Last week I was reading an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) and was struck by this line:

And I have a small stone “Boundary God” statue from Sulawesi Indonesia right here on my desk, next to my laptop, reminding me not to say “yes” to everything!

Oh, I thought, a boundary marker; that’s a wonderful idea.

“Boundaries” has turned into one of those pop-psych terms that shows up every time women start talking about their lives (remember “co-dependency,” last decade’s buzzword?). But these terms get overused because they’re simple pointers to real problems that many of us struggle with.

“Not saying yes to everything” is a professional challenge I keep grappling with. And grappling, and grappling. I’ve tried to set up checks for myself–I have a conference manager who says “no” for me once my speaking schedule is full, and various folks who are supposed to give me permission to sign new contracts before I put pen to paper.

But in the end, if I decided I want to take on a new project, everyone tells me to go ahead. I’m ultimately the one who has to turn down the opportunities.

Which is devastatingly hard. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why, and I’m sure that everyone has a slightly different reason for that impulse to overcommit. But I think I know what mine is: I’m afraid that if I don’t take every opportunity that comes along, every offered contract, every possible book project, the opportunities will wither away, stop appearing…trail off.

Decisions made out of fear are always disastrous. But recognizing this doesn’t make it any easier to turn down the opportunities, even when I’m piling them onto a plate so full it’s practically fracturing in half with the weight.

I loved this idea of a boundary marker, but I don’t really want a statue of a god occupying my workspace. Anyway I already have a “Don’t overload your plate” reminder sitting on my desk.

Yeah, that’s the Titanic, which, depending on the day, reminds me that 1) things could be worse, or 2) this is what’s going to happen if I pile any more weight on the ship.

That’s sort of a “dreadful consequence” reminder, though (as opposed to an “Act to get control of your work!” reminder). I needed something a little more positive.

Since I have a BIG problem with setting limits on my work (“Sure, I’ll write a history of the world!”) I decided to get a BIG boundary marker. And here it is.

Every time I walk into my office now, I see the boundary stone. I hope it’ll remind me that I should take on new work because I want to do it, not because someone else asks me to do it, or offers it to me, or thinks I should.

Showing 5 comments
  • Ellen

    Great idea for a boundary stone (pillar, more like) and much better than some little statue, which is easily ignored. It’s hard to ignore something you’ll have to walk around every single day.

  • Rich

    Beware the deildegast!

  • Ted

    Gotta get me one of them. Name it “Ebeneezer.”

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    Great idea.
    Mine would need to be large enough to block my access to emails asking for help.
    I move around a lot so there is a natural end to many of my volunteering efforts. But it leaves me joking that I have to leave the country to avoid saying yes any more.

  • Elizabeth

    I just read a good quote by Coco Chanel on how she felt about how to manage one’s time:
    “There is time for work and there is time for love. That leaves no other time.”
    The “time for love” referred to only taking on things in your life that you truly love and want to do.
    It has caused to stop and ponder. I actually took the time to write a list of everything that I do and then categorize the list into “Work” and “Love” and, unfortunately, almost half of what I do didn’t fall into either one…it fell into what I would call “Obligation.” Hmmm, time to rethink my ability to say “No!”

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