5 Ways to Set Boundaries (Nicely) Over the Holidays


It’s the holiday season – time for joy, celebration and happiness. However, for many, it’s also a time of overwhelm. As we rapidly come towards the end of the year, there’s an increased demand on our time from work and family. Often, it can feel as though we’re failing at everything. If you feel this way, know that you are not the only one! I recently sat down with a group of women lawyers and this was one of the biggest challenges many of them were facing – how to try and do it all and have it all.

If you’re running on empty, and feel as though you can’t possibly add a single item to your already overextended to-do list, here are some tips for setting boundaries (nicely) over the holidays.

1. You Only Have 1,440 Minutes

First, let’s start with the basic truth that every one of us only gets 1,440 minutes per day. No amount of time management or increasing the pace will extend the number of minutes you have available. Time is a finite resource. It’s valuable and you should guard it.

This time of year, our Inboxes are full of invitations to different holiday functions. We may want to attend all of them while in the back of your mind, there’s that nagging feeling that says, if you go to that party, you’re going to be exhausted for that hearing the next morning. The reverse is also true. You may not want to attend that firm holiday dinner but you begrudgingly say “yes” out of a sense of obligation.

It is your time and you need to be in charge of how it’s allocated. So, practice saying “I’d love to but I have very limited free time before the end of the year and I’ll need that time to spend with my family.”

Remember, each minute you allocate is time taken away from something else.

2. What’s Driving Your Actions?

We often say “yes” to things because we fear judgment. We’re afraid if we say “no” to working yet another weekend, our co-workers, or our bosses will view us as lazy. However, there is research to indicate that people won’t think negatively of us if we say no. As discussed in this article:

The reality is that most people won’t think less of you if you say no. In fact, people tend to respect us more when we are able to set healthy limits.

If you do say “yes” to something out of a sense of obligation or guilt, be clear about the driving force. By recognizing what’s fueling your action, you’ll be able to create space to consider a different response. You can even consider expressing this to the other person. For example, you can say “I understand that you’re asking me to work next weekend. And I feel badly saying no, however, I’ve already worked three weekend in a row and I can’t commit another weekend at the office.”

3. Wait Before Saying Yes

It’s easy to overcommit simply because it’s tempting to accept every invitation. Instead, consider waiting before you RSVP. You can say “Thanks so much for inviting me. Could I get back to you next week when I have a better idea of what my calendar will look like through the rest of the year?”

4. Schedule Breaks

This is a great tool to use not only during the holidays but all year round. Add scheduled breaks or self-care time into your calendar. You can allocate this time for walking your dog, spending time with your kids, going to yoga, getting a massage, or whatever you need to do to avoid burnout. Having concrete time set aside will make it easier to say “no” because that time will already be blocked off in your calendar. You don’t need to give any lengthy explanation. Simply say “I’m sorry but I already have something scheduled in that timeslot.”

5. Note Automatic Response

Remember that the busier and more tired you feel, the more likely you’ll say yes.

It’s counter-intuitive, but being short on time makes it even harder for us to manage the limited time we do have. That’s according to Harvard behavioral scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir. In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Picador, 2013), they explain that the busier we get, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time saying “no” to the next request.

The solution? Practice your reason for saying no before you need it: “I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities this week.”

Being aware that your default or automatic response is to say yes can help you to say no instead.

Finally, remember, you are only human and doing the best that you can (and so is everyone else). So, practice having compassion for yourself and those around you through the holidays.