Setting unrealistic standards for yourself is one of the most common career mistakes. So draw secure boundaries and create space in your life.

If I’ve learned one thing from 15 years of marriage, 10 years of motherhood and 25 years of work, it is that if we don’t take ourselves and our needs seriously, no one else will. We become exhausted, irritable and lose not only our passion and career drive, but our joie de vivre.

I’ve observed that women don’t tend to compartmentalise like men do. A man generally thinks he is successful in life if he is successful in his work. A woman will not say that about herself unless her marriage is going well, the kids are happy, she looks good, and is on top of a successful career.

By looking at ourselves and our lives in this way, we quickly become our own worst critic, setting high and often unachievable standards. Creating boundaries for ourselves and learning to say “no” without spiralling into a black hole of remorse and guilt is an important and vital skill to develop, both at work and at home. The author Melody Beattie explains that “guilt can prevent us from setting the boundaries that would be in our best interests, and in other people’s”.

When we secure boundaries we give ourselves the chance to find some headspace, honour ourselves and schedule in some “me time”. Recent research by Bupa shows that having time to ourselves is one of the top five experiences that leads to a happier life.

“No” is not a word that women are brought up to use at work, or at home. We are brought up to believe that being nice and cooperative is what gets you praise. “Men are expected to assert themselves and speak their mind; that’s what gives them status in our society,” says social psychologist Susan Newman, author of The Book of No. “They learn to say ‘no’ early on because if they don’t, they’re labeled wimps.”

To create a little more space in our lives, we need to use that tricky word a little more often.

Keep it short, succinct and without prolific apology

The trick is to “be brief, be bright, be gone”. For example, you want one night off per week, let’s say Monday, to do your favourite yoga class. The message is simply “I want to do yoga on Mondays”. You don’t need to justify yourself. Instead, provide some evidence.

“Yoga is good for me because it calms me down after a hectic weekend and a busy week ahead. Monday is a good day because the kids need to go to bed early and they just saw me all weekend.” Say when you would like this arrangement to start, discuss practical steps (for example, babysitting) and then stick to your plan.

Drop the guilt

One of my clients told me that her mother gave her some simple, sound advice before she had her first child. “Whatever you do, do me one favour: never feel guilty. It doesn’t matter if you work or you don’t, if you have a nanny or not. Never, ever waste your energy on feeling guilty about it. Guilt is a waste of time and does not serve anyone, you nor your family.”

This advice served her well in her career and life and guilt rarely crossed her path. Research shows that more than half of mothers who work feel guilty about leaving their children at home.

Yet this huge fear is unfounded. New research from Harvard Business School suggests that working mothers are more likely to raise successful daughters and caring, empathetic sons. The research group included mothers who work part-time or temporarily, whose children still benefited.

Say “no” to unhelpful relationships

We all have them: the friend who only talks about herself and never listens to anyone else. The colleague that wants to have lunch and bitch about everything and everyone at the office, leaving you feeling drained and negative. The list goes on.

Robin Dunbar’s research has found that due to our genetic makeup, we can only successfully maintain relationships with around 150 friends at any one time. If we have relationships amongst those that drain our energy, we quickly feel depleted and unable to manage the enjoyable relationships in our life. As JK Rowling said, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

To work out whether your friendships are toxic, follow this simple rule and ask yourself whether their behaviour towards you is “loving, kind and necessary”. Sometimes it is simply a case of setting up a personal boundary to get some distance from a toxic relationship, in other cases, you may have to be bold and just walk away.

Set your boundaries, enjoy a slice of “me” time and I promise you will be more attentive, focused, productive and, without doubt, a better person to be around.

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