In our constantly changing, shifting world: Your personal boundaries are more important than ever before.
And here’s a (maybe) unpopular opinion: you are the same person at home and work. If you struggle to say no to your family or your friends or your spouse, you’ll also struggle to say no to your Board president, your VP, or your colleagues.
And your work needs you to have better boundaries.
What boundaries ARE and what they aren’t.
Boundaries are rooted in you knowing your limits, your capacity, and your level of comfort.
Boundaries are personal guidelines for your own behavior.
Boundaries are guardrails to keep you safe and healthy, with your own limits in mind.
Boundaries are deeply personal.
Boundaries aren’t rigid or unchangeable.
Boundaries aren’t demands of other people.
Boundaries aren’t rules that other people have to follow in order for you to be at ease.
Boundaries aren’t demands or rules that make your life harder, more restricted, or scary.
Think about a boundary in a very literal sense: like the borders of a country. A sovereign nation draws a line around itself, and says “Inside these lines, our laws apply.”
It would never work if a country’s leadership drew lines around another country, and said “This is what you have to do inside your own lines,” or “This is what you must do outside our borders.”
And, just like personal boundaries, country borders change. They’re fluid. They adapt to the times. Sometimes, those are responses to the movement of populations. Sometimes, they are responses to profound struggle and even war.
And just like country borders: we are still responsible to every other country and owe them the respect to follow their own guidelines, inside their own borders. (Unless they are doing profound harm to their citizens, in which case, we might interfere.)
Humans are the same.
Why does your work need your boundaries?
Because if you don’t know where your limits are, you cannot perform well.
If you don’t understand your own capacity, you will never “fulfill your potential.”
If you can’t say no, or not today, or that’s not my scope: you will burn out.
You need better boundaries because the world needs your best work.
And you need better boundaries because you deserve to take care of yourself.
You are ultimately responsible for your own health, your well being — and your performance.
Whatever motivates you, I need you to learn how to say no at work. You need to find, politely communicate, and follow your boundaries.
How do you know?
If you are exhausted, burned out, overworked, resentful, or frustrated — you need boundaries.
If you feel like you work all day long, but aren’t quite sure what you got done — you need boundaries.
If the goal posts are always moving, you never have time to reassess what’s important, and you can hardly think about what’s coming next week — you need boundaries.
If it’s easy to blame all of this on (Madlibs: your boss, your stakeholders, the market, shareholders, the board) — you need boundaries.
You are not a machine.
But even if you were a machine, even machines need maintenance.
How would your life be different if you were a “well-oiled machine,”?
If you had regular maintenance periods, you’d operate reliably.
If you have scheduled downtime, your gears stay spinning.
If you do the work you were made to do, you will have a chance to excel.
You are responsible to discover, politely communicate, and follow your boundaries.
As much as we might like to — or worse, expect — other people cannot do this for you.
Your boss is not responsible for how much energy you have or how many times the puppy woke you up last night. Depending on the culture of your organization, management might be more or less supportive — but in the end, they will take whatever you give.
That doesn’t make them bad people, it’s just human nature.
Back to the country metaphor: without borders, what happens? As much as I might like to toss nation-states out the window, the reality is: without a guideline for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, someone will take advantage.
No one will know you are tired unless you tell them. No one knows you’re overwhelmed if you continue to perform. And usually, nobody knows you’re burned out until you’re lighting the trash can on fire on your way out the door.
Don’t let it get that bad.
And I hate to tell you: this worse if you’re self-employed or an entrepreneur. When you work for yourself, it is so easy for work to take over every waking moment of your life.
You might even think that it’s completely normal.
(I speak with so much love and with so much painful experience here.)
But I have to take a stand and say: that is not normal.
Working before breakfast and after dinner is not healthy.
Waking up in the middle of the night in a panic and sitting down to the computer is not sustainable.
Doing things you’re not good at or hate “because someone has to do it” is not a good enough reason.
This is not healthy for your relationships, for your body, for your mental health, or for your work.
Even the most fulfilling, most thrilling, most meaningful work cannot take over your life.
