Does this sound familiar to you?
On Sunday I sit down to look at my week ahead. It looks busy, but pretty doable. I have some regularly scheduled meetings, some plans I made with friends, and some dedicated work time for a few large priority projects. There appears to be plenty of time for everything else I need to do — checking emails, eating, working out, sleep, and so on.
Then Monday comes and the things quickly turn sour. Right off the bat on Monday morning some people want to change the times of a few regularly scheduled meetings later in the week. No big deal, I think. I can handle that.
The next email is from a coworker who is having a hard time and wants to chat about something urgent. So, I squeeze her in tomorrow when I was planning to have lunch. I guess it’s a lunch meeting now?
Monday afternoon I learn that we’re behind on a project so we need to find time for a two-hour work session to get caught up. I move my planned project work time to next week to make space for this priority. I guess that other project will just have to wait?
My final email of the day is from a consulting client who really, really wants to talk this week but is only available in the evenings. I am fully committed most evenings, but there is that one night I had dinner plans with a friend. I guess work comes first, so I’ll reschedule with my friend to make time for my client.
It’s only Monday and already I’ve rescheduled a few regular meetings, turned a lunch into a meeting, lost my dedicated time to work on a priority project for another project, and I’ve bailed on a friend who had made dinner plans with me several weeks ago.
Many high-performing professionals I know are so driven and passionate that we fail to create any boundaries for how we spend the precious resources of our time and energy. Every day we give, give, give, produce, produce, produce, and never stop to ask ourselves some important questions.
Is my day designed to help me achieve my goals?
Am I actively choosing how I spent my time, or am I on autopilot?
Am I using my time and energy in a way that creates the best possible life for me?
I’ll be the first to admit, I am not a master at this… yet. But I have been grappling with these questions for many years and have found a few ways to create boundaries for myself that helps bring me closer to my goals and closer to living the kind of life I want to live.
For the longest time I resisted creating boundaries in my life because I thought that was synonymous with being selfish. I thought that if I was saying no to certain people or opportunities I was just being greedy with my time. The little voices in my head would always being pressure me to just say yes and figure out how you’re going to do it later.
And when I listened to those voices, I would constantly be digging myself deeper and deeper into stress, overwhelm, and ultimately burnout. I had to find another way, and that way required me to start creating some boundaries.
Here are three principles I try to apply to my life in order to keep myself in check. When I actively engage all of these principles I find myself spending more time on the things that matter most, and actively choosing to build a life I love.
Principle #1. If it’s scheduled it feels important.
In the example I gave above, you’ll notice that I assumed there was plenty of time in my week for things like checking emails, eating, working out, and sleeping. Why was I just assuming? If those things were important to me why weren’t they on my calendar.
Over the years I’ve learned that if something is on my calendar I treat it differently. It feels like an important commitment. I’ve also learned that some of my most important priorities (things that keep me alive, like eating, sleeping, etc.) don’t ever make it onto my calendar. That’s nuts.
If something is truly a priority, make time for it. That means that it deserves a place on your calendar. Most importantly, when it’s on your calendar you start to treat it like the non-negotiable priority it is.
Principle #2. You can help put out fires without being on fire yourself.
Listen, I’m a fixer. Part of how I get satisfaction in life is helping other people with their problems. It helps me feel useful and valued. And, when I don’t balance that impulse with my own needs it has a way of taking over my life.
In the example I gave above I let everyone else’s issues become my issues. Someone needs to reschedule something, so my day becomes disorganized. Someone needs my urgent attention, so I skip a meal or devalue my personal commitments. Why? Why do I continuously take on other people’s issues as if they were my own?
This is a hard balance to strike. I want to be responsive to the needs of my friends, coworkers, and clients while still honoring the value of my time and attention. Hard to do, right?
Here is my new response to someone coming to me with a fire to put out… “I see that this is very important to you and I’m so glad you came to me for help. Here is how I’m available to support you — I can meet with you next Monday between 1p and 4p.”
I am still very responsive and compassionate to others about their issues, but I don’t turn my world upside down at the first sign of someone else’s fire. I use a similar technique for communicating with my consulting clients. I have four hours on Thursdays and two hours on Friday for which I’m available for phones calls or Skype sessions. Beyond that we can communicate by email or we just aren’t the right fit to work together.
Clear boundaries help me stay sane so I am able to be alert and present when helping those who need me most.
I can hear some of you screaming at the screen, But I don’t have a choice! My boss (or clients, or family, or friends) just dumps stuff on me and I have to deal with it.
My response is really? You don’t have any choices for setting boundaries? I bet you do.
Without diving too deep into this topic, I challenge you to speak with those people in your life with whom you’d like to have some more clear boundaries. Share what’s it’s costing you to not have boundaries and collaborate on a win-win solution that helps you both be more satisfied and effective.
Principle #3. Allow yourself to have an exit strategy.
How many projects or tasks do you currently feel like you’re stuck doing? Maybe you’ve been going to that meeting for years but you really don’t need to be there. Perhaps you agreed to help a coworker with something months ago and you thought it was temporary, but it’s still taking your time.
Those are totally normal situations. We’re often on autopilot when choosing how to spend our time. We’re not bad people, we’re just creatures of habit.
Allowing yourself to have an exit strategy means that you keep the work you’re doing an active choice. My dear friend and Co-Founder of the Uprising, Talia Corren, puts it like this, “Saying yes at the beginning doesn’t mean you can never say no.”
If you are still paying the price for a yes you gave long ago, it’s okay to ask for a way out.
Ultimately, all three of these principles require you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. You can’t be productive in your life or available to support others if you’re a tired, overworked, hot mess.
Boundaries don’t limit your possibilities, they help you spend time on what’s most important in your life, move you closer to your goals, and give the freedom you need to live your best life.
What do you think?
Comment below to share your ideas for creating meaningful boundaries in your life.
Want helping getting more stuff done with less stress?
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Registration is now open for our TIME NINJA course.
In it you’ll learn how to:
- Prioritize your day EVERY day so you can “win”
- Stop wasting time on shit that doesn’t matter
- Effectively delegate things that don’t require your personal attention
- Learn the real truth about working on strengths vs. working on weaknesses
- Create a system to NEVER forget something important again
- Discover the science behind why most To-Do Lists don’t work (and what to do instead)
- Master your calendar and honor your personal rhythms to maximize your productivity
- Conquer your inbox once and for all (… this will be so easy, you’ll be shocked)
- PLUS: Mark’s personal system for education-hacking including: How to learn more stuff, How to retain more stuff, How to make better choices on where to spend your educational time, energy, and money
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