We hear the phrase “setting boundaries” often. There are podcasts on setting boundaries, books on steps to take, and even coaches on how to implement this in work, relationships, and life. There’s a reason this is so prevalent and people literally pay money to be taught how to do this—it’s hard. Not only is it hard, but with the integration of work and life, remote work, the influx of digital tools, and the ever-growing competitiveness that is the modern workplace—setting boundaries is a common problem.
Think of setting boundaries as a fun exercise in removing excess from your work life, to make time and room for what you are good at, what needs to be done, and what you truly love to do. Just as you may spend time cleaning out your closet or your pantry—it’s time to do the same with your work habits and what you are letting into every minute (and sometimes every second, can you say instant message?!) of your daily life.
Let’s dive into seven simple steps to make this happen.
1. Define Your Boundaries
Before executing on setting boundaries, it is important to sit back and think about what those even are. We’ve heard the normal ways to set boundaries such as setting a consistent schedule, not checking emails after a certain time, or time blocking (though we’ll get to that again later on). While those are all great and important ways to set yourself up for success and hone your focus, it’s key to really take the time to think about how you truly want your day to look.
Take 20 minutes one weekend morning. Grab your favorite cup of coffee or tea, and open up a blank page in a notebook or a new document on your screen. Write down how you’d want your day to look in a perfect world. Even though you may not be able to do everything on that list (we’re out here grinding, after all), there are always ways to build your life to more closely reflect your hopes and dreams. For example, want to go to a workout class in the morning or take a morning walk? Figure out what time you need to wake up to do so. Or, if a break at 10 a.m. would be a more realistic time to get your workout or walk in, see if there’s a way you can fit that in.
Think about your life and your work. Do you think the best in the early morning? Do you work out best in the afternoon once you have had some fuel all day? What do you need to be completed prior to the work week to feel prepared? What do you need prior to a client call? Think about what you’d like to have in place so you can use your work day to your advantage.
Figure out which of these wishes you can realistically integrate into your current routines and responsibilities. If you need to start one at a time, then great! That’s always better than nothing at all.
2. Communicate Those Boundaries
Once you’ve defined what you would like to implement into your work life, it’s time to execute. The first step? Communicate your needs (ugh, not always fun, I know!).
Check-in with your colleagues, those you manage, and your bosses on what you’d like to adjust. Need to take a 20-minute break in the mornings? Add it to your calendar, let your boss or those you manage know that you may step out for less than a half hour each morning, and communicate when you’ll be back online after.
If you’d like to set a boundary a bit larger, like using your lunch break to workout without distraction, ensure this works for your boss and organization prior. Always consider others’ schedules and what they may need from you as well when thinking about what will work best for you and for them (especially now that many of us are in different time zones!).
3. Set Up Guardrails
Now that you’ve communicated and confirmed all are onboard with the boundaries you have set, it’s time to set up additional guardrails so that you yourself follow them. Sometimes, following and sticking to your own boundaries can be the hardest part.
Set up your calendar with your new schedule, whether that’s a solid start time of 8:30 a.m. (no, I won’t answer your Slack at 6:45 a.m.!) or adding an hour to your day at 1 p.m. for you to get your sweat on. Additionally, add time blocks for getting big projects done or going through your emails (batching email is still something I’m working on but is a great tool as well, guilty as charged).
Take it a step further and look into different features in any communication tools your organization may use. For example, Slack has a feature to connect your Google Calendar, making it seamless to show your colleagues when you’re in a meeting or unavailable. You can also set custom statuses to show you’re working on a specific report or project.
4. Discuss Your Work Styles and Schedule
Another way I like to ensure myself and my teams are working in a way that is the most efficient and beneficial for us is to communicate to each other what works best.
I make it a habit to ask colleagues to check my calendar prior to messaging me a question, in the case that I’m in a meeting. I try to lead by example here as well, checking their calendars prior to bombarding them (though I’m not perfect at this).
Other small ways to set boundaries and improve your work day are to talk to your colleagues about the way you prefer to receive items, communicate internally, and perform tasks. For example, if someone messages you documents and you’d rather have them via email so they don’t get lost, just ask!
It’s true what they say—ask and you shall receive. If someone doesn’t know you prefer things a certain way, how will they know to change it?
5. Review Deadlines, Tasks, and Projects in Advance
Something that often helps teams to stay focused during the week and mitigates back and forth questions during the work day, therefore improving everyone’s boundaries, is to have weekly check-ins at the start or end of the week.
Use these quick check-ins to review what is on the radar for the week and who is doing what. Talk through specific deadlines. If you need a deadline, ask your manager or director when they will need something. This will decrease messages in your inbox and allow you the space to breathe knowing you’re on track during your work week.
Don’t forget, teamwork makes the dream work.
6. Take Your Time Off (The Right Way)
While it’s easy to get in the mindset of needing to always be “on” in order to be successful—it is not a sustainable way to continue through your career. We are in it for the long haul after all. So take your time off, that’s what it is there for.
The problem with time off is that we all know it can sometimes be stressful. I’ve learned that there is a way to take this time in order to enjoy the days you have and come back more ready to go than ever.
It’s simple: prepare. Review calls you have, tasks you normally do, and any other items needed. Talk to colleagues about coverage and prepare them in advance. When setting your weekly or monthly plan, consider when you’ll be out so that you don’t have as much on your plate during those times.
Work a bit extra as needed prior to getting out of town or out of the office—it’s worth the relaxation on the other side!
7. Understand When Boundaries Need to Be Broken
All of these different ways to set boundaries are great in theory, right?
There are times however when these need to be taken down or ignored completely. For example, if there is an urgent matter at work (that is actually urgent), I can take my morning walk perhaps in the afternoon. If I receive an email that needs to be addressed right away, I can take a break from the project I’m working on.
The key to a successful career is knowing when things are urgent, when they’re a priority, when they don’t matter at all, and how to juggle all the in-betweens in order to move the needle while being as efficient as possible.
And I know, not all of these habits, tricks, or wishes for our boundaries are always possible depending on your workplace, so the most important thing is to pick one or two that may work well for you and go from there. A small step is still a step. And a small step will slowly allow you a work day that not only works for you, but works for your employer, your clients, your colleagues, and your life.