How to protect your time – three ways to set firmer boundaries

Often find yourself reluctantly saying ‘yes’ when you desperately want to scream ‘no’? Find out to protect your time with three strategies for setting firmer boundaries.

Some might say that time is the most valuable commodity we have, but so is our energy. Even if we had all the time in the world to do what we wanted, if we don’t reserve our energies to use it wisely and to greatest effect, we risk wasting that time and losing focus on the tasks or activities that are really important to us. We only have so much, after all.

One of the key reasons for time and energy wasting is not having firm enough boundaries around them – something mums in particular really struggle with.

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How can we retain enough energy to focus and do the things that matter, if we spend all our energies on things we don’t want to do, but feel obliged to? Or on looking after everyone but ourselves?

Three ways to cultivate healthier boundaries

To help you protect your time (and your sanity!) here are three ways you can cultivate healthier boundaries, taken from the book Real Focus: Take control and start living the life you want by Psychologies Magazine.

1) Notice people that drain you and limit your time with them

We all have different kinds of ‘energy’ and some people’s energies simply don’t complement our own. Think if it as having your own personal engine. Some are big and powerful and built for speed; some are more suited to going at a leisurely pace.

The trouble is, when we spend too much time with people who set us off kilter like this, it can drain us of our energy and focus.

Of course, there are also some people who do find boundaries difficult on a more serious level; people for whom it seems all take and not much give. Be wary of these people and these relationships and be sure to enforce boundaries to protect your time and energy. Try saying things like ‘I only have a few minutes before I have to … (insert excuse)’. Resist offering too many solutions; rather, say something like, ‘I’m sure you’ll come to a solution on your own’.

2) Notice if you feel resentful or genuinely enthusiastic about the things you agree to do

Very often this is a matter of listening to our gut. You know that nervy, fluttery feeling you get after agreeing to something? Or the awful ‘clenched stomach’? Chances are this is because you agreed out of obligation rather than because you genuinely wanted to. Equally, you’ll know when you genuinely want to do something because all you’ll feel is gladness and excitement.

Learn to tune into these feelings more and understand the difference between them – even keep a diary if it helps. Your instinct is a very powerful thing – learn to trust it more.

3) Take responsibility for enforcing healthy boundaries

Remember: if what you’re doing makes you feel resentful, it’s ultimately not the person’s fault, it’s yours for not enforcing healthy boundaries.

Many people don’t like to ask for favours or even help, but there are some people who will always see what they can get away with! Their attitude is very much: ‘She can always say no …’ So it’s really up to you to protect your time and do just that if you feel uncomfortable doing whatever it is they’re asking of you. If you don’t, you can’t moan afterwards!

Compassionate ways to say ‘no’

How many times have you said ‘yes’ when inside you’re thinking ‘no’? Say, for example, if someone invites you to give a talk or presentation on a certain topic – because you’re so good at it! (often these requests are wrapped up in a compliment) – or to look after their children, when you have some of your own, or if you’d just take a look at the blog they’re writing/put a good word in for them to your boss/coach the under 11s cricket this season …

It’s completely counter‐intuitive, but so many of us say yes when we mean no. It seems to be human nature and there are myriad reasons we do this: we don’t want to be impolite, we don’t want to sound unkind, we don’t want to never be asked again.

The problem is that saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’ can quickly become a bad habit leading to resentment and spreading ourselves too thinly. Most of all, it can be a drastic drain on our time and our resources – and, crucially, our focus.

The good news is there are several ways to say ‘no’ well and with compassion. So next time you feel ‘yes’ on the tip of your tongue, when really you want to say ‘no’, try one of the following:

  • I’m really sorry I can’t help, but I know who can.
  • Not for me this time, but thanks for asking.
  • I’d like to but I’m snowed under at the moment. I’d love to help another time though; can you come back to me in a month?
  • I can’t help with this, I’m afraid. But let me tell you what I CAN do.
  • I’d love to see you, but for this month I’m prioritizing my health/work/kids … can we do next month?
  • (And sometimes it’s perfectly ok to say…) I’d love to but I can’t.

The truth is that saying ‘no’ does not only have to be when we’re overloaded with stuff to do, and already feeling overcommitted, it can also be because what we’re being asked to do is not actually worth our time and energy in terms of what we get out of it.

Time management gurus and coaches call this your ‘return value’, and learning to weigh it up is a key component to Real Focus. Ask yourself, how much energy and time is this going to take? What will you get in return? (This doesn’t necessarily have to mean financial gain either, it can mean in terms of fulfillment/career progression/a stepping stone towards a bigger goal or even how it benefits others. Not all favours carry equal value, even to the beneficiary, after all.)

All in all, using ‘no’ and ‘yes’ well means getting into the habit of asking yourself: is this a good use of my time? Before you say either!

Read five ways being more assertive (and setting firmer boundaries) will change your life

This is an edited extract from Real Focus: Take control and start living the life you want by Psychologies Magazine, published by Capstone (a Wiley imprint).