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Dear Christine: How Can I Set Boundaries for the Holidays?

Dear Christine,

My brother and his family will be visiting us from out of town the week of Christmas, and I generally make myself too available and try to make everyone comfortable when they are in town. I am already starting to feel anxious about it. How can I set boundaries and not be overly available when they are here? This is an issue at work and in my personal life.

Thanks in advance!
Overly Available to Others

Dear Overly Available,

Knowing that you need to set better boundaries this year tells me that you are on the right track already. You can do it! Below are three steps to setting boundaries and three things for you to remember while doing so.

Three steps to setting a boundary

1. Decide what you need, and articulate why you need it. Where is the line for you between enjoying your family and resenting them? For my part, I need to keep up some semblance of a routine, or I start to fall apart (which is not pleasant for anyone in our household). I know that I need to go to bed early and wake up early so that I have time to meditate and go to yoga or my favorite exercise class. These things keep me grounded. They also make me a better mother and wife; when I’m grounded and calm, I can help others more, not less. Also: I know that these things aren’t for everybody. I’m not asking anyone else to hop in the car with me at 5:30 in the morning.

What do you need, Overly Available, so that you can enjoy your brother and his family? Maybe you need uninterrupted time to yourself every evening, or perhaps you need your family to take care of their own breakfast. Make a list.

2. Tell folks what you need. Once you know what you need, tell your brother and his family. Practice calm nonchalance, even if you feel anxious or guilty about boundary setting. While normal, emotions like anxiety and guilt are not helpful here. Acknowledge and accept how you are feeling to yourself, but don’t act on those feelings. Take a few deep breaths, ground yourself, and then say what you need.

Try to use the same tone you would use if you were explaining how to log on to your WiFi network or use the TV remote: These facts will make their stay more enjoyable. There is no need to defend yourself or apologize or over-explain. Use as few words as possible.

3. Follow through. In the same way you might need to give multiple family members the WiFi password numerous times, you will likely need to repeatedly teach people what you need. And if what you need conflicts with what they want, you can be sure that you will need to repeat yourself. Try using the same phrasing repeatedly; it can help people tune in to the fact that you’ve drawn the boundary before.

When my college students are all home for the holidays and want me to start watching a movie with them 10 minutes before my bedtime, 100 percent of the time I’m tempted to stay up late with them. But I don’t do it, because for me, staying up late is a steep, slippery slope straight to exhaustion and resentment.

Three things to remember

1. Hurting yourself doesn’t ultimately help others. This is the old put-your-own-oxygen-mask-on-first argument: Should you become weak from lack of oxygen—because you have not adequately taken care of yourself—you will be useless to others. If you become exhausted or resentful, this will not make your brother’s visit a good one. None of you will feel more bonded at the end of the holiday. Your household is less likely to be filled with love and cheer.

2. You can handle the discomfort that comes from boundary setting. Firm boundary setting is a skill we need to practice. It’s a growth opportunity that can be stressful and uncomfortable. That’s okay. You can handle it. Breathe. Notice your thoughts: Which ones are causing you stress? Which are making you feel like you should do what other people want instead of what you need to do for yourself?

You don’t have to believe all these thoughts, because they might not be true. (Reminder: Our feelings are always true. Our thoughts, though, can be riddled with errors.) For example, maybe you’ve established that you need some time each morning to yourself, which is when you walk the dog. But it’s such a beautiful day, and everyone else thinks it’s a great idea to go for a walk! They want to come with you! This could easily make you believe the stressful thought, “It’s selfish and antisocial to take the dog for a walk alone.” That thought will make you cave; it’s a boundary-destroying thought.

So bring yourself back to the truth: It’s better for everyone if you practice basic self-care. You will be a better sister, aunt, and host if you have some time to yourself. Each time a stressful thought arises, counter it with the truth.

3. You aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings. Really: You aren’t. You are responsible for yourself and your own emotions and behaviors. Your boundaries may disappoint or frustrate or even anger others. We can’t control this; other people get to feel how they feel.

Sometimes, in their hurt and disappointment, people will try to convince us that we are acting mean or unkind or selfish. Repeat after me: It is never mean or unkind to take care of yourself and your own basic needs. It is unkind to harm ourselves, no matter how subtly, and it is certainly unkind to ask someone else to harm themselves. That might seem overly dramatic, but think of minor boundary crossings like paper cuts. They might not hurt that much one time, but they’re still something to avoid, because if we don’t follow through on a boundary we’ve set, it becomes much harder to enforce the next time. And 50 paper cuts will really hurt and hinder you.

