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How to protect and communicate your time boundaries

How to protect and communicate your time boundaries

Many of the stressful situations we get ourselves into happen because we don’t have as good a grasp of our time boundaries as we thought - if we’d even considered them at all. As a consequence, interactions with others can end up being frustrating and unfulfilling, and what we really want to achieve doesn’t get done. Sound familiar?

Whether at work or at home, we all need to have boundaries, the rules about what we will and won’t do. The reality is that our boundaries are often tested by others - who may want more of our time, or who may unintentionally impact on it by their actions. People also decide how much they’ll respect our boundaries by what they see in our behaviours - many of which we may not even be aware of.

The good news is that a little awareness and some time mastery techniques can help prevent much of this.

Why boundaries matter

We all need a safety net - the ability to push back to protect ourselves and in so doing,  others who rely on us. The ability to set and protect boundaries helps us to be more efficient and effective in our work and how we use our time. It also helps avoid getting into difficult situations with other people that become hard to resolve or exit from.

We are not going to pretend boundary setting is easy. It’s not, but the rewards in terms of time saved, less stress and better relationships make it worth the focus.

The impact of lockdown on time boundaries

The office used to be the most obvious boundary between home and work - until we started remote working. All of a sudden those relationships and expectations on our time were present in our otherwise safe haven. For many, experiences of working through lockdown will be mixed. Some organisations have been highly supportive of employees working from home, making sure workloads were manageable. There has, however, been a considerable downside. Increasing cases of burnout caused by a collapse in time boundaries.

Research by Professor Tammy Allen suggests people have a preference for 'segmentation' (a clear segmented boundary) or 'integration' where work and life are more integrated. The pandemic has affected those with a 'segmentation' preference more significantly as they have been forced into an integration situation (see References).

Many, concerned about their own job security and worried about the vacuum left by not being a part of their physical workplace, felt compelled to say ‘yes’ to additional requests and work longer hours. Pressures like home schooling often pushed work into evenings and weekends. The real danger was that employers often couldn’t see it was happening and employees hoped they’d somehow get through by soaking it all up, feeling they had no choice. Protecting their time boundaries was probably the last thing on their mind.

Resetting time boundaries - the return to work opportunity

For many therefore, a return to the office or a partial presence through a hybrid model, offers an opportunity to reset their boundaries. A chance to address the blurred lines between home and work and re-set relationships and expectations as new structures and projects emerge. With greater awareness of mental health issues and the opportunity to once again share experiences, many will be forming clarity on what they want their boundaries to be and what they feel is reasonable. 

Tammy Allen’s research suggests there are 4 ways people manage work life boundaries. The boundary management tactics identified are: Behavioural - example establishing routines that mimic ‘going to the office’, Temporal - time to devote to work and non work, Physical - setting out physical spaces for work and non work (home office with a door) and Communicative - telling people about work and non work times. This may be an underused tactic.

The challenge anyone faces with boundary setting is that it really is down to the individual. You really have to take control - rather than find yourself being controlled by other people’s needs and agendas.

Behaving your time boundaries

Your time boundaries are the way in which you demonstrate to yourself, and to others, how you are willing to spend your time. Time boundaries are discussed in depth in our book ‘Time Mastery: Banish Time Management Forever’ where you’ll find many practical examples of behaviour types and tips. 

Protecting our time boundaries is very much about our words and actions. The problem is that we are often not aware of what these actions are saying - which can make it easy for others to draw their own conclusions. In our book we describe how ‘you behave your time boundaries’ - and others respond to that. For example, if you want to project the image of someone who’s time is valuable or in short supply - it won’t help if you are sending the wrong signals by being seen gossiping or complaining. It will then be difficult for someone to believe you when you say “I’m too busy to…” 

A good way to become aware of this detrimental habit is to listen for it and observe it in others. Who is always telling anyone who will listen that they are busy and who is always rearranging meetings? You’ll soon notice how they are ‘behaving their time.’

Beware of boundary violators

Some people can be too popular, agreeable and helpful for their own good. They find their time hijacked by others who as colleagues distract them with their personal stories, complaints or gossip. Not wanting to be rude, they show empathy but this eats into their time and they work late. Likewise, a lack of the ability to say ‘no' sees more work coming their way - the outcome is often they work longer hours to make up for lost time.

They’ve unwittingly fallen victim to the boundary violators. You might respond to situations like this by being proactive in saying ‘hello’ when it suits you (rather than them), preferably in break times, walking more purposely in the office and avoiding eye contact. Likewise you can take a judgement on how important a conversation is likely to be and suggest you catch up later, or after work, knowing they’ll come back if it’s genuinely important. With small adjustments it is possible to gain more control over how others engage with your time while still maintaining good, if not better, relationships.

Setting your time boundaries

The words you use are as important as your behaviour. There are good ways to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests for your time, as there are when asking others for their time. You may find that, in order to stop doing things that waste your time or don’t add value to what you want to achieve, you may need to practice saying ‘no’ more than you currently do.

There are key instances in our day to day communication where simple changes in language can make a big difference in how we respond to requests for our time. Let’s look at this in more depth.

How to respond to other people’s requests for your time

Are you someone who finds themselves saying ‘yes’ too much, agreeing to everything, only to worry about how you’ll deliver it all? The problem here is that you are telling people you are always available - and they’ll expect you to be. Do you find yourself responding with a vague response - you’ll ‘try to’ or ‘do your best’ - or just say ‘no’ outright? This can push people away, which might rule out things you’d actually like to do.

The best approach, and the one that will help you protect your time, is to give a clear, assertive and respectful response. We cover a number in our book ‘Time Mastery: Banish Time Management Forever’. Here are some examples.

A good way to say ‘Yes’ that gives you some control is to say ‘Thanks for asking me. I’d love to be involved. Give me some more detail so I can get a sense of the part I’ll play.’ A good way to decline work could be to say ‘Thanks for thinking of me. I’m at capacity at the moment so will have to say no on this occasion. I wish you all the best with the project’. You can buy more time in a positive way by responding with ‘I love the sound of that. I’ll let you know in the next few days. Can you send me through the details?’


French, Kimberly A, & Allen, Tammy D. (2020). Episodic Work-Family Conflict and Strain: A Dynamic Perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(8), 863-888.

In conclusion

Your time is exactly that. Yours. It’s up to you to make that clear to everyone. But don’t forget that you communicate your time boundaries in your language and actions and other people will respond to this, based on what they see. As well as direct requests for your time - which you can choose to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ to, there are people who will unintentionally drain your time - the boundary violators. You can still be agreeable and helpful, but on your terms, not theirs.

Would you like a free chapter from Time Mastery?

Start the journey to how you can master your time boundaries and not be controlled by other people’s priorities. Download the first chapter from our website, there’s no need to give us your details.

Download the first chapter of Time Mastery.

Are you at risk of burnout?

If you are worried about burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), is the most commonly used tool to self-assess whether you might be at risk. You can complete the MBI easily yourself from our website, there’s no charge. We’ll also share further advice to help you manage your level of burnout.

Take the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI)

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