Setting Limits

Imagine living a life without limits or saying yes to every request that comes your way without giving it a second thought. Imagine squeezing every minute of your day in a frenzy to get more things done, to have more “friends” on social networks than you can possibly sustain healthy relationships with, to spend more money than you make, or eating and drinking more than your health allows. These are only a handful of examples, but I think you get the idea.

There is a limit to our time and attention that we give to things. I wrote earlier how our attention (more than time and money) is the most valuable resource we have, but when we continue living like this, we’ll inevitably run into limits. Now, while most might see these limits as a barrier to overcome, I see them as a barrier to protect and guide us. This is not dissimilar to the idea of having and using constraints.

Here’s the thing. We can’t do it all. We can do anything, but not everything. Even knowing this, we do just the opposite. We try to do everything and to be everywhere. We double-book ourselves and delude ourselves into thinking that we can attend our friend’s birthday party and also catch the next broadway show on time. We might end up writing five mediocre articles in a week rather than focus on writing a single high-quality piece. We sacrifice quality for quantity in so many areas of our lives.

When someone makes a request of our time, we might be quick to say yes without thinking twice about if our time is even available.

I wrote earlier about how our creativity thrives in the presence of constraints — not despite it or in the absence of it, but because of it. Having a budget (money and time) is a good thing. Having an “unlimited budget” is not. Clint Eastwood is famous for shooting his films on time and on budget.

On any given day, there is only so much we can do. We only have 24 hours, and the idea is not to try to make the most out of every minute, but to live each minute mindfully.

Contrary to what one might believe, freedom does not come from living a “limitless” life. It comes from living a life with limits, which can be incredibly freeing. The fact that our time and space is limited should be liberating, if anything. It gives us the freedom to thrive within that space.

Here are some reasons for setting limits in our personal and work lives. We set limits because the time and space we have is limited and so we must use it mindfully. We do it so that we can focus on what is truly essential (important and often non-urgent). By taking on more projects, we risk spreading ourselves thin. Rather than trying to do many things averagely, we choose to do a few things with greater impact. We want to finish our projects on time and with positive results. When we focus on doing a few things well, we simplify our life, thus making it more manageable, less stressful, and more productive. We need to learn to respect our time and attention, and unless we do, it’s unlikely that others will respect it.

So how do we go about setting limits? The first thing we need to figure out is what to set limits on. Well, the first step is to track where our time is going and what we are spending more time on than we would like. Here are some things that come to mind.

  • amount of time spent on the internet
  • hours you work/play in a given day/week
  • number of projects you take on at any given time
  • amount of daily sugar intake
  • how much you use your phone and other screens
  • number of times you check your email
  • amount of TV/YouTube you watch every week

The next step is to pick one thing that you want to set a limit on for a month or so that would make the most impact for you (and then move on to the next thing, and so on).

I remember when I wanted to reduce intake of certain foods (because I was having it too often and/or too much of it). I kept a small spreadsheet to keep track of foods that I last had and when I would have them next as part of my diet.

In another instance, I learned the hard way that I need time to think about things before I can commit to them. That requires mastering the art of the fast no and the slow yes.

I used to check my phone all the time and respond to random incoming calls at the expense of doing my main work. I still use my phone more than I like every now and then, but for the most part, it has improved for me in that I check my phone only a few times a day to return missed calls and to respond to messages rather than be at the mercy of whoever is calling. This also implies that your time is valuable and that you can’t be taken for granted. This goes back to how we need to teach others how to “behave” with us.

Speaking of time, a lot of us have this notion that we have plenty of time on our hands. Chances are, people who have this notion likely don’t use a calendar, because if they did, they would realize how much time they truly have on their hands after they account for eat, move, sleep and for discretionary time to do the things they want.

Create boundaries between your work and play and devote equal time to both of those things. Both of those things should be non-negotiable, especially the latter.

No matter how busy my day gets, I have a morning and evening routine in place to bookend my day. It’s a great example of having limits to my day.

We need to learn to figure out things that are taking the most of our time and attention, and then we need to set limits on them one by one, starting with the thing that makes the most impact.

Wouldn’t it be great to live a simple life with less stress, greater focus, and one that is more manageable? It’s entirely doable.

Setting limits is not about setting limits, but what it allows us to do. Contrary to what is generally accepted to be true, a life without limits is not a life well-lived. In fact, the opposite couldn’t be more true. We only have limited resources at our disposal. We can try getting more things done, but we’ll eventually hit a wall. Unless we set limits in our lives by design, there won’t be any left by default. We can either work on many things and make incremental progress on them, or we can choose to work on a few things at a time and make great progress on them. The choice is ours.

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