Here is the excellent news about this tricky business of boundary setting, Overly Available: The benefits are immediate. You will enjoy your brother and his family’s visit so much more than if you let them walk all over you like a doormat. And next year, rather than feeling anxious about your brother’s visit, you’ll likely look forward to it.


How to Structure Your Day to Feel Less Stressed

If you don’t control your schedule, your schedule will control you.

As we enter our third year in a pandemic, chronic stress rules the day. Widespread uncertainty makes it hard for us to concentrate. Lack of focus makes everything take longer, and so we work more but accomplish less. Fortunately, there are more effective strategies for coping with anxiety and exhaustion than trying to convince ourselves we know what is coming.

Ironically, one of those strategies is planning. Don’t get me wrong; I do think the plans we make today are often useless tomorrow. But even though our plans might turn out to be unworkable, the planning process is indispensable. Planning creates context and provides a structure for our daily activities. It gives us a solid foundation on which to adapt to a new and unplanned future.

Here’s how to make a plan that will help you find more focus, flow, and productivity in the coming year.

Step 1: Let your priorities lead

When the future is uncertain, we need our priorities to be blazingly obvious to us all the time. Otherwise, we spin our wheels on tasks that might be priorities for others but not for us, or that might be easy to do but not that important. Without clear priorities, we often become overwhelmed by all there is to do. To avoid that, we need to decide on our top priorities and then spend 95% of our time doing only those activities, saying “no” to everything else as much as possible.

Spending 95% of our time on our top priorities leaves only about five hours a week for other things—the other 5%, the things that aren’t real priorities, but often need to be done. Most days, my 5% time is mostly spent answering emails and doing administrative work that is unrelated to my highest priorities.

Step 2: Create structure for yourself

One important key to both productivity and stability in this crazy age is to create structure for yourself. If you’re working from home but missing your office (or even your commute), you might be missing the structure that the workplace used to provide: a clear start and end to the workday, built-in breaks, time to socialize. If the daily routine you’ve fallen into during the pandemic isn’t working for you, create one that does.

Design your “ideal day.” Begin by designing your ideal day (you can use this free template). All the habits I’m trying to start or keep repeat daily on my schedule: reading, exercising, meditating, tidying up—even measuring my habits. Some of my routine tasks occur only once a week, but they automatically repeat on my schedule, as well. (For example, every Friday after lunch I do some bookkeeping, and so that is already in my planner template.)

Before I set up my ideal day, I was constantly negotiating with myself about when I’d do the things I needed to do. Should I do my daily planning before or after breakfast? Should I shower at lunch to break up the day? Before the pandemic, I probably never would have considered these things—I had existing routines that worked. Now, though, the possibilities are endless.

Making decisions, even little bitty ones, taxes the part of our brain that we need to focus, and uses up the energy we need for more important things. And these days, focus and energy are often in short supply. Better to decide once.

Even if your work is less flexible and a large part of your day is already spoken for, it can still help to create clear morning and bedtime routines. Try to build activities into your schedule that tend to go undone unless you explicitly make time for them, like exercise and a pause to unwind.

Pre-deciding when we will do routine tasks also helps us establish new habits and shortens our to-do list. For years, I had repetitive tasks like “clean out email,” and “plan meals for the week” as recurring to-dos. This needlessly lengthened my task list, adding to my sense of overwhelm. Now, because I know when I will do these recurring tasks, I don’t need to write them down or nag myself to get them done.

Step 3: Use time-blocking and task-batching

I do keep online calendars and task lists, but I prefer to plan out each day on paper each morning. That may seem redundant, but it helps me see clearly what my priorities for the day are, and it gives me the structure that I need to keep myself focused on them.

When you’re planning a particular day, start by adding meetings and appointments to your schedule. This will help you see how much time you have for projects and tasks. Next, block off time for your highest-priority tasks. This is a time management technique called time-blocking.

Next, designate time on your calendar for smaller types of tasks. What I call “action items” are tasks that take about 20 minutes each; if I have an open hour, I know I can knock three of these off my list. “Quick tasks” take five minutes or so; if I’ve got a half hour, I can do about five. Grouping similar tasks in this way is called “task-batching,” and it creates additional efficiencies.

Now, relax

Have you ever woken up worrying about an unfinished project, an email you forgot to send, or a meeting you didn’t have a chance to schedule? Lingering to-do items drain our energy and interrupt our focus (and, sometimes, our sleep). It turns out, we just need to tell our brains when we will do what we need to do so they don’t nag us.

Researchers used to think that this low-level worrying about unfinished tasks was our unconscious mind trying to get things done by reminding us of what we still needed to do. The belief was that the reminders—or distracting thoughts and worries—would persist until the task was complete.

But research suggests that simply making a plan to deal with an unfinished task makes a huge difference in our ability to focus. It’s not so much about knowing what needs to be done as it is about deciding when to do it. When we don’t know when or how we will finish the things on our task lists, our thoughts will typically wander from our current task to our undone tasks; this is called the “Zeigarnik effect.” As it turns out, our unconscious mind isn’t necessarily nagging us to do that undone task right now, but rather to make a plan for when we will get it done.

To handle this, you can either schedule a task on your calendar or designate it as an action item or a quick task. This is all, it seems, that our brain needs to let something go.

When we don’t have a structure, blazingly obvious priorities, and a plan, distractions inevitably take over. Other people (and email) dictate our to-do lists. So instead of keeping a neverending to-do list of things you really (really!) hope to accomplish in a given day or week, this simple system can help you start each day with a concrete plan for what you’ll work on and when.

You don’t have to constantly make choices about what to concentrate on: Just follow your schedule.

1-Minute Secret to Forming a New Habit

My TED Talk was named one of the Top 10 TED Talks of 2021 on TED.com! I’m greatly humbled by this and thrilled to be listed among some of my favorite speakers.

If you’re like me, your daily routines have been upended again and again in the last year or two. Back in March of 2020, I had grand plans to train for a half marathon, write my next book, and learn to speak Spanish. Go ahead: Guffaw. When I look back on my early ambitions, I can’t help but laugh!

My TEDxMarin talk The 1-Minute Secret to Forming a New Habit is a look at what daily life has actually been like. (Hint: There has been no half marathon. But I am exercising, writing, and learning!) I hope this talk gives you a few realistic ideas about how to establish some healthy routines in this tumultuous time.

How to Deal When a Child Goes Off to College

Dear Christine,

My oldest child is off to college. In the last few weeks, relatives have been offering him their sage “how to succeed in college” advice. Friends keep sending me an article from the New York Times offering advice to college freshmen: “Don’t take other people’s Adderall. Granola bars have a lot of sugar. The stamp goes in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope.” Really? All of this is entertaining, but isn’t it all too little too late? Isn’t the point that they’ve outgrown our advice?

Part of my grief about my son leaving home is that my advice no longer seems relevant. I want to help him as he makes this big transition to adulthood…and I also want to lay down and cry.

I’d love to know what you think.

Outgrown Mom

Dear Outgrown Mom,

Oh, how I feel your pain. I just dropped off my youngest child, Molly, for her first year at college. Here’s my advice to us both: Let yourself lay down and cry as often as you need to. Not because you’ve been outgrown; you haven’t. Your relationship with your son will grow into something new, something wonderful.

Let yourself cry because it’s sad to lose the daily physical presence of our children, and it’s exhausting and ineffective to stuff our emotions down. Change is hard. It’s normal to feel emotional in times like this. Our urge to give advice is just an attempt to keep the change at bay, not to feel the loss of our role in their lives as live-in advice-givers. It’s not that our children growing up and going off to college is a loss—that’s always been the plan, and it’s a tremendous privilege to go to college—but there is usually some grief for us parents. It’s okay to feel that.

Instead of numbing your grief with busyness, or social media, or work, or whatever your distraction of choice might be, this is a prime opportunity to practice letting yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. This might seem unfun or counterintuitive—most people aren’t excited about the prospect of just lying down and crying. But if we don’t process our emotions, they tend to fester. And when we feel and acknowledge our feelings, they tend to dissipate.

Take a moment to identify an emotion that you are experiencing; there might be several. For example, you might feel relief as well as loss, because many high school graduates get pretty difficult before they leave home. (Being difficult is a way for them to separate from us parents; it makes it easier for our kids to leave. High school counselors call this “soiling the nest.”)

