It’s been said that we spend a third of our lives at work. Or, to be more specific, that’s 900,000 hours. Even if you love what you do, that’s ridiculous. But, how can we spend less time working? By establishing and sticking to boundaries.
What precisely are boundaries at work? They’re simply the physical, emotional, mental, and professional barriers that you construct to protect yourself from the excesses of work. By drawing red lines around your personal and mental space, you can ensure that you’re in control. And, as a consequence, you’ll be able to;
- Avoid burnout
- Prevent work overload and overcommitting
- Define what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Examples of work-related boundaries include physical, mental, professional, and time boundaries. In short, by acknowledging these and letting others know, you’ll be healthier, happier, and more productive.
But, how can you realistically set up boundaries at work? Well, here are ten techniques you should try.
1. Assess your personal boundaries.
Before you can establish, and then communicate, your boundaries, you’ll need to set aside some alone time for a bit of self-assessment. Why? Because you need to understand how they influence your values and priorities.
For example, let’s say a toxic relationship at work interferes with your mental health or meeting deadlines. In this, you need to find ways to distance yourself from them. It could be working a different schedule or politely letting them know that you’re on a tight schedule and don’t have the time to shoot the breeze.
In addition to your work, you must also consider your personal life, your relationships, and your passions.
Need a launching point? From Stressed to Centered, Dr. Dana Gionta outlines a step-by-step approach to establishing boundaries at work;
- Know your limits
- Be aware of your feelings
- Give yourself permission to impose boundaries
- Take into account your environment
2. Triage your tasks.
Do you feel like there’s not enough time in a day to get everything done? If this is a recurring theme, I have some bad news. You’re not crunched for time. You’re just not managing it properly.
What exactly is the root cause for this? It could be nothing more than not prioritizing your workload.
To stick to your schedule and boundaries, learn how to prioritize your work tasks based on priority. And, a technique like the Eisenhower Matrix might just do the trick.
Here’s how it works, the most urgent and essential tasks should be completed right now. And, those who do not fall in this category, can be delegated, scheduled for later, or eliminated.
3. Identitfy your nonngoitables.
“Most every work decision we make involves consequences and compromises,” writes Jayne Hardy in Making Space: How to Live Happier by Setting Boundaries That Work for You. “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 the same time.” We may not realize we’re making that sacrifice if we’re not aware of it.
“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,” adds Hardy. “If we’re saying yes to overtime, what are we saying ‘no’ to? Or even, what are we saying ‘yes’ to?”
For example, you would only agree to work overtime because you need a down payment for a home or scrambling to launch a new product. Other examples would be making your family a priority, like never missing birthdays or taking care of your kids when they’re sick. Or, it could be taking a proper lunch break to decompress and re-energize.
“Our nonnegotiables could be about methods of communication,” states Hardy. “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,” she continues. And, “from them, we can create, communicate and negotiate boundaries to support and shield our priorities.”
4. Make your boundaries known.
Communicate your boundaries clearly to your colleagues and even your family. Avoid setting too many boundaries all at once, however. Instead, focus on one topic at a time as you continue to practice setting boundaries, such as knowing where to draw the line and enforcing it. And, along the way, be aware of what works, modify what doesn’t, and keep on going.
- Make sure your team knows when you sign off each day.
- Make sure you specify that you won’t answer emails or calls during off-hours unless there is an emergency.
- Describe to your team what constitutes an emergency.
- Make it clear in your email signature that you will only answer emails during specific hours.
- Make it known what appropriate workplace conversations are, like setting a rule against office gossip.
What if a boundary gets violated? Don’t be shy. Speak up.
In your response, discuss how you plan on maintaining your boundaries to support yourself — and potentially your team and your organization. Ideally, it’s best to do so right after the violation, so it retains its poignancy and the person who violated it understands the significance of it.
Also, if you don’t feel your boundaries are being respected, be compassionate when discussing this topic with others. People likely don’t realize how their actions affect you. And, they may be grateful to hear that they stepped over a line. As a result, they can avoid making the same error again.
5. Plan a response to boundary-crossing.
“That doesn’t work for me’ is a short message that’s long on limit-setting,” Linda Esposito, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and writer, told PsychCentral.
Saying “that doesn’t work for me” allows you to recognize a potential breach of your boundaries and offers you an opportunity to consider alternative options.
Additionally, you can avoid getting caught off guard with a boundary-crossing plan. Your immediate response lets your coworker know that a line has been crossed in such a situation. But, this also buys you some time if you need to consider the matter further.
What’s more, by pausing, you can check in with yourself and determine whether there is a conflict. And, if you need more time, say, “I’ll check my schedule and get back to you as soon as I can.”
Additionally, many workplaces have their own system for resolving conflicts. Understanding your company’s policy can help you act more quickly if something inappropriate occurs.
