Boundaries…you know what they are and likely recognise how important they are too. Are you good at setting boundaries and sticking to your commitments, or do you (like me) sometimes fudge around the edges?
There are many reasons why setting boundaries between your work and home life is challenging. A few examples are a fear of consequences, of being seen as not dedicated and promotion ready and of letting someone down, plus difficulty in saying ‘no’, a workplace culture promoting long working hours, and technology blurring the lines between work and home life.
While working all hours of the day and night might appear to be an essential ingredient for success, failing to set boundaries can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, bad relationships and poor mental health.
Economist John Pencavel from Stanford University found that productivity declines when people work more than 50 hours each week. Even worse, working 70 hours or more a week causes the person to get the same amount of work done as people who work 55 hours. His research highlights the impact of employee fatigue and stress on productivity and the probability of errors, accidents, and sickness.
The BBC also reported on analysis which found that long working hours increased the risk of heart disease by 40% (almost the same as smoking) and strokes. Also, people who worked more than 11 hours a day were nearly 2.4 times more likely to have a major depressive episode.
Over the years, the people I’ve seen who are effective at setting boundaries embrace the following nine elements.
Recognise its importance
Firstly, they recognise the importance of setting boundaries and their role in developing healthy and constructive relationships.
Researcher and Author Dr Brené Brown outlines how boundaries are critical for building trust with others (and yourself).
When you don’t set boundaries, you end up agreeing to things you don’t want to do. You can feel like you are being taken advantage of, and relationships can take on a character that doesn’t serve you (or the other person).
Setting boundaries is not a sign of weakness or a lack of commitment. Instead, it is an essential practice for achieving success (however you define it) both personally and professionally.
I recently found myself in a situation where I knew I was taking on too much as it related to the business. I love coming up with ideas and making changes, so much of the extra load was self-generated, and I had no one to blame but myself.
To help me work through what I’d say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to, I asked myself two questions:
- Is doing this going to grow the business in the way I want it to go?
- And if the answer to that question is no, will doing this enrich my life?
The second question is essential as there are many times when we do things that are worthwhile but don’t have a tangible business outcome. Instead, the result is focused on others, giving back and doing something that helps others without expecting anything in return. That, in turn, enriches your life in so many ways.
For you, your questions may be different. Whatever they are, having questions which help you assess what you do (or don’t do) makes it easier to decide quickly, wisely and with no guilt attached.
It enables you to be intentional and direct your energy in a way that aligns with what matters.
Define your priorities
There is data that supports the case for not working long hours. But often, it’s more than work that adds to the long list of things to do. It’s commitments outside work, many of which are well worth doing. However, sometimes there are things you don’t want to do but feel obligated to do (and find extricating yourself difficult).
Don’t wait for others to set boundaries for you. Start by identifying what is most important to you in your work and personal life. This step will help you establish boundaries that align with your values and goals. When you are clear on what matters, it is easier to say ‘no’.
Learn to say no
It’s okay to say ‘no’ to requests that don’t align with your priorities or exceed your capacity. Be clear on why you say ‘no’ and deliver the message positively.
The key is knowing what you want to say ‘no’ to, and that ‘no’ can be one you tell yourself and a ‘no’ you say to others.
Also, consider if your ‘no’ is forever or for now because that changes the message. For example, ‘Thanks for thinking of me; however, I’m at capacity’ closes the conversation. However, saying, ‘That’s a great idea. I’d love to be involved, but I don’t currently have the capacity. Can I get involved later?’ leaves it open for future involvement.
Establish guidelines for when you will be working and when you will be taking time off. You will want to outline specific work hours and block off times during the day when you will not be checking email, using technology or taking calls.
As part of this, set realistic expectations and ensure your boundaries are achievable and workable.
Communicate your boundaries
Ensure your colleagues, boss, and other stakeholders know your boundaries. Talk to them about when you will be unavailable and how you will respond to work requests outside standard working hours. You want to avoid misunderstandings and ensure everyone is on the same page.
Also, be open to feedback from others about your boundaries so that they are effective. Sometimes you may need to adjust your boundaries to support your friends, family, colleagues and team members.
While you can expect an occasional adjustment, if you constantly shift your boundaries and are inconsistent, it sends a message that your boundaries don’t matter.
If you won’t honour the boundary commitment you have set yourself, it’s hard to expect others to.
Build switch-off routines
You want to resist the temptation to blur the boundaries by using technology mindfully. Consider establishing specific times or places where you disconnect entirely. You should turn off your phone at set times each night, not look at it during dinner and not take your phone into the bedroom.
Prioritise time for rest, exercise, and other activities that help you recharge. Such practices help you maintain energy and focus, making establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries easier.
Celebrate your progress
Setting and keeping to your boundaries will take effort. You are putting new workplace and life habits in place, so be patient with yourself and celebrate your progress.
Boundaries matter and are a critical part of creating the space so you can be your best for yourself and others across all aspects of your life.
As the author Dr Seuss once wrote – “When he worked, he really worked. But when he played, he really PLAYED.”
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.