Pick one of the emotions you are feeling and see if you can objectify it: Where in your body does it live? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your throat? What does it really feel like? Does it have a shape, or a texture, or a color?

The key here is to lean into our emotions, even if they are painful. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate: I’m feeling anxious and worried right now, or I feel so sad I could cry. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

One of the best ways to cope with a life-changing event such as this one is to move from labeling your emotions to truly accepting them, to surrendering all resistance to them. This is tricky because you may really, really, really not want to feel what you’re feeling, and you might only be doing this because I said earlier that emotions that are processed tend to dissipate.

It can be scary to expose ourselves to our strongest emotions. Take comfort from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who teaches us that most emotions don’t last longer than 90 seconds. What you’ll probably find is that if you can sit still with a strong emotion and let yourself feel it, even the worst emotional pain rises, crests, breaks, and recedes like a wave on the surf.

This can be a really hard process, I know. Once you are able to let yourself feel what you feel, give yourself a pat on the back for demonstrating what Peter Bregman calls “emotional courage.”

There are loads of benefits to having this sort of emotional courage beyond getting through major life changes such as having a child go off to college. Emotional courage will enable you to have that difficult (but necessary!) conversation with your boss or your mother that you’ve been avoiding for months because you were worried about the emotional fallout. It’ll help you stop pretending to be someone that you really aren’t. With emotional courage, you’ll be better able to take calculated risks.

And you’ll be modeling for your new first-year college student the emotional courage that they are going to need to get through this first semester. When they call home weeping or homesick, you will be in a better place to help them lean into their difficult feelings, even if they are painful.

In all of this, remember that you have not been outgrown. If you have been a source of trusted advice for your son in the past, he will continue to look to you for your wisdom. And if he doesn’t ask you for advice as he makes his transition to adulthood, that is normal. Please know that your presence in his life as someone who can cope with challenging emotions and difficult transitions (his and your own) is guidance enough.


The Best Advice for New College Students (Not From Me)

This morning I said goodbye to Tanner, who is driving to Boulder with his dad for his first year of college. Next week, I will fly with Molly to Boston to get her settled in for her first year of college. Even though I have worn out my welcome in the advice department, I can’t help myself.

One of Tanner and Molly’s older sisters got some really amazing send-off advice from her wise college counselor, Maria Morales-Kent. This is a woman who has more than two decades of experience sending kids off to college. She’s seen where they stumble in their first few weeks, and she’s seen what helps.

Here’s the gist of Maria’s wise advice for first-year college students:

1. Focus on finding what makes your new home great for you.

One of the toughest challenges first-year college students face is homesickness. Even if you were dying to leave home, chances are you will miss it.

Believe it or not, you may also miss high school. Time and again, you may find yourself comparing your high school experience to every bit of your college experience and feeling sad.  Classes may seem large and impersonal; you might not get all the classes you want; professors may not even know when you are absent, or your roommate may turn out to be a challenge you never expected. Things like the weather may be a shock.

A recent college grad shared that he was never fully happy at his college because it never felt like home. But the truth of the matter is that college is not supposed to be like high school or home.

So, don’t focus on that.  Instead, focus on finding what makes your new home great for you.  It may be the newfound freedom and independence to choose your courses; it may be that a larger school translates to greater diversity, and you are finding not just one or two kids like you, but a whole community.

Finally, don’t fall prey to comparisons regarding the food, orientation, the bathrooms, the dorms, the town or city, etc.  Take in each aspect of your college and be open to what makes it unique.

2. Make personal connections – don’t be shy, don’t hesitate.

– Have at least a 5-minute conversation with each of your teachers during the first week of school.  Introduce yourself, comment on their lecture or readings, talk about your first few days on campus, etc.

– Do the same in your dorm – walk around the halls and pop your head into an open door.  So many kids will be dying to talk with someone.

– Find out about the clubs that might be of interest to you and go to the first meetings – and join in. 

3. Get help as soon as you need it.

– All of the faculty have office hours. Use them.

– If you are having trouble with a class or assignment, talk to your teacher right away.  Don’t let things build up.

– If things aren’t working out with your roommate and it feels untenable, talk to your RA.  There may be a very easy process in place to make a change or address the problem.

4. Meet with your advisor more than once.

In fact, after your first week of classes check in with them to share how you are doing – what you are finding hard or easy.  Help them get to know you. Realize that once you have a notion about what you want to study you can also begin to engage with faculty from that department. 

