Many women lament their inability to create boundaries around their time so they can accomplish what matters most to them. If you find yourself saying, “I have to …” with a sigh for a lot of your calendar items, that’s sure sign that you are spending time in a way that doesn’t bring you joy. Sure, we all have plenty of things we have to do, but many of us have a lot more control over our time than we want to admit. With that in mind, here are five steps to help you set boundaries, regain control of your time and be on your way to a more joyful life.
Step 1: Figure out how you want to spend your time. The reason creating boundaries is important is so you have time to do the things that matter to you, whether it’s spending time advancing your career, making a difference in your family or community or taking care of your body and soul. A a rich, full life has elements in several or all of these areas. If you are feeling burned out — whether at work or at home — you probably aren’t spending your time in a way that gives you meaning and purpose. Most likely, you are spending time in the way that others want you to — your coworkers, your family, your friends. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with spending time on the people we love and admire. But if you are waiting for the requests for your time to let up so you can squeeze in the things that matter to you, you are going to be waiting a long time. Flip the script: build a calendar that gives your time to the people who matter most, including yourself.
Step 2: Assess your calendar. Start by identifying the activities that are not contributing value, where you feel a sense of obligation, but not a sense that your participation is creating the kind of impact you want to have on the world. These are the low-hanging fruit and relatively easy to eliminate. The harder part is assessing activities that have a positive impact, but that overrun your calendar when left unchecked. This might be meetings with colleagues that aren’t necessary, but where they want advice or support for a project. It could be volunteer activities in your community or at your children’s schools. It might even be time spent with family and friends.
Step 3: Create space. Eliminating the not-necessary tasks and activities hopefully opened up space right away. But chances are you still have quite a few things from the second category — the things you want to do, but less. Handle these by creating a set number of slots for each one. For example, if colleagues often want your input on projects they are working on, you could decide that you are going to spend five hours a week in these types of meetings. Create five slots on your calendar. Once they fill up, you can confidently say no to additional requests. You can do this across your calendar for a week, month or longer. For volunteer projects, for example, you could decide that you are willing to take on one project at a time. Don’t agree to anything new until that project is complete.
Step 4: Fill the open space intentionally. Now that you’ve opened up space on your calendar, how do you want to spend that time? Continue to use the slot system, but treat these “want-to-dos” with the same discipline. You can also use a method I call “when vs. if.” For example, when you tell yourself that you’ll exercise, “if” you have time you almost certainly won’t have time. Instead, decide how many times you want to exercise — then decide when you’ll do it. Across 168 hours in a week you can find the hours you need. If not, go back to the first step and assess your calendar again. Do this until you’ve found space for all the activities that you want to have more of — strategic projects, community involvement, time with friends.
Step 5: Review and iterate. I encourage anyone engaging in a calendar makeover to try to stick to the new routines for at least a few weeks, ideally a month. Change is uncomfortable at first. A colleague will have a last-minute crisis that you feel obligated to help on, despite those slots being filled. Early morning workouts, which seemed like a good idea at the time, will be unmanageable. The key is to not give up but instead to adjust. Reassess your calendar, tweak the areas that aren’t working and try that out for another few weeks. Keep doing that over the course of several months and slowly but surely you will find you have a sense of control over your time. You may even find that the renewed energy you get from living your purpose makes time expand, creating more space for what matters most to you.
This post originally appeared on Women@Forbes. Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash.