How to set clear work boundaries — and stick to them

Jan 14, 2021 /

Work isn’t who we are, not even if we love our jobs — there’s more to us than that. 

Work boundaries help safeguard our time, our energy and our purpose and how fulfilled we feel. Some work boundaries are functional and clear, while others are more intangible and flexible. For example, at some point we absolutely need to get some sleep and there are boundaries in place to ensure that happens.

Now having clear boundaries doesn’t mean that we won’t think about work when we’re not working or that we won’t think about personal stuff during work time. We don’t have switches in our heads that help us to turn off who we are or what we’ve got going on.

Instead, boundaries encourage us to have dedicated work time and dedicated time to recharge. There should be a palpable mind shift, the lifting of the weight of workplace responsibility, and a sense that we’re done for the day.

Here’s how we can start to establish work boundaries and stick to them: 

1. Understand your worth

If we never feel as though we’re enough, we can throw ourselves into our work to try and ascertain enough-ness from our output, usefulness and indispensability. But in doing so, we tend to head toward burnout — the more we do, the further away being enough feels. Plus, those around us will grow used to a level of output from us. We’re more likely to say yes to what’s asked of us even when we’d rather say no. If approval temporarily feeds our feeling enough, then that’s what we’ll continually seek.

We’re all brimming with value, even when we can’t see it. The amalgamation of our experiences, skill sets, expertise, energy, insights and perspectives has a unique value that only we can offer — there’s nobody quite like us, quirks and all.

Understanding our worth and value means that we have an awareness and appreciation of our achievements and what we can offer. It also underlines how and when we communicate, what we might be willing to do for recognition (or not), what we’re motivated by, and how likely we are to speak up when our boundaries have been violated. When we value ourselves and our time, energy, skills, and expertise, we become a bit more particular about what we take on and which balls we’re quite happy to drop.

2. Be clear and concise

When starting a conversation in which we’d like to assert a boundary, we can sometimes let apologies creep in. We’ll say things like “Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted an update on XXX” or, “I hate to be a pain, but could I please chat with you about flextime?”

Unfortunately, being apologetic makes us sound primed for a “no” or for some reprisal before anyone has had any input. These apologies also dilute our messages so that they become unclear.

When we communicate honestly and clearly, we’re leaving no uncertainty behind our intention and our meaning. It opens the door for other people to do the same and means that they’re not stuck trying to interpret what has just been said.

It’s OK to assert our boundaries. It’s OK to change our minds. It’s OK to share our perspective on a situation. It’s OK to be assertive and to the point. It’s OK to follow up on missed deadlines, to check in and to ask for adjustments, tweaks and changes.

3. Manage and negotiate expectations

We start work armed with a job description and a contract of employment or a baseline set of mutual expectations. In return for doing this and that, we can expect to be compensated in this way and that way. At the get-go, we can decline the job if we disagree with anything laid out in those baseline documents or we can negotiate. As time progresses, we’ll probably be asked to do other tasks and projects and we might ask for workplace adjustments.

The baseline evolves, which is fine as long as the expectations remain clear, realistic and mutually agreed upon. But so often, they’re not.

When expectations aren’t clearly defined, understood or agreed upon, it causes heaps of stress for all concerned. This is where it becomes super important that expectations be managed, because there are often consequences that arise when expectations aren’t met and we feel the threat of those outcomes.

4. Identify your nonnegotiables 

Most every work decision we make involves consequences and compromises. If we’re asked to work overtime, there’s a trade-off that occurs somewhere else because we can’t be in two places at once. If we’re not conscious of what the trade-off is, we might not have considered the things we’re giving up.

It’s helpful to have a nonnegotiables list, pre-written when we have the time and space to weigh up the implications of the choices that we might make where work is concerned. If we’re saying yes to overtime, what are we saying “no” to? Or even, what are we saying “yes” to?

Perhaps overtime takes us away from our loved ones, but it’s helping us to save for a down payment. Perhaps one of our nonnegotiables will be to consume a certain amount of water per day, which means we need to factor in time in our water schedule to have a drink. It sounds simple, doesn’t it?! But so many of us get our heads down and crash through the day only to find we have a headache when we log off, possibly caused by dehydration and not having had a break from our computer screens or any break at all.

Nonnegotiables might be that we don’t ever want to miss a parents’ evening, a school play or activity, or taking care of our kids when they’re sick. It could be that we have a book club, a long-standing badminton game or a support group that we absolutely don’t want to miss.

Our nonnegotiables could be about methods of communication. Perhaps we don’t want to be contacted by our work colleagues via WhatsApp, text message or social media because we prefer to use those with our close friends and family. Creating a list of nonnegotiables helps us uncover what’s important to us, and from them we can create, communicate and negotiate boundaries to support and shield our priorities.

5. Remote work needs boundaries too 

Working from home sounds ideal for those who’ve never had the opportunity. But as many of us have learned, it comes with its own unique set of boundary issues. Aspects of working from home that may need to be addressed include a whole new set of possible distractions; a greater need for self-discipline; having to create reasons to leave your home and get fresh air; and knowing when to put work down when you’re always at your place of work. Sometimes our work distractions become more plentiful when we’re remote because we end up getting more messages and questions via email or platforms like Slack.

Working remotely requires a heightened consciousness to make space for ourselves in and around work. We need to have careful conversations with our coworkers to ensure that our boundaries are understood and respected.

6. Beware of burnout

The World Health Organization has defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It states that the syndrome is characterized by: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;  increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

We can be full-throttle passionate about our jobs — fulfilled, purposeful and motivated — and still get burned out. In fact, the more passionate we might feel, the easier it is for us to justify the long hours because we take pleasure and find purpose in what we’re working on or toward.

That drive, that tenacity, that compassion, that laser focus is not in limitless supply — we must cultivate it. And we can only do that by stepping away and creating a life outside of work that we also derive pleasure from. The glorification of work isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s the people who can, and do, switch off who have it right and not the people who burn the candle at both ends and who are always ignoring their needs to get something done.

Nobody would ever pin a picture of a frazzled person on a vision board and aspire to become them. But that’s who we’re heading toward being if we continue to keep on keeping on with no respite, with no protective boundaries. When we’re knee-deep in the doing, it’s easy to lose perspective on what’s really important. When we’re held to ransom over never-ending deadlines, we have to consider the long-term effects of always being on.

Even though switching off can feel counterproductive, it’s playing the long game.There needs to be space between the occupancy of self and work. Taking the breaks we’re entitled to is a good way to have respite and create space — the coffee breaks, the lunch breaks, the vacation time and (if we’re unwell) sick leave. Creating space by taking breaks doesn’t mean that we’re no longer passionate, dedicated or motivated — it simply increases our capacity to keep harnessing our passion, dedication and motivation.

Excerpted from the new book Making Space: How to Live Happier by Setting Boundaries That Work for You by Jayne Hardy. Reprinted with permission from The Experiment, LLC. Copyright © 2019, 2021 by Jayne Hardy.

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