6 ways to set stronger boundaries with your time, from a psychologist

As someone who used to divide her time between two countries and three cities, I realized very quickly that my calendar has a life of its own. Even if by Sunday evening, the next week was looking relatively breezy, it’d get filled up in a heartbeat.

That was when I learned the importance of instituting time boundaries, even if I had learned by then to only gift my time and energy to whom I want to spend time with, and even if plenty of these calendar events can be filed under “play.” As an introvert, I need downtime to nurse my introvert hangovers, to muse, and to sleep. My personal time is precious, and just because there is technically a time slot doesn’t mean I should wake up or sacrifice my time to do something.

Instead, we can get clever about rearranging time. Today I spend the bulk of my time in one country, and my calendar still has a life of its own. But as the person in the pilot’s seat, I can do plenty to stay in control.

Why boundaries with your time are so important

If you don’t contain your time, then your events and responsibilities tend to spill over. Some people have no idea what respecting each other’s time is, and if you don’t teach them that it means something to you, then you cannot really blame them. Meanwhile, your resentment builds. The frazzled rush between events because you couldn’t say no or leave on time, the frenetic feeling in your head, and the constant apologizing gets tiring. It’s a compound interest on lost time that you pay.

Of course, this is something that everyone can technically tolerate—similar to stress, overwhelm, and suboptimal health—but why not choose a better way out instead of feeling like a time martyr and running on empty?

Yes, you could have been raised to say yes to everyone and did not know how to say no, much less that you have permission to say no. And yes, sometimes it’s only that daily five minutes or weekly two hours. But the time-energy relationship is disproportionate. If you’re dreading that phone call before, rolling your eyes during (and judging yourself for doing so), exhausted and ruminating after—then five minutes is hardly just five minutes.

Just because there is that blank slot in your calendar doesn’t mean it needs to be filled. Your time isn’t a grab-what-you-want buffet on the sidewalk for anyone’s taking. As psychotherapist Terri Cole once mulled, what if the burnout epidemic is really a bad boundaries epidemic?

How to set boundaries around your time successfully

Whether for meetings, dates, social get-togethers, or anything else, here’s what you can do to keep on top of things:

1. Set two alarms

Bid adieu to the days when your time spilleth over during a get-together and where you’re late for every successive event, forever apologizing frantically and feeling out of control. What I do is set two alarms, one 10 minutes before leaving, and one to tell me when to leave. I also tell the person I’m with that the alarms will ring.

This strategy is great for regaining control of your time when you have tight time windows between two events. It’s even better with people who never get to the point until you’re about to leave or who guilt-trip you for extra time. Because just as your morning alarm jolts you back into your body to start the day, these alarms are an objective signal that “time’s up!”

This also forces accountability to time. We all know the kind of person who waltzes in unreasonably late and then thinks they’ll still have that same amount of time. No. This sends the message that the red line has been drawn. Going forward, we respect each other’s time, or nada.

2. Set a time limit

Setting a time limit forces everyone to value time, and you don’t take each other’s presence and energy for granted. It also teaches you to be more cogent and spend the time thoughtfully.

Even better, you can also ask questions like:

  • “What would you like out of this time together?”
  • “How would you like me to support you? Would you like a listening ear or someone to solve problems with?”
  • “How can we best make use of our time?”

As coming to meetings with an agenda makes things more efficient and effective, these questions can funnel your time and energy better.

3. Implement 10-minute windows

Remember the last time you had back-to-back events—be they coffee meets, work meetings, or fun feasts— and you thought “I’d process that all later” and never did? Sure, you could neglect the reflection if they’re fun and informal, but how about those times when you never got to write your notes up for the meetings? Then you procrastinated, felt awful, and the emotional burden piled up?

That’s not because you’re lazy. It’s because when we chunk things together without a break, thinking it’s more efficient, it all feels like an amorphous mass. And as they build up, it feels more emotionally overwhelming to process it all. That’s when the dreaded P-word steps in: procrastination.

Instead, I always recommend instituting a 10-minute (minimum) window in between events. It’s what I call spending time to buy exponentially more time and peace.

During this window, I clear my head by doing a brain-reset breathing exercise that helps me transition from one interaction to another. I also jot down my reflections from what happened before, to close that event in my mind, in addition to what I’d like from the next event.

4. Chunk event types or locations

A 20-minute journey here and there adds up. It’s mental and emotional labor, and switching between types of tasks also chews up energy. So, a great way to practice time boundaries is to schedule events that are in a certain geographical area, or of a certain type, together. For instance, you could do more creative tasks in a certain time window or day, and then do strategic or administrative tasks during another. That way, you reclaim so much more energy by not having to transition between different types of tasks.

As far as locations go, even if you fear that you’ve tentatively agreed to some arrangement with someone in a specific place, all you have to do is ask gracefully for that swap. Think about it this way: When you have so much more energy, you show up better for everyone. Including yourself. Especially yourself.

5. Don’t be afraid to reschedule or turn someone down

All events go straight into my calendar, so I keep track of time and have a bird’s-eye view. I liken my calendar to a gallery—is there enough white space so everything can shine?

If things are looking too clogged up, then I will ask for that reschedule. Sometimes I’ll even say, “The week is looking way too full, and I’d like to take some space for my energy.” This is important, especially if you’re an introvert, or when life is feeling more challenging. Most people are understanding enough to say yes.

6. Can this be a phone call, email, or text?

Not everything needs to be done face-to-face, especially if time is taken for granted. Often, a phone call where there’s an agenda or a succinct email that’s to the point will suffice. You could even say, “Let’s start getting clear via an email or phone call, then if need be, we’ll have an X-minute coffee.”

Reclaiming your time

Many people resist time boundaries, not because they are too tired to institute them but rather because they don’t know what would happen if they didn’t. What would they do with that extra space?

This is often why we numb ourselves with frenetic activities, oscillating between workaholism and social-holism. Or, we feel we don’t deserve that extra space.

So, instead of worrying, have a plan for what you’d do with that time. Nobody says you have to make all the white space in your calendar solo time. Here’s where my concept of “time wild card” comes in: I dedicate about 40 to 60% of that reclaimed time to saying yes to anything else interesting that pops up. What could you do to replenish yourself or instigate a great time with those you deeply love?

Life always pops up. Allow yourself to be surprised by it.