6. Practice the art of saying “no.”
“One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that no one will protect my time or prioritize my needs as vigilantly as me,” Damon Zahariades wrote in The Art Of Saying NO: How To Stand Your Ground, Reclaim Your Time And Energy, And Refuse To Be Taken For Granted. “That’s understandable. Most people act out of self-interest; they naturally put their own priorities ahead of others’ priorities,” Zahariades states. “But it means each of us is responsible for making sure our personal needs are met.”
“No one is going to do it for us,” adds Zahariades. “Moreover, it’s important that we attend to our own needs before attending to the needs of others.” Can this be awkward? Perhaps. “But allowing your needs to remain unaddressed while you continuously cater to others is the path toward resentment and bitterness. It can even become a health issue if you run yourself ragged.”
To make you more comfortable saying “no,” identify things you should say “no.” Some suggestions would be tasks that can be delegated or outsourced, unhealthy habits, or actions that don’t align with your vision.
From there, you can practice the art of saying “no” by;
- Realizing that you shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed when declining requests.
- Planning your “no’s” in advance, like “No Meeting Wednesdays.
- Starting small with low-risk situations, like refusing dessert when at a restaurant.
- Review your calendar before making a commitment.
- Using the phrase, “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” For example, a colleague has to go offsite for a meeting, and their car is in the shop, and they ask you to drive them. You could say that they’re welcome to borrow your car, instead of driving them.
7. Schedule breaks and time off.
It’s normal to feel guilty about taking breaks from work. Research shows that feeling guilty and anxious prevent people from taking breaks at work. But, breaks are also extremely important.
Breaks give you a chance to recover from work-related stress. In turn, this helps you perform and be more energetic throughout the day.
How often should you take breaks? That depends on your circadian rhythms or what the workplace policy states. Generally speaking, though, it’s recommended that you take a 17-minute break after 52-minutes of work.
What if you’re the type of person who forgets to take breaks? Put reminders in your online calendar to remind you to stretch, go for a walk, or eat a snack.
Similarly, make use of vacation time. You did earn this, right? More importantly, research shows that vacations decrease stress, anxiety, and heart disease. Additionally, vacations improve life satisfaction and productivity.
8. Power down.
Be sure to unplug when you’re done work for the day. After all, achieving a healthy work-life balance requires commitment on your part as well. But, what exactly does this entail?
Well, just like being focused on your most important work tasks, when you’re off-the-clock, you need to be present. So, for example, if you are eating dinner with your family, you aren’t responding to work-related messages. It could also mean not running late to a friend’s birthday party because you accepted a virtual meeting — even though it was Saturday.
If you can, do not use company-issued equipment. You will spend less time checking a company-issued phone, for example, not required.
Also, you can use this strategy at work. Turn off your phone if you really need to devote 100% of your energy and attention to a task. Not only will this prevent you from getting distracted, being unreachable means others can’t break your boundaries.
What if you can’t go completely power down? You can at least silence notifications on your laptop or phone.
9. Provide coverage or offer alternatives.
“This is key and is the practical output of what we did to acknowledge the other person in step one,” states Nicole Wood, CEO, and co-founder of Ama La Vida. “I can’t tell you how many times someone reporting to me has had something come up or has gotten overwhelmed and dropped a ball that I am then left to pick up.” Life happens, and everyone should have a life outside of work.
“What I am hoping for is that if you cannot do something that would typically fall on your plate, you proactively help me find an alternative solution, so I’m not left in the lurch,” Wood advises. You might ask another team member to cover your absence, for instance. Or, perhaps “you plan ahead and complete a task at an unusual time.” As a result, “you can prioritize whatever else it is that’s important to you that you need the time for.”
What happens when something pops up, like a last-minute meeting request with a client. Instead of saying, “No, sorry, I can’t meet with you at that time,” offer an alternative. For example, you could say, “I don’t take meetings at that time, but Brooke has a very similar style to mine and could be a great fit in my place. Alternatively, if the client is open to it, we could discuss meeting at this other time instead.”
Wood says that this is an effective way to handle this situation. How so? It clearly establishes your boundaries, while also providing “a couple of great options for how to proceed.”
10. Be prepared for boundary breaches.
Someone will inevitably invade your boundaries at some point. You can prepare for this by visualizing a boundary being crossed, then deciding what actions to take.
For example, suppose you receive an email on Saturday meeting asking for an emergency meeting or task that has to be done ASAP. Plan your reaction, then implement it. Do you plan to respond to it immediately? Or, will you wait until Monday? Will you remind them of your boundaries? And, are they any alternatives that you can recommend?
Answering these questions, You can prevent being swayed by your emotions when you have a game plan in place.
Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio; Pexels; Thank you!
John Hall is the co-founder of Calendar a scheduling and time management app. He’s also a keynote speaker that you can book at http://www.johnhallspeaking.com.