I don’t know about you, but I’m always considering how to set better boundaries in all areas of my life, especially in the workplace. Hustle culture tells us we should give our all to our work. We should show up early and stay late, perform above expectations, and do what it takes to reach the next level, no matter how tired or burnt out we feel.
I’ll admit it: I love to work. I’ve spent the early part of my career finding roles and opportunities that fit my strengths and desires, so I genuinely enjoy a lot of my work. On top of a 9-to-5, I’m a freelance writer and work for a small handful of clients. And on top of that, I spend some time volunteering (which I count as additional unpaid work), so you get the point.
But I believe we should pursue all parts of our lives with moderation, intentionality, and healthy boundaries, so we don’t live in a constant state of overdrive. So when a dear coworker recommended Melissa Urban’s The Book of Boundaries to me, I didn’t hesitate to snag it and skip right ahead to the work-related section.
Chapter three is titled “The Real Work/Life Balance.” Rest assured; if this is ever something you’ve struggled with, this chapter is for you. Here’s how Urban’s book is helping me set better boundaries and cultivate a better work-life balance.
End resentment, burnout, and anxiety — and reclaim your time, energy, health, and relationships. As the co-founder of the Whole30, Melissa Urban helped millions of people transform their relationship with food. Now, in this powerful and practical guide to setting boundaries, she shows you how to prioritize your needs and revolutionize your relationships.
1. I’m more mindful of what I sign myself up for and the precedent I set.
No matter how many times I’ve heard it when I am in the moment, I often forget that how we show up sets a precedent for how others will perceive us and what they will expect from us in the future.
Urban said it best, “Whether you’re working from home or going into an office, serving customers or managing a job site, have a boss or are your own boss, the biggest lesson I learned when I first entered the workforce is that people will take as much as you are willing to give.”
It’s my nature to raise my hand to help, respond quickly, and be a team player. These traits also lead to me accepting work that others don’t want, operating under a constant sense of urgency, and overexerting myself at the expense of not feeling like a good team member if I don’t.
While I won’t ever eliminate the effort I give to my work, I am more mindful of how much I give and when I can tackle something.
For example, if a new project comes up at my 9-to-5 that I want to assist with but don’t have available bandwidth, I’ve moved away from biting off more than I can chew and instead saying something along the lines of, “I’d love to help out with this new project! My schedule is packed this week. Are you open to connecting next week to chat more about it and what role I can play to help us get this done?”
This helps me avoid creating unreasonable to-do lists but allows me to get involved where it makes sense or feels like a good fit. The same goes for my freelancing work. I pause before accepting last-minute duties with short turnaround times, and I’m working on not responding to emails right away.
How others see us directly reflects how we show up and present ourselves. You can be a helpful team player who responds in reasonable amounts of time without setting unrealistic expectations.
2. I control my time and energy where I can.
I don’t know about you, but I still struggle with the virtual meeting culture even after three years of Google Meet (or Zoom, Slack videos, Microsoft Teams, etc.) meetings. I work remotely, and my 9-to-5, freelance gigs, and volunteer roles require meetings. When virtual meetings are our only way to connect and collaborate, it’s not surprising that meetings run over the allotted time.
At the same time, all it takes is one meeting to run over before a full domino effect of late starts, and extended discussions take over our calendars, saving little time to do independent work. Before I know it, sometimes a workday ends, and my to-do list looks the same as it did that morning.
I always thought it would be rude or inconsiderate to leave a meeting that was running over. What will my coworkers think? What will I miss if I leave early? Who am I to decide that I am *too important* to stay on this call?
But the truth is, setting boundaries when it comes to meetings signifies that we respect our time (and helps us stick to our schedules). Urban shares great scripts for setting boundaries around meeting times in her book (page 77):
GREEN: (before the meeting) ‘We only have an hour for today’s meeting, so if someone could distribute the agenda ahead of time, that would be helpful.’
YELLOW:(five minutes before the meeting is scheduled to end) ‘I see we only have five minutes left, Bill. Are there final action items we need to cover?’
RED: ‘I have a hard stop now. I’ll look for next steps via email.’ Leave the meeting.
When I’m stuck in a meeting that’s likely going to or is running over, I say, “I want to ensure we are respecting everyone’s time today. We are almost out/out of time, so let’s take a minute to determine any immediate action items and the next steps.”
Spoiler alert: Most people appreciate someone paying attention to the clock.
3. I preserve time for breaks while I’m working (and take the time).
When I worked in the office, it was easy to get up and ask a coworker if they wanted to run out, grab a coffee, and take a walk. Or I’d leave for lunch, grab a salad, and bring a book in my purse to read after lunch. I didn’t struggle to create space for breaks; they almost naturally fit into the workday.
Working remotely, things are different. Before, when I had a busy, meeting-packed morning, sometimes four or five hours would fly by before I realized I’d only had coffee, had maybe gotten up to go to the bathroom once, and my Apple Watch had been screaming at me to stand up and move around.
While this was a simple tip in Urban’s book, I think many forget to do it (or, more likely, follow through with): preserve break and lunch times.
I have a 30-minute lunch on my calendar every day sometime between 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm. I have a 4:00 pm hold to start winding down for the day, giving me time to prepare for my evening workouts. And some mornings, I schedule a quick 15-minute coffee break so I can make a coffee (or not) and step onto my patio for some fresh air.
I’ve adopted this trick in my freelancing world too. It’s not uncommon for me to do freelance work in the evenings during the workweek, but I always take a break before starting to work out and/or eat dinner. If I need to work for a couple of hours, I’ll schedule a break, play with my cats, chat with my husband, or simply move around and stretch.
If you struggle with work boundaries, don’t beat yourself up over it. There’s no time like today to start improving and implementing better limits so you can enjoy life outside of work, too.