5. Meet the school’s Registrar.

They will be an invaluable source when it comes time to count your credits towards general education requirements, your major, or graduation.

6. If you are a financial aid recipient, go to the Financial Aid Office and find your advisor in the first week.

Introduce yourself and thank them for their work.  This will make access to them much easier if you have an issue in the future.

7. Most important: Take good care of yourself and always be safe.

Socially there will be lots of great things to do and people to meet. Temptations will be inevitable, and the consequences can be substantial. So be smart and thoughtful. 

Are you looking for advice yourself about sending a kid away to college? If so, perhaps you’ll like this post about helping kids deal with homesickness, or this one about how to deal with the sadness that inevitably comes when kids leave. Or this one, if you just want to reflect on all you taught your student before they left home. 

Maria Morales-Kent has been the Director of College Counseling at The Thacher School since 1997. Before that, she was an admission officer at the University of Pennsylvania.



Anchoring New Habits to Old Ones

Before we begin practicing a new behavior that we’d like to form into a habit, we’ll do well to consciously designate an anchor or trigger for that new habit: something that is the same every time you want to enact it. My evening walk with the dog, for example, is triggered by me leaving my office in the evening and walking into the kitchen to think about dinner, and then ultimately feeding the dog. (So, the time of day is an anchor, as is feeding the dog. After I feed the dog, I always habitually walk him.)

An anchor can be time of day, a different habitual behavior that comes right before your habit (those make good triggers)—even an emotion. For example, when you feel anxious, you may habitually pick at your nails. Or if you feel happy, you may habitually reach for your phone to take a picture. (I’m not suggesting these as good anchors or habits, mind you. Just showing how emotions are often triggers.)

A note about exercise, since so many people make resolutions about that: A general time of day is usually the best trigger, like first thing in the morning, after school, during lunchtime, or before dinner—but it can’t be the only thing that anchors your habit. Once you know generally the time of day when you’d like to do your habit, try to link your activity to an existing behavior or routine.

For example, here is the existing routine I linked my new walking habit to. It’s something that I was already doing before I added a walk into the picture. I leave the office in the late afternoon, walk across the backyard to my house, go into the kitchen, and call out to see who’s home and who’s helping with dinner. I get out the ingredients that need to be prepped for dinner, and then I feed the dog and give my family instructions for how they can help with dinner. That’s right where I inserted a walk: While the dog wolfs down his food, I now change my shoes (which are right near the dog bowls) and get a leash ready. From there, I quickly head out for a walk.

If you’ve got a habit that you don’t want to do every day, choose a trigger that occurs only when you want to do the habit. For example, “Do a thirty-minute yoga video twice a week” isn’t a habit. It’s a to-do item for your task list because there’s no clear trigger and therefore no clear automaticity. But if you work only three days a week, you can use work as your trigger: “Do a thirty-minute yoga video every weekday as soon as I walk in the door from dropping the kids off at school.”

In this free planner (see the “Goals” tab), there is a column to designate your anchor. I like to use BJ Fogg’s After I… Then I will… format (I highly recommend his latest book about habit formation, Tiny Habits). So the anchor for my dog walk is: After I feed the dog, then I will take him for a walk. Easy!

Learn more about successfully forming habits with my free eBook, How to Set a Resolution that Sticks.

Making Resolutions? Track Your Progress

What we measure, we improve. (Or, “what gets measured, gets done.”)

An important aspect of successfully getting into a habit is measurement. For example, we know that when people weigh themselves every day, they lose more weight than if they weigh themselves just once a week. This is because measurement drives awareness of behavior. For example, if you record everything you eat in a food journal, you’ll be much more aware of what you eat than if you weren’t diligently noticing and recording your food intake. So much of what we do is unconscious; measurement is about making ourselves conscious of our bad habits while we train ourselves to unconsciously out good habits.

In this day and age, tracking or measuring our progress is easy. (It’s so easy that we can sometimes get caught up in the measurement of things and spend more time playing with our recording devices than we do establishing our habits!) If you find techy ways to measure your progress fun, go for it. Otherwise, a piece of paper taped to the fridge will work!

Use this free planner (see the “Goals” tab) to designate how you’ll measure your progress. Be sure to set yourself up fully before you start practicing your new behavior! And notice that sometimes tracking habits needs to become a habit in and of itself. Consider adding “track habits” to your annual goals as well!