Building boundaries to make the most of your time

What your people need right now: Bounce, Boundaries and Belonging, part three.

Warren Buffet said that time is the only asset you can’t get any more of, so be extremely selective when handing it out. Here Amazing If's Sarah Ellis explains how building boundary habits can help you spend your time better.

Technology, productivity pressure and an ‘always on’ mentality means there is more blurring of lines between work and the rest of life than ever before. And the reality right now means that most of us are living and working in the same space, and you might have an extra job on your CV if you’re caring for someone, or attempting to keep kids occupied.

Setting and sticking to any sort of boundary might feel impossible when we’ve lost track of what day of the week it is but the downside of becoming ‘boundaryless’ is serious and not to be under-estimated. Research demonstrates that poor boundaries is one of the most significant contributors to individuals experiencing feelings of resentment, anger and ultimately burnout.

And though rationally we all appreciate the benefits of clear boundaries the reality is hard, as Brene Brown says: “daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can't base our own worthiness on others' approval. Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say "Enough!" This might feel a tad lofty, and personally I’m going to choose to interpret Brene’s wise words as permission to disappoint my toddler and watch a few less episodes of Paw Patrol, but we can all build boundary habits that will leave us feeling more energised, motivated and productive during the week.

Manage your (and other people’s) monkeys

Monkeys are a metaphor for the actions we carry around with us (inspired by Ken Blanchard’s book One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey). We have to work hard not to acquire other people’s monkeys, especially if you’re in a service industry where you’re likely to be motivated by a desire to help and put other people’s needs before your own. A few useful ways to manage your monkeys:

  • Manage monkeys in the moment. Can you help in a small way and quickly? Adam Grant, a business professor at Wharton, calls this ‘the five-minute favour’ and it avoids procrastination and delving too deeply into other people’s actions.
  • Question the monkey. The best question you can ask before you start solving someone else’s problem is: how can I be most useful to you? This helps to make sure everyone is clear about what the ‘job to be done’ is and who is doing what.
  • Hand the monkey back. If you’re reading this and realise you have lots of monkeys that don’t belong to you give them back! When you hand a monkey back share the progress you’ve made and be clear that you are now handing the action or project back.

Is your time well spent?

As Warren Buffet says “time is the only asset you can’t get any more of, so be extremely selective when handing it out.” At the end of every week ask yourself was your time well spent? If the answer is no you need to start practising saying ‘no’ in a way that works for you. This is something that I’ve always found difficult but I’m borrowed some top tips from people I’ve worked with who do it brilliantly:

  • Make your no short, simple and straight-forward to avoid confusion. Be careful not to fall into the trap of ‘not right now’ (which I’m a sucker for), unless you genuinely mean it say no - it will save you time and is fairer to other person
  • Say no but offer other ideas for people or resources that could help. This is a way of providing value and being useful in a different way.
  • Adding thank you before a no is an effective way of showing that you understand it’s hard to be on the receiving end of a no i.e. thank you I appreciate you thinking of me. I’m not able to contribute to this project due to other commitments but good luck I hope it goes well.

Get yourself a boundary buddy

Share with a friend or colleague a boundary that really matters to you and ask them to help you stick to it. Talking about a boundary to someone else makes it much more likely to become a reality. You are simultaneously reminding yourself of something that’s important to you and you get a helpful extra nudge from a person who is on your side and wants you to succeed. And a few things to remember about boundaries:

  • Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t stick to a boundary. We are often over ambitious when we first set boundaries imagining a perfect world where the kids go to bed on time or last-minute projects don’t spring up.
  • Prioritise your boundaries. Experiment with setting one small boundary across a week and see what progress you make. It could be to turn your devices off post 10pm or do a 30minute walk every morning or find 15mins to learn for yourself every day. Don’t go into boundary overdrive as you may find you have even less boundaries than before.

Boundaries need effort

Finally, it’s worth remembering that setting and sticking to boundaries takes effort and can feel uncomfortable, particularly at first. It’s easy to say yes to everything, work longer hours and de-prioritise yourself. When we get caught up in being busy and the day to day taking a set back and getting some perspective is helpful: “Start with the end in mind. You are ninety on a park bench looking back. What matters?” (Amanda MacKenzie, OBE, CEO Business in the Community).

About Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is the co-author of the No.1 The Sunday Times business bestseller The Squiggly Career and host of the UK’s no.1 careers podcast: Squiggly Careers. She is the co-founder of Amazing If, a business with a mission to make work better for everyone and was a previous Chair of Judges for the IPA CPD Gold Awards.

If you’d like to learn more about bounce here are Sarah's recommendations for things to read, watch and listen to.

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Last updated 01 May 2024