Saying ‘No’ isn’t Selfish: Boundaries as Self-Care

There’s no question that self-care is trending. You’ll see the term in corporate edicts, hospital pamphlets, advertisements for jade rollers and spa packages, and splashed across social media. You’ll find lists of activities such as meditation, bubble baths, yoga and daily walks touted as the antidote for burnout. Some purported self-care sessions are expensive and many are free, but they all require time.


Here’s the thing: if you’re burnt out and overscheduled, a to-do list of self-care activities is just another stack of chores. It’s well intended, yet ultimately misguided advice. Certain self-care practices might feel great and give you a boost, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! If you want to address the bigger issue - and make space for self-care - it’s important to examine which tasks are taking up time and draining your energy, and figure out what can be done to turn things around.


I believe that boundary-setting is an important first step towards avoiding burnout and setting up a meaningful - and sustainable - self-care routine.


What’s burning or building my energy - and is it worth it?

There’s one question I always ask my clients - and myself - when setting boundaries around scheduling: “is this task worth my energy?”. Some tasks are burners, while others are builders. Once you start noticing the difference, you can begin to make decisions about how you want to invest your energy.


I often start my clients with this energy-tracking worksheet. It’s a great way to bring awareness to the daily tasks that burn (and build!) your energy, as well as giving you useful insights that can help you schedule your time more effectively.


It won’t be possible to slash everything that drains your energy, but I encourage you to take an honest look at the tasks on your plate, and find at least one ‘burner’ to cut, reduce or delegate. This might involve setting up a boundary, and learning to say No.


For ‘burners’ that need to get done - and done by you - look for strategies to work more efficiently and protect your energy.


Some things to consider:

  • Time of day: Is it better for you to work on burners at the beginning of the day when you’re most focused? Or do you need to do a few ‘builder’ tasks first to get the ball rolling.

  • Duration: Do you prefer to break big ‘burners’ into smaller, more manageable pieces? Or is it easier for you to reserve a larger block of focused time to get it all done at once?

  • Proximity: Consider building an ‘energy sandwich’. Schedule energy ‘builders’ before and after ‘burners’ to make sure you have enough energy in the tank to get you through the day.

These are just a few ideas to get you started! With time and attention, you’ll figure out your own strategies. The core idea is that you want to build boundaries about how much energy you are expending, ensuring that you have enough left to take care of yourself.


There are many boundary-setting habits that can contribute to a culture of self-care! Here are a few of my favourites:


Set office hours and stick to them

If you work from home or are self-employed, it’s easy to find yourself stuck in work mode at all hours of the day at night. It’s exhausting! Set your office hours, and stick to them, unless there’s an exceptional circumstance or opportunity (ie attending a conference on a weekend, or working a few evenings so you can take an extra day off).


Work from home…don’t live at work

Every scenario has it’s pros and cons, including working from home. In addition to building boundaries regarding office hours, there are simple routines that can help you leave your work at the office…even if your office is at home!


A client shared her favourite work from home ritual: a pair of ‘office’ shoes. She puts on her work shoes at the start of the day, and takes them off when it’s time to wrap up. It’s a simple yet tangible way for her to mark the shift from work to rest.


If you’re working out of a multi-use space (ie living room, kitchen), I would encourage you to create a ‘closing time’ routine. Dust off your old briefcase or repurpose a sturdy box or bin. Use it as a landing spot for your laptop and work supplies, and pack it away at the end of the day, so you’re not staring at (and fixating on) work during your downtime.


Turn off notifications

In the age of technology, we can always be reached. It doesn’t mean that everyone needs to have unlimited access to your time and attention. E-mails, social media notifications, news alerts…each ‘ding’ pulls your focus away from the work at hand, and it takes time to recover. Leave calendar reminders on, and nix the rest!


Use out-of-office responders

An out-of-office responder can be a helpful tool, and a great way to practice setting boundaries around work time. Use them to let contacts know you will not be answering emails on a holiday; set one for 5pm on Friday to enforce the start of the weekend; add an auto-response during conferences, back to back meetings, or when you’re feeling overwhelmed with projects. It’s a polite and firm way to show that you cannot engage at this moment, but will answer soon. It also helps take the pressure off, so you don’t feel as obligated to multitask and take on more than you can manage.


It can be daunting at first, but communicating your boundaries clearly is an act of kindness. When you set a boundary - politely, lovingly, respectfully, and firmly - you teach people how to treat you, instead of expecting them to read your mind. It’s easier if you set up your boundaries from the start, but it’s never too late!

Saying ‘No’ isn’t negative.


No is a little word that packs a big punch. It’s among the first words most children utter, and it often ends up on repeat! From a young age, we understand the power of no. It’s a loaded word, but not necessarily a negative one. Saying no to tasks that drain you creates space for the things that refresh and sustain you.


Sometimes saying No means saying Yes to yourself!


By setting boundaries and saying No to energy ‘burners’, you make room for activities that feel good. It allows you to say Yes to yourself, and to self-care!


When choosing self-care activities, it’s important to consider what you REALLY need at that moment. What does self-care mean to you? It can change depending on the circumstance! If you’re in a good place, proactive tasks like meal prepping, exercising or meditating might feel great. However, if you’re burnt out, those same activities could seem impossible. Be mindful about what will help refresh your batteries in the moment. And be careful not to ‘should’ all over your self-care activity. If watching a favourite movie feels right, don’t guilt or shame yourself into reading a book instead. Be careful not to conflate self-care with self improvement.


Some of my favourite self-care practices are:

  • Mindfulness and meditation: I love guided meditation, since it’s a more approachable option, especially for beginners. My favourite tool is the Headspace app, but there are lots of free videos online too!

  • Eating well: I feel the best when I’m able to incorporate a wide range of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. My goal is to hit 50 different servings a week, which helps keep it interesting, and turns it into a game!

  • Daily Exercise: moving makes such a difference in my energy levels! Whether it’s cycling, a workout, a daily walk, or my longer hikes on the weekends, exercise leaves me feeling good!

  • Time with Family and Friends: Now more than ever, I think we recognize the value of connecting with loved ones. One of my favourite creative options over the past few years has been booking a ‘walk and talk’, where I call friends, colleagues or family members, and we catch up over the phone while walking around our respective neighbourhoods.

  • Non-productive ‘me’ time: with so much emphasis on productivity these days, I think it’s important to find moments where we allow ourselves to just be, without worrying about getting things done. Whether it’s an unpaid hobby (not a side hustle!), or just making space to enjoy some unhurried moments throughout the day, I invite you to give yourself permission to slow down and leave productivity behind from time to time.


Final Thoughts

The hard truth is that there’s no quick fix for burn out. Just like any other meaningful practice, self-care must take place consistently in order to be effective. Figuring out which activities burn and build your energy, and using that knowledge to build a sustainable, ongoing self-care routine is a great place to start!