Setting Boundaries for Work & Life
by Jamie Spannhake
August 08, 2021
Many of us struggled with balancing our work responsibilities and personal lives even before the pandemic destroyed our regular routines and norms. With technology allowing 24/7 work-from-everywhere access, setting boundaries was a challenge. During the pandemic it got even worse for some of us. Boundaries seemed to disappear altogether as we worked alongside our families or housemates at home, and all professional, educational and personal activities happened in the same timeframe and physical space.
Now that some are returning to the office while others learn how to work better from home, it’s a great time to set — or reset — boundaries for the office or home office. Here are five ways.
1. Understand the Importance of Boundaries
Boundaries are about respect — mostly self-respect, but also respect for others. If you have no boundaries, you may find that others “dump” work on you, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and manipulated. If you have no boundaries, you may say “yes” to tasks, responsibilities, and opportunities when you really mean “no,” leading to discouragement and resentment. Setting healthy boundaries ensures your experience of work and life is more manageable and reasonable. It empowers you to take care of yourself as well as your work and clients. Boundaries also encourage others to show you respect. When you set limits, you gain the respect of others because they see you have respect for yourself.
Author and researcher Brené Brown says it best:
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval. Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say, enough!” — “Brené Brown: The Call to Courage”
2. Give Yourself Permission
Having a good work ethic doesn’t mean that you need to work all the time or say yes to everything. Similarly, being a great parent or partner doesn’t mean you need to be available 100% of the time. On the contrary, to be the best worker, family member and person, you must take time for rejuvenation. One way to do this is to take time off, whether that means a few hours in the morning or evening, the entire weekend, or a 10-day vacation. The amount of time is less important than ensuring you take the downtime when you need it. The happiest people are also the most productive and efficient.
3. Clarify Your Values and Responsibilities
Boundaries are rooted in values and priorities. When we are clear about them, we more easily know how and when to say no. The first step in setting boundaries is to get clear on what matters to you, what you want, how you want to be treated, and what you will tolerate. At work, it is important to clarify your responsibilities so you know when you are being asked to contribute more than your fair share to any project. You may need to discuss this with your boss or colleagues to ensure you are all "on the same page." In your personal life, clarifying responsibilities within your household goes a long way to ensuring each person contributes what is needed to make the household and everyone in it feel supported and successful.
4. Clearly Communicate Your Boundaries and Expect Pushback
Once we are personally clear on our boundaries, we must communicate those boundaries to our co-workers and family. This is best done before someone crosses the boundary as a proactive conversation, but it can also occur at the moment a boundary is crossed. And it’s not too late to communicate the boundary even after it’s been crossed and you have complied. More important than the timing is the language itself: It must be respectful and clear and convey a tone of expected compliance.
Expect pushback as others process that your boundary may cause more work or less access and connection than they want. Expect it and have respectful conversations to address their concerns.
5. Learn to Say No
To set and maintain boundaries, we must learn when and how to say no. When do we say no? When something is not within our job description or area of responsibility, or when we do not have the time or ability to take on the task or project.
How do we say no? There are many different ways, but here are a few suggestions:
- “No.” Period. Sometimes this is all that is needed.
- “That doesn’t work for me.”
- “That might work. Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
- “How can I take that on when I already have [X, Y and Z] to do?”
- “Yes, I can delegate that to [another person] and have her report directly back to you.”
Life and work can expand to the amount of time we have, and it can feel like there is never enough time to do it all. Setting boundaries is a helpful step toward better work-life integration, and it will help you avoid personal and professional fatigue.
A lawyer-focused version of this post first appeared at Attorney at Work. It is revised and reprinted here with permission.
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