There is no denying that cultures with the most progress are also those with the least margin. However, to do anything about progress, or to try and define how it sabotages margin, one must be able to put progress on hold. For this to happen, Swenson proposes two things: “First, we must regain control of progress; and second, we must redirect it.” While progress is not evil, it does always give more; the question is more of what? Upon this principle, Swenson demonstrates, “Progress works by differentiating our environment, [moving us] toward increasing stress, changing complexity, speed, intensity, and overload… [Ultimately,] the profusion of progress is on a collision course with human limits and once the threshold is exceeded, overload displaces margin.” Swenson offers many valid points and he stresses the importance of balance and priorities by keeping God first, so the real question is, “Are we passed the point of no return?” This writer feels society is on the precipice, and since this book was written over fifteen years ago, one can only surmise things have not changed or gotten worse.
Ignoring all the obvious benefits that progress has provided would seem foolish because the lack of margin is related more to our response to life than the progress in it. What can be agreed upon is the current state of humanity. There has never been a stage in our existence where time has ever been in such demand. This, as Swenson puts it, has caused, “Our relationships to be starved to death by the velocity [of life.]” As a result, progress has caused time to be the most precious commodity, even more than human life. Americans are among the worst offenders, as they view progress mainly according to material and cognitive status. Due to this attitude, Swenson demonstrates, “We have neglected to respect other more complex and less objective parameters along the way… especially relationships, [because] people are important beyond description.” This point is key in Swenson’s approach because it puts the focus back on the importance of relationships and people. Christ gave His life for all who would call upon the name of the Lord, but the world has been blinded by progress.
Swenson does a wonderful job of not only diagnosing the illness but also providing the cure. His description in the area of stress and how to deal with it is invaluable because the one constant in the universe is change, which leads to stress. The strain of all the various types of stress leads to anxiety, or as Swenson describes it: “The looming belief that circumstances will imminently become painful and hopeless.” Living under these conditions could hardly be called living, and since stress is inevitable, learning to live with it and knowing its signs is paramount to survival. Eventually, whether the symptoms are ignored or disregarded, brokenness and burnout are the end-result. Establishing the limits individuals have is another insightful area Swenson details in his study of overload and setting priorities. It was interesting to learn the top three reasons why we do it to ourselves are: lack of understanding, sense of duty, and following the leader. Here, Swenson makes one of his most valid assertions, “It is not the will of the Father for us to be so battered by the torment of our age. There must be a different way – a way that reserves our strength for higher battles.” Satan is cunning in his attacks and he has crafted his art over the millennia. Through margin-less living, he seeks to isolate and pick off individuals who have been worn down by their circumstances and the moment when he can inflict the most harm is when he will attempt to land the final blow. Swenson rightly displays margin being the agent to restore that which has been taken away, similarly to what Christ does for His children.
Restoring balance to already busy lives and rediscovering the space you need between your work, your daily schedule, and your limits is only accomplished by eliminating unneeded frustrations and reflecting on how you spend your time. Swenson offers encouragement, healing, and rest, by illustrating how to deal with time management, stress, and the busyness of life. In a world that honors outward achievement, tells people they’ll never have enough, and encourages an impossibly busy life, peace and contentment can feel like a distant dream. However, Swenson shows we can experience the contentment we long for and the peace, the fulfillment, and the joy that is only dreamt of. Swenson illustrates they are found in only one place: in Christ. To improve margin, individuals must make deliberate decisions to not pursue their earthly desires. Christ instructs His followers to, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Swenson’s work is a brilliant reminder of this instruction and a magnificent guide to fulfilling it. From a practicality standpoint, his prescriptions for restoring margin in the areas of emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances are unmatched. The models and methods he employs would be well suited for anyone in pastoral ministry or someone functioning in any counseling capacity. This book is a must read to restore health and margin!
Swenson, Richard A. Margin: Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004.
 Richard Swenson, Margin: Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004), 16.
 Swenson, Margin, 42-43.
 Swenson, Margin, 13 & 27.
 Swenson, Margin, 25.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 27.
 Swenson, Margin, 27.
 Ibid., 28-29.
 Ibid., 48-49.
 Ibid., 64.
 Swenson, Margin, 64.
 Matthew 6:33 (ESV)