Setting Boundaries with Time

On boundaries: IV

Photo by @dani_franco

There are few things more fun for me than exploring the Big questions. What’s the meaning of life? What is Right? What is Wrong? What happens hereafter? That said, it’s not what I want to talk about right when I roll out of bed. For some reason however, my partner does. Like, really does.

It became a sensitive spot because mornings are near sacred for me. I dedicate this time to taking care of my body, mind, and do my most important work. On the other hand, it’s also important to me to connect with my partner. I felt like I had to choose between connecting with my partner, or connecting with myself. In the past, I would try to solve this boundary conundrum by making time. That’s where things would go wrong.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned the hard way is that time can’t be made, it can only be taken. It can be taken by us, or be taken from us. The more time is taken from us, the less of ourselves we have to give. This is why time is one of the most critical considerations for the creation — and maintenance of — our boundaries.

As we explored earlier in this series, our calendar is a reflection of our boundaries. These are the things we’re taking time for. In this article, we’ll build on this concept by introducing two powerful strategies for taking time: time-blocking and time-boxing.

Time Blocking

Whereas the traditional way to use a shared calendar is to schedule events and meetings, time-blocking goes a step further and uses a shared calendar to schedule certain tasks. It’s an organizational strategy, but also a defensive one. It’s designed to prevent others from taking our time.

Some may balk at this concept because they don’t feel empowered to block their time. At first, I also felt this way. I didn’t feel entitled to essential say “no” to someone paying my bills. I thought that if I say “no,” they’ll just replace me with someone who will say “yes.” Though that can be true, I’ve found that the majority of employers are much more interested in results than compliance.

Time blocking can deliver results because it grants us the luxury of uninterrupted focused work time. What’s not as obvious is that time blocking also functions as a powerful form of non-verbal asynchronous communication.

When I block time, I label the calendar events with the subject of my focus. This clearly communicates something that most bosses/coworkers want to know: what I’m working on. It also shows them when I did, or will, work on something. This all happens without a single email. On the flip side, it also communicates something far more important, when I am available.

Let’s slow down on this concept of availability.

When we accept calls or reply to emails after work hours, we’re signaling our availability. Even if we feel like our boundaries are being crossed, we’re training people that this behavior is ok. In truth however it’s not okay at all. In fact, it’s often a consistent source of stress and anxiety. Why? Because we’re not available, we’re preoccupied.

Availability can be so much more than an open slot on your schedule, it can be an agreement to be fully present. This makes the quality of this allotted time so much more valuable.

Though time-blocking is often confined to a professional setting, it can really shine when mapped onto our personal lives. It grants us the ability to communicate commitment and care asynchronously.

During the pandemic, I found it hard to keep in touch with friends, especially international ones. Despite being trapped indoors for two years, it proved harder than ever to find the time to connect. The solution for this was to time-block recurring calls with the people I cared for.

Time-blocking created containers that both parties could protect without all the back and forth of text and email. It was a mutual agreement to say no to others and yes to one another. It made communication so consistent that it deepened my connections during one of the most disconnected times in recent history.

Going back to my earlier conundrum about having to choose between connecting with myself or my partner. Here the solution was also a matter of time blocking…paired, of course, with some of the communication techniques we explored in the last article.

In our case, my partner’s priority wasn’t big conversation, it was connection. Though we share that value, it’s not my priority in the morning. Adhering to a morning schedule helps me meet my needs, which in turn allows me to connect more fully and consistently. All that was necessary was to block out dedicated times where we could align our availability with our priorities.

As unromantic as it may seem, putting time on the calendar helped both of us have our needs met by creating containers for us to be both fully available to one another and ourselves without guilt, shame, or preoccupation. It also gave us something to look forward on our calendar.

Taking time for someone you care for, is the same thing as giving someone our time. When fully present, giving someone our time can be one of the most authentic displays of love we can offer.

Time Boxing

It’s common knowledge that taking time for ourselves is critical. What’s not obvious is that we’re also guilty of taking time from ourselves.

Whereas time blocking is about protecting our time from the outside in, time boxing serves to protect our time from the inside out.

We often focus on setting boundaries for external obligations, but we tend to neglect setting boundaries for internal ones. Resting, eating well, moving, playing, connecting, etc. These are all things that nourish us. They‘re the substance of our wellbeing. The problem is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between what nourishes us and distractions that deplete us.

Our attention tends to default to things that provide the quickest fix. Be it booze, playing video games, binging Netflix, social media, partying etc., these activities often serve as an escape from the present.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong spending time with things we find entertaining. The problem is that they’ve become so accessible that engaging with them can quickly become habitual, taking time away from other things we would far more meaningful and fulfilling.

Time-boxing helps us avoid taking time from ourselves, so that we can take time for ourselves. Functionally time-boxing is identical to time-blocking. The only real difference is time-boxing has little to nothing to do with work.

Taking time for ourselves is about spending time doing things that help us fully engage with the present, rather than try to distance ourselves from it. Maybe that’s through exercise, writing, cooking, reading, dancing, dinner with a friend, sitting quietly looking out the window with a cup of tea, building something, drawing, volunteering. You do it because it feels nourishing or sparks your curiosity.

Sometimes the things we’re most curious about are the hardest to take time for because we don’t know where to begin. The more curious we are about something, the more we tend to blow it out of proportion. The bigger something gets in our minds, the more overwhelming and scary it becomes.

Time-boxing creates boundaries that force us to think inside the box, that is, at a much more granular level. If we can only dedicate thirty minutes, three times a week to something, we have to figure out what we can get done in that short amount of time. That shift in thinking can make all the difference.

You may not know how to start a company, but you do know how to spend thirty minutes googling it. You may not know how to code, but you do know how to take a class for thirty minutes.

This approach can also prevent our motivation from evaporating the moment it collides with a steep learning curve, or the inevitable stumbles when getting started with something new.

Lastly, time-boxing can be very practical for those whose passions often get in the way of their commitments.

I’ve often found myself working deep into the night days on end on a passion project. The thrill and flow can quickly override my other obligations. My excuse for indulging this neglectful behavior is that life is short, and this lights me up, so, yolo!!! It does light me up and it also burns me out.

Inevitably whatever consumed my attention will end, and I will stumble across the finish line only to crash into an angry pile of neglected obligations. It’s not a sustainable strategy. Burnout is a common side effect of poor boundaries especially when self employed.

Hemingway stated that he always stopped writing with something left to say. Leaving something incomplete on the page allowed him to dive right back into work the following day. We can effectively re-create this strategy through time-boxing.

By only granting ourselves a limited amount of time, we’re primed to make the most of it, and we’re left wanting more. This is a powerful way to stay motivated, and gives us something to look forward to each day.

So rather than time-boxing be self-limiting, it creates the conditions for us to show up fully present and express ourselves over and over again.

The Choice

Ultimately both time blocking/boxing are tools that force us to acknowledge our finitude. No matter how productive we are, we’ll never get everything done. There will always be more to do, so it’s a Sisyphean goal to try and fit it all in.

Instead, the goal should be to become more intentional about wielding two of the most powerful words we have to make the most of our time: “yes” and “no”. That’s what time blocks represent: a choice.

You either take time, or you don’t. You’re either present, or you’re not. Much of our suffering — and that which we cause others — is when try operate otherwise.

When we say “yes” to something with intention, we’re saying no to everything else. It’s a meaningful commitment that helps us become truly present and connected with the people and experiences that we’ve committed to. That’s what boundaries are for, but more on that in a future installment of this series.

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Ryder Carroll

Creator of the Bullet Journal®. NYT Best-selling author and digital product designer, living in Brooklyn, NY.