The Definitive Guide to Setting (and Keeping) Boundaries at Work

For you, a standard workday just isn’t enough. Your boss depends on you to be available day and night, and you often bring work home on the weekends. Your colleagues and clients rely on you so much that you plan to be on call during your upcoming vacation, despite your desperate need to unplug. And maybe you’ve been asked to fly across the country on a few days’ notice so many times that you don’t even bother unpacking your suitcase anymore.

While these constant demands on your time and attention may feel like an indication of career success, they can also seriously tax your energy and focus. Agreeing to everything a boss, client, or co-worker asks you to do can quickly thrust you into the role of office pushover and leave you feeling like you’ve lost control of your own time and career goals.

The key to staying sane while succeeding at work is to set firm, self-respecting boundaries that help you make smart decisions about how you spend your time and energy. By taking the following steps to define your boundaries, assert them cooperatively, and stick to them, others will eventually do the same.

Guard Your Time

If you’re feeling stretched thin, it’s likely because you’ve overcommitted to too many priorities, projects, and people. To regain focus and control, you need to examine both your behaviors and the habits of the people you work with.

First, look inward. Instead of letting stress or a desire for approval influence you to immediately agree to every request, pause before you respond. Take a moment to evaluate the individual demand and its potential effect on your schedule, well-being, and goals. For conditioned people-pleasers, this can be a challenge, but eventually, it will help you get comfortable with pushing back on demands that don’t benefit you, so you can reserve your time for what’s truly important.

Then, focus on your co-workers’ habits. To curb the assumption that you’ll agree to anything you’re asked to do, start responding to those requests with, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This serves two purposes: First, you can actually look at your upcoming schedule and prioritize what’s already on your calendar. Second, it sets the expectation with your colleagues that you’re not going to jump on every request right away—or at all.

Defining boundaries is also essential to making space for your personal goals. For example, if you’re training for a half marathon and have a long run scheduled for 6 PM, tell your client that a 5:30 PM meeting doesn’t work for your schedule and offer to send some availability for later in the week.

By closely guarding your time, you’ll be able to elevate your own priorities, both at work and in your personal life.

Unplug to Re-energize

Achieving work-life balance in today’s always-on work culture can seem impossible. Checking email is often the first thing we do in the morning, and our constant accessibility doesn’t end until we send just one last email before bed. But never disconnecting from your devices or work is a surefire path to burnout.

To set healthy boundaries, you have to closely examine your technology and work communication habits and behaviors.

Ask yourself: What’s driving you to stay connected? Are you afraid of dropping the ball and letting your team down? Are you trying to prove to yourself (and everyone else) that you’re uber-productive?

Once you understand those underlying motivations, you can determine appropriate tech-related boundaries. For example, maybe you can let your colleagues know exactly when they can—and can not—expect to reach you during the evenings (e.g., “I’ll be logged on at home until 7 PM, but then I’ll be out of pocket”). Or maybe, you commit to checking email once only each evening and weekend day.

By appropriately limiting your availability, you can continue to support your co-workers’ needs, while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Look for Win-Win Situations

No one likes to hear “no”—especially if they’re used to hearing “yes.” If you’re worried about how your boundary-setting will go over with your team, re-position your refusal as an opportunity to find a solution that will honor both your time and the company’s needs.

Simply look for ways to compromise. For example, if your boss asks you to work over the weekend, let him or her know that you have prior commitments over those days, but suggest setting aside some time to review the project Monday morning. That will help him or her feel comfortable with the end deliverable and shows that you’re a team player—while still preserving your personal time.

Work According to Process, Systems, and Contracts

If your colleagues and clients have a hard time respecting your newly established boundaries, don’t be afraid to fall back on external policies and procedures for help.

With clients, for instance, you can often leverage your existing contract. For example, if the scope of a project is growing out of control, you could say something like, “It’s no problem for me to pull together a new 90-day plan to accommodate these changes. I’ll add that to the contract. The additional charge will be $500.”

Or, if you’re constantly being asked to work insane hours or perform tasks that are far above your pay grade, ask for a review of your job duties and compensation. Come to the table with evidence of the extra responsibilities you’ve assumed, along with your track record of successes. With that documentation on your side, you’ll have a much better chance of establishing some more realistic expectations for your role—or majorly boosting your salary and value.

Setting self-respecting boundaries will help you achieve a more balanced work and personal life, which will boost your emotional wellness across the board and serve you well in the long run. Read here for three additional tips on setting boundaries at work.

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers break free from imposter syndrome and overthinking so they can find the confidence to lead effectively.


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