5 Ways to Build Friendships Without Spreading Yourself Thin

Last year, I exchanged the hustle and bustle of San Francisco for a quieter (but equally wonderful) life in Santa Barbara, California. One of the hardest parts about moving was the impact I feared it would have on my friendships. I was spoiled in San Francisco. Several of my closest friends lived a matter of minutes away and without putting too much effort or thought into it, I was able to enjoy a vibrant social life.

While I never expected to lose my closest friends, I knew that the “ease” with which I maintained the wider circle would most likely disappear when I moved. It did, and at first I experienced a lot of anxiety around missing out on the casual wine nights, birthday parties, and book club meetings.

But it all changed when I made the conscious choice to focus on quality over quantity.

Inspired by some of the basic principles of minimalism, I stopped thinking about this shift as a negative thing and started viewing it as an opportunity to double down on what matters most. It turns out that this rule doesn’t just apply to interiors and belongings, it works for relationships too. Of course, this is easier said than done. I’m still a work in progress, but letting go of the pressure I was putting on myself to maintain every single friendship has been quite liberating.


If you’re looking to re-evaluate how and with whom you spend your most valuable asset, time, here are five tips to consider:

Create a friendship wish list.

The first step is to get crystal clear on what you truly value in a relationship. Who are the people who give you energy, rather than drain it, and what qualities do they embody? What friendships have you been able to sustain over time and long distances? What type of people are you naturally drawn to? We rarely take the time to analyze our friendships, but when we do, we may discover that (too) many of our relationships are born out of convenience or self-imposed pressure to become friends because of a shared history or mutual acquaintance. Instead, ask yourself:

If you could start from scratch, what type of values, beliefs, and qualities would you seek out in a friend?

Play favorites.

It sounds strange to “prioritize” your friends, but it’s funny how easy it is to make decisions when you’re forced to put pen to paper. Make a list of the five relationships you want to invest in over the next six months to a year. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to neglect all the other people in your life who don’t make the list, but it will enable you to be more intentional about those who matter to you most right now.

The number five comes from psychologist Robin Dunbar, who developed a theory around the number of friendships a human can realistically maintain based on brain size, attention span, and the time it takes to nurture those relationships. He found that while humans can maintain up to 150 friendships at any given time, the smallest nuclear group of intimate friends - in other words, your true “peeps” - is limited to five.

Note that your five people do not necessarily have to be people you’ve known for your whole life. They might be new friends you want to get to know better, or a relative you love who is going through a particularly tough time.


Ditch the guilt.

This whole process forced me to face one of my biggest achilles heels: the disease to please. Investing more time in fewer relationships meant giving up on my grand ambition to be everything to everyone. Of course, this was a lose-lose game to begin with.

It inevitably results in stretching yourself too thin, so you’re not really showing up as your best self for anyone.

The guilt I would feel after declining an invitation to a birthday dinner or bachelorette weekend could be all-consuming. I quickly realized that this was key to my transformation, however, as it was preventing me from being fully present at the events I had chosen to invest in instead.

Embrace this no-guilt mantra and I guarantee you will discover a newfound sense of freedom. People can smell guilt from a mile away and can’t help but try to take advantage of it. By making excuses and apologizing profusely, whomever you’re cancelling on is more likely to feel offended and react negatively. On the other hand, if you confidently own your decision without the need to provide an excuse beyond “I can’t make it,” that individual won’t think twice about questioning your intentions.


Establish a weekly relationship power hour.

Don’t overthink it. Sometimes all it takes is a quick check-in via text or email to keep a friendship thriving. If you do this regularly enough, you’re also less likely to feel overwhelmed by the thought of reaching out for what is bound to become an hour long catch up session. It will help you stay up to date on the small, day-to-day things, making the distance or time that lapses in between meetups seem less significant.

Every week, block off 30 minutes to an hour (you’ll get more efficient the more you do this) to send a note to the people on your list. Some weeks you might choose to send the whole list something brief, other weeks you might pick one person to send a longer update to. Even a simple text like, “How was your week?” or, “Any fun weekend plans?” will be appreciated and can keep that friendship fire burning.


Be intentional about the WHAT.

Less is only more when you’re highly intentional about how you are going to spend the time with your peeps. As you plan your dates, be thoughtful about the activities you choose and what type of experience you want to have together. If you’re looking to deepen a relationship with someone, do something that will give you plenty of time to chat and learn about each other. If you’re simply trying to show a loved one that you’re here for them, do something that you know they will enjoy.

Extra tip: Experiencing something new together is one of the best ways to create a lasting memory. These are the things you still talk about years after the fact. I live 5,000 miles away from my siblings, who are both based in Amsterdam. Because quantity is near-impossible at this distance, we decided to double down on quality. For the third year in a row, we’ve planned an annual “siblings trip” with my husband’s siblings and mine. For a long weekend or full week every year, the six of us (and any partners) get together with one single intention: to enjoy each other’s company. Those few days provide more than enough fuel to last us another 12 months if need be!

Whether you choose to declutter your friendships or maintain the ones you have, I hope this serves as a small reminder to be intentional about how you spend your time and with whom.

Photos by Eun Creative

Alexandra Douwes

Alexandra is the cofounder of Purpose Generation and Purpose Playbook, two companies committed to discovering the “why” behind people and businesses. Born in London, raised in The Netherlands and adulting in Santa Barbara, CA, she doesn’t shy away from the tough questions and is happiest when engaged in good conversation, eating delicious food, exploring new places, or on her yoga mat.