Learn to Create Boundaries Around Your Time

A mental shortcut for people who struggle to say no

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Whoever said that time is our most egalitarian asset and we all have the same 24 hours each day was definitely right about it. But they were dead wrong about it too because the way we dispose of our time, the way we have the liberty and skills to manage our time will vary immensely from one person to another.

Yes, average citizens like you and me, we have the same 24 hours as a billionaire but while a billionaire can outsource a lot of their tasks to liberate time for themselves, not everyone can afford to have a personal chef, a personal trainer, an army of nannies, or anyone else taking tasks off their shoulders.

Yet what we can definitely learn is how to manage our time that we have the choice about. Because in this sense, our minutes and hours — regardless of how much we can use for ourselves a day — are really valuable. And sometimes time being a scarcity can be a bigger motivation than to have infinite amounts of it.

When it comes to managing your time, there are obvious choices that you need to deal with. How much time can you carve out for yourself? For your health? For your relationship? For your passion?

And there are less obvious pitfalls that you might not even want to avoid — not even noticing how they are using you up. Especially when it is about others trying to use your time.

I’m a people pleaser in recovery. And just as the AA meetings always start with admitting that you are an alcoholic, repeating it ad infinitum, I keep reminding myself about my people-pleasing tendencies.

I no longer practice people pleasing but I still have the prints of my previous behaviour on my soul, fully aware of how it was making my life intolerable. And I have no intention of returning to the old habit.

But people-pleasing on the surface is a kind thing to do. If you take out the unhealthy and toxic element of it, it is about being there for people, it’s about empathy and caring, it’s about being ready to listen and to put others first.

The toxic part is the part that can make you bitter and disappointed, it’s but the unhealthy expectations that will make you sacrifice yourself and it’s really about not finding yourself worthy of others’ attention unless you do everything for them first.

As a recovering people pleaser, I still catch myself wanting to help someone who never asked for my help, or meet someone who doesn’t make an effort to meet me or to free my time for someone else’s sake. I don’t do it anymore — because I am stopping myself before I could commit to any people-pleasing behaviour.

And my mental shortcut for being able to stop myself and say no to them is to focus on my time.

Focusing on my time allowed me to interpret my interactions with others differently, without making their interests my priority and without feeling guilty about my “rudeness”. Because I came to realize that most of my people-pleasing stemmed from not wanting to appear rude or unkind — which led me to be unkind to myself.

How can you use ‘time’ as a mental shortcut?

Focus on how much time you would sacrifice

When it comes to professional time management at work or scheduling a project, I am a master time manager. I know how to prioritize, I am aware of how much time a certain task would take, I know the consequences of missing deadlines.

Ironically, when it comes to managing my time in interpersonal relationships the concept of time used to skip my mind. I would offer help and my presence without being fully aware of what a certain occupation would demand from me — and I would undertake it anyway. I would ignore other tasks to make others’ lives easier, even if it made my life significantly more difficult.

These days, before committing to anything or anyone, I ask myself:

  • Do I really have time for this?
  • Do I really want to give it 2 hours or2 days of my life?
  • What would I do if I didn’t do it?

These sound selfish — I know. But they aren’t. They are just observing a request from the point of view of the most important person involved: me.

As I have a job, and a few other projects, I have three kids and I am committed to a stable exercising routine, the answer is usually ‘no, I don’t have time for this’ and ‘I don’t want to sacrifice two hours of my well-deserved relaxing time for someone else’s task’. It has to be a really rewarding, a very not demanding or a very fulfilling interaction so that I would be fully in, in a committed manner.

Valuing your own time and prioritizing yourself is crucial. Choose carefully what you are willing to commit to, for your available time is limited and precious.

Phrase your ‘no’ in relation to time

Saying ‘no’ can be very difficult for some, and there are some people out there who don’t accept no for an answer.

It’s a long learning curve to internalise that you are not rude when you refuse to be available all the time. However, there are ways to say ‘no’ in relation to your time and it makes it easier to utter (or type) the words.

Some ways I say ‘no’ to others:

  • I would love to, but I can’t right now.
  • Today is not good, how about a rain check, let’s plan something.
  • I can’t fit it in my schedule, do you mind if I get back to you about it later?
  • This week (month) is very busy, difficult, can I call you next week/month.
  • I only have half an hour, will that do? (I use this when I can spare half an hour but not more or if I know that their request would take a lot longer.)

The interesting thing is that people don’t mind being put on a schedule. Sometimes just hearing that you will be there for them later is enough and they go on solving their problem. And sometimes they don’t even need you for the solution, so they never come back with the same thing.

Use the time you won back for yourself

I used to feel guilty about rejecting people but I noticed two things:

  1. People respect you more if you are not immediately available.
  2. If I use the time I gained for something purposeful, I don’t need to deal with guilt.

Availability usually backfires and you need a really mature, emotionally intelligent person not to use you if you’re always ready for them. But if you have a life, have self-respect and you are not willing to drop everything and run to the rescue, people accept and respect it. (Those that don’t shouldn’t be in your life taking up your precious time anyway.)

Guilt is like a drug for people-pleasers. You come back for more and more, and it’s difficult to break the cycle. If you are naturally anxious, then you have an even deadlier combo, and you will end up being guilty about being anxious and anxious about being guilty.

If you have a good reason for yourself — and it can even be binge-watching Netflix instead of driving your nor-even-that-good-friend to the airport — then you can enjoy whatever time you spend the way you planned to spend it.


Your time is the only asset that you will always have less and less of — as this is what being human means. No matter how soon or how late but you need to start considering your life from a time perspective. The way how you spend your time and what and who you are willing to spend it on will define not only your days but also your whole life.

Be aware of the time you spend with others and with yourself and make sure that you are still your priority — as no one else will have you as such.

  • Focus on the time you would sacrifice — when responding to requests from others, always think it over from the perspective of time and make sure that you have time, you want to give them that time and there is nothing else you’d rather do
  • Phrase your ‘no’ related to time — reschedule and figure out how it would suit you instead of focusing on how it would be best for the other
  • Use the time you saved for yourself — you don’t have to be always available and you have the right to waste your own time anytime.

Writer. Dreamer. Hopeless romantic. Newsletter: zita.substack.com Email me: zitafontaine (at) gmail

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