Bento box Boundaries

So often people talk about ‘boundaries’ like they are unfortunate, negative, limitations. ‘Having boundaries’ is all about saying ‘no’ and ‘no more’. This is a very problematic way of considering edges—that an edge is an affront, that it should be ignored in pursuit of eternal growth.

As a literary scholar, I work on poetry, and the thing that is precious about a poem is it’s limitations. You only have a few words, they need to be in a certain order… and the more restrictive the order, the more difficult and therefore prestigious the poetry form is.

Similarly, I think about one of my very favourite kinds of food, the Japanese train station bento box. (Other bento boxes are also excellent.) Below is a picture I took in Japan as I was taking the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, perhaps the best bento box of my life. Each little morsel was perfect, framed by its lacquer-like box and encased in a paper patty. I loved how each piece was arranged to be a complete picture in its own right, with just a tiny sprinkle of finely chopped herbs. And I loved that everything wasn’t smushed together as a big meal, but a series of tiny meals. Every food item was deliberate and pretty, and felt like a special treat.

The very best bento box I ever had

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And so it’s worth thinking about the daily tasks, as quotidian as your train -station snacks. The emails, to-do items, meetings and edits can smear all over your day, always more of them.

Or you could put them in a frame. Each one is a choice morsel, deliberate and maybe even pretty. A thing you do on purpose and savour it.

I find seeing a boundary as putting a positive frame around to-do items helped me enjoy setting them, and enjoying having set them!

I really love a good box, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I often use a version of the time-box to set limits on my tasks and frame it with a little pause.

Two other aspects of the best bento boxes are also part of my tool box for joyfully setting boundaries.

The first is to make the items balance. Some bitter items, some salty, some sweetish, some palate-cleansingly bland. Have some that need chewing on, and some that feel like eating air. If you can arrange your to-do items across the week, each day can be a mix of things so your palate is less likely to get overwhelmed or bored.

The other technique is to think about setting the tasks in beauty. Even before I opened this bento box to see the delightful food inside, I was in love with the box. It was so pretty.

I am very motivated by pretty things, so I know that good stationary and a nice plant on my desk goes a long way to making me feel happy about the jobs I need to do. Using a nice notebook to write down my tasks or my done-list is super motivating for me. Other people enjoy working out in nature, having the right playlist or drinking the best coffee. Whatever your joy is, make it part of the boundaries around each task.

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What’s more, I’ve found this attitude to boundaries is infectious. Other people are generally delighted to be part of the general delightfulness of my bento box boundaries. It’s a pleasure to them to know when I am in and when I am not. I’m more likely to be cheerful when I’m in the office, which is nice for them. They actively work to protect my boundaries because my boundaries are pretty and keep my work so enjoyable—which means they get to have a nice time when we work together.

Sometimes you do just need to make a different plan and have a massive bowl of all-in-together ramen eaten in a hurry. I absolutely have weeks where the boundaries are soupy, and sometimes that can be delicious and nourishing too. But when I have the luxury of choice, I love being able to choose to eat out of a bento box.

(For example: How I planned my research days. )

This post was written in response to a #FebFlourish prompt, Day 6 ‘An energising boundary is…’ Find out more on the website and join in!

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