Jim Christenson is an APPA member emeritus and can be reached at jchriste@jackelec.com.

“…many people have not heard from themselves for a long, long time.”
—Robert Banks

     Are you busy enough? Do you have enough meetings? Would you like to take on some more responsibilities to fill out your workday?

      I doubt if you’ve been asked these questions lately. As a profession, facilities officers are among the world’s most consistent workaholics. Increasing demands for service in the face of shrinking budgets, exploding technological complexity, and expanding expectations by both faculty and members of the facilities staff
collaborate to consume whatever waking hours may have been left unscheduled. Discretionary time seems to vanish like water down the drain.

     If you characterized your lifestyle on a piece of paper, would there be even one margin left? Lack of margin leads to unhealthy stress (which is distress or, in the extreme, hyperstress). A distressed person cannot be fully effective.

     Richard A. Swenson, M.D., in his book Margin, asserts that the conditions of modern-day living devour margin. In part, he defines margin this way: “Marginless is not having time to finish the book you’ve been reading on stress; margin is having the time to read it twice. Marginless is hurry; margin is calm. Marginless is the baby crying and the phone ringing at the same time; margin is Grandma taking the baby for the afternoon. Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy. Marginless is the disease of the 1990s; margin is its cure.”

     Facilities officers are not alone in finding their margins disappearing. If one attempts to draw a curve quantifying information, complexity, change, volume of advertising, travel, and the speed of almost everything on the y-axis, with the years 1900 through 2000 as the x-axis, we find each item increasing exponentially, most with the increase changing from linear to exponential between 1960 and 1970.

     The citizens of most developed countries feel that society has made great progress in the last hundred years. This flow of progress has been assumed to be positive. So is there really a problem? Perhaps. If we attempt to depict the quality of our relationships on a curve, we may find some other, less welcome, exponential increases in the last half-century. Samples include divorces, illegitimate births, court cases, bankruptcies, and number of prisoners.

     Putting these trends together, we find that we have exponential increases in things that cause us stress or that consume our time, and that this condition causes a specific decrease in discretionary time, including the time required to develop and maintain meaningful relationships. Work, like a fire-spouting dragon, consumes more and more of our time and in doing so, also consumes our relationships.

     Testimony before a U.S. Senate sub-committee in 1967 predicted that in 1985 people would be working 22 hours per week or 27 weeks per year or would retire at age 38, depending on individual preferences and job requirements. Instead, leisure time decreased 37 percent between 1973 and the early 1990s in the United States and the average workweek rose from 41 to 47 hours. What happened to all the time we saved with technology and “labor-saving” devices? Swenson explains the unexpected result with this axiom of progress: “The spontaneous flow of progress is toward increasing stress, complexity, and overload.” The corollary is “The spontaneous flow of progress is to consume more of our time, not less…to consume more of our margin, not less.”

     So what’s new? For the younger readers nothing is new. It has always been this way for them. Some of us, though, know from our personal observations that the present rate of change is following a new mathematical formula. A few of us seniors grew up on small farms with no electricity or running water in the days of one-room country schools. We are witnesses who can validate the fact that the accelerating rate of progress, the level of stress, the attack on discretionary time, and the loss of meaningful relationships are unique products of the last 40 years.

     Normally, a study of history is instructive in guiding us into the future. Perhaps for the first time, though, we are now experiencing something that history cannot speak to. History gives us no clues on how to handle this phenomenon of seemingly limitless exponential change.

     We have created a new world of complexity that affects every aspect of our lives. We have overloaded ourselves in the areas of information, change, choice, debt, expectations, noise, media, pollution, waste, traffic, technology, possessions, fatigue, commitment, and—not least of all—work. Besides all that, the natural flow is to increase the overload, thus decreasing the margin.

     But we can make an important choice. We can develop a cure to our disease. We can deliberately resist the natural flow and increase our margin. Dr. Swenson argues that margin exists for relationships. Part of his prescription for increasing margin is to set boundaries, to learn when to say no. Another part is to cultivate social supports and deep friendships, to reconcile relationships quickly, to create a vision for what a meaningful life should be, and to deliberately simplify.

      How does Tom Peters’ “passion for excellence” fit into this? No problem, if life is lived in balance. You might consider plotting on a bar graph your excellence in all areas of life, not only your career. How is your excellence in education, family, emotions, nutrition, service, exercise, rest, and community? If you demonstrate a high degree of excellence in career and education, but failure in the rest, it may be time to think things over. The overriding passion for excellence in one’s career may blind the person to myriad of warning signals that will only be picked up if there is some degree of excellence in the other areas of life. One of the most common failures among career-focussed corporate giants recently has been that of unethical—even illegal—behavior driven by greed.

      A significant casualty of lack of margin is reflection. Robert Banks, quoted at the beginning of this article from his book, The Tyranny of Time: When 24 Hours Is Not Enough, observed this: “Those who are caught up in the busy life have neither the time nor quiet to come to understand themselves and their goals. Since the opportunity for inward attention hardly ever comes, many people have not heard from themselves for a long, long time. Those who are always ‘on the run’ never meet anyone any more, not even themselves.”

     Stephen R. Covey, in his book, First Things First, joins Banks and Swenson in urging us to not be ruled by the urgent. In his Time Management Matrix, Covey would have us eliminate the “not urgent/not important” and the “urgent/not important” quadrants so we can use that time to expand Quadrant II, the “important/ not urgent” quadrant. Quadrant II includes such activities as prevention, planning, relationship building, preparation, values clarification, and true re-creation. Quadrant II requires some quiet time, some time for reflection on direction and purpose. In the end, expanding Quadrant II leads to eliminating most of the dragons that consume our margin. And it can lead to true excellence in our career, a career enriched by relationships that are mutually nurturing.

     A final caution. If you are a type A personality and are satisfied to excel in two or three areas of your life while failing in the other areas, do not impose your unbalanced value system on those who work with you. Most people serve their employers—and certainly themselves—best when they lead balanced lives. Allow them, even encourage them, to create and maintain their margin even if you really believe you are thriving on having none.