Boundaries—we know they’re important. But, they’re something far too many of us—despite our best intentions—struggle to set.
We find ourselves scrolling through work emails during time we reserved for chipping our way through the Netflix queue, or we spend hours of a Saturday working on a project for our boss—even though it’s supposed to be our day off.
This crossing of the line between work and play doesn’t just happen when your career trickles into your personal life—it can go the other way too. You might take a personal call during work hours or kill some time online shopping before your next meeting.
Of course, our lives aren’t packaged into neat little compartments, and it’s only natural that there’s bound to be some blending between work and personal identities. In an ideal world, we could integrate the two, rather than being obsessed with balancing them.
But, for those of us who require a black and white approach to time management? Well, some firm guidelines are necessary to ensure that one element of our lives doesn’t overwhelm the others. So, here are six steps to help you set some much needed boundaries between your work and personal life.
1. Accept that you won’t be perfect.
This first step isn’t meant to be discouraging, and it’s an important one for you to accept before you move ahead with trying to separate your professional identity from personal matters.
Here’s the brutal truth: You’re not going to be perfect at this 100% of the time. There will still be times when you answer an urgent work call on your vacation and there will still be moments when you scroll through Instagram when you should be answering work emails.
Setting boundaries for yourself involves some serious changes in your routines and habits—which, ultimately, take a little bit of getting used to. So, be a little forgiving with yourself in those moments when you don’t keep a clear dividing line between work and play, and you’ll be able to tackle the next steps with a positive attitude. Remember, progress over perfection.
2. Recognize your limitations.
Like you, I’ve read my fair share of advice on work/life balance, and practically none of it has accounted for each person’s unique situation. After all, it’d be pretty much impossible to wrap all individual circumstances into one piece of advice.
Perhaps you’ve read an article that says you should work at your peak productivity hours—but, that’s not doable for you because your office doesn’t offer a flexible schedule. Or, maybe another piece suggests reserving evenings for pure relaxation. But, that’s not practical when you’re always working the night shift.
As with any advice, there isn’t really a “one size fits all” solution. Instead, it’s important for you to take a good, hard look at your own situation and recognize your restrictions and limitations within your own schedule. Doing so right from the get go will help you set an agenda and boundaries that work best for you—and not everybody else.
3. Create a schedule.
Now it’s time to put your boundaries in writing. It might seem like an unnecessary step, but putting pen to paper will help you take your guidelines that much more seriously—making you all the more likely to actually respect them. In fact, studies show that people who wrote down their goals were over 80% more likely to actually achieve them.
So, if you’ve decided you’re going to unplug from work each evening by 6 p.m.? Put a note on each day of your calendar as a friendly nudge to disconnect when it’s time.
Do whatever you need to to create a structure and schedule. Then, make your best effort to stick to it.
4. Communicate clearly.
Of course, it’s not wise to change your entire structure and approach to work and assume that everybody else will just catch on and adjust. Instead, clear communication will be crucial for not only ensuring that you respect your newly set boundaries, but that other people do too.
Will you no longer be handling work emails on the weekends? Give your colleagues a heads up, or even set an out-of-office response. Are you putting an end to those two-hour lunches with a friend during the workweek? Let her know that you’ll now need to squeeze your get-togethers into the hour you’re given, or meet up after work.
Make sure you communicate with the other people who will be impacted by your newly set boundaries, and you’ll have a much easier, guilt-free time actually holding yourself to them.
5. Instill accountability.
All too often, things come up that test our willpower and our commitment to the boundaries we’ve set. And, if you don’t think you have the inner wherewithal to hold yourself accountable, it might be helpful to call in some reinforcements.
This doesn’t need to be anything formal or complex. If you’re meeting a few friends for happy hour, tell them you want to enjoy your time without glancing at your phone—so they can remind you when you mindlessly reach for it. Or, loop your deskmate in on the fact that you need to pack up and leave the office by 6 p.m. in order to make it to that workout class you’ve been meaning to attend for ages.
We could all use a little help, encouragement, and some friendly nudges every now and then. Don’t be afraid to loop other people in on your boundaries so they can help keep you accountable!
6. Check in with yourself.
Here’s the tricky part: Our circumstances are always changing. This week won’t be exactly like last week, and next month won’t look exactly like this month. And, needless to say, this can make it difficult to set rigid boundaries for yourself.
Fortunately, creating boundaries between your work and personal life isn’t a “set it and forget it” sort of thing. Instead, you should reserve some time to have some regular reflection periods—preferably every month—where you can check in on how you’re feeling about your balance.
Have you felt like you’ve overextended yourself at work (meaning there’s almost no time for your personal passions)? Is there something you’ve been meaning to make time for, yet keep pushing to the backburner? Do you have an upcoming vacation that’s going to require you to work extra hours in the next two weeks in order to prepare?
Don’t be afraid to adjust your boundaries when necessary.
Make time for these brief periods of thought and reflection, and you’ll be able to adjust your boundaries when necessary. Remember, nothing is set in stone.
When the ability to be constantly connected makes it that much more difficult to draw lines between work and your personal life, setting boundaries for yourself is more important than ever. But, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Implement these six steps, and you’ll be able to move forward with all aspects of your life working together—rather than against each other.
Do you set boundaries for yourself? What works for you?
This article was originally published in May of 2016.