Without boundaries, work is life. You’ll work all day and all night, and you’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work. You will be checking email before breakfast, and take video calls on vacation.
(If you feel called out, notice that.)
If you feel called out, please take this moment to pause. Take a breath. If you need to step away, please do.
Take care of yourself.
But if you’re feeling activated by this post, I hope you’ll come back. Because sometimes the things that you need to hear most are the hardest to hear.
Okay, back at it.
I love my work. I want you to love your work too. But loving something doesn’t mean we eliminate everything else in our lives.
You deserve to have a rich, diverse, bountiful existence — and even if you don’t believe me on that part, you will do better work if you set some gotdamn boundaries.
There’s another part of this: you are the same person at home and work. So that means if you have a hard time keeping boundaries in your personal life, you’ll be the same at work.
Conversely, if you’ve been getting much better at setting more reasonable limits for yourself, and learning to say no to your family, your friends and your sweeties.. then work might be the final frontier.
If you resist building protective structures for yourself at work, your home boundaries will be harder to keep. Once you recognize what you need to stay safe, sane, and kind… you have to DO THOSE THINGS in every part of your life.
Sorry. But not sorry.
So… what are work boundaries?
I can’t answer that for you, because your boundaries are as personal as that cowlick in the back of your head.
Your capacity – physical, mental and emotional – is different from mine. Your limitations are unique. Knowing how you’re limited and planning accordingly is what makes you a valuable employee — and a happier person.
But here are some examples of the types of boundaries you might need:
Having a schedule is really useful, all around. Knowing when you work and when you don’t work. Going to sleep and waking up in the morning. Eating meals. Getting to the airport in time so you don’t miss your flight.
But I’d argue your time boundaries are more nuanced than that. And having a job where you “clock in at 8:30am and clock out at 5” is usually a signal that we’re miserable. I know, I’ve had some.
Instead, I think it’s essential to have dedicated time that does not get interfered with. For me, that has been: a weekly yoga class, my therapist session including travel, meditation time, or family dinner. I don’t do work before 9am. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about work or have the impulse to work before 9, it just means I made a deal with myself. If I don’t put limits around my work time, then I will work all the time.
There isn’t anyone over my shoulder making sure I don’t work before 9am, and so some days I do. But at least I know there’s a guardrail for me, and it’s less likely to become a habit.
For you, this might be: stop checking your work email after 8pm. Or, take a chance, 6pm. What happens if you don’t respond to an email within 12 hours?
I mean it: what actually happens? What are the consequences? Who’s going to be disappointed?
Usually, we have habits like this because: 1) we don’t want to disappoint people, 2) we have overestimated our importance, or 3) we don’t want to feel the feelings of what happens when we’re not working.
The best advice I’ve ever heard about boundaries: “You cannot set a boundary AND protect people’s feelings.” That includes your own.
Other people might have feelings about this. They might be disappointed, or angry, or resentful. And I’m here to say: if you communicate your boundaries consistently and courteously, your responsibility is met.
If you work in a role where you get to be an expert, and you’re always doing similar tasks — congratulations! But even highly skilled laborers (think finish carpenters or physicians) have some amount of administrative work that has to be done in order to do the high-skills work.
Learning to identify when, where, and how you do certain kinds of work is key.
An example: My brain is clearest first thing in the morning. I write well, am more creative, and am most prolific when I sit down in the coffee shop with my first coffee of the day. So that means I do my best to write before noon.
That means I cannot schedule client calls before 10am, and preferably not before noon. I can still do excellent work with clients later in the day, but I cannot write well.
This may sound like “structure” to you – but that’s what a boundary is. Not all boundaries are emotionally fraught, friends.
These are about how you communicate and what kind of communication you tolerate.
It varies from when you answer and send emails, when you hit reply-all vs. pick up the phone — to what kind of tone is acceptable when you talk to your clients.
Again: your boundaries are definitions of what is tolerable for you. When you notice your face getting hot, it’s probably time to take a break — whether it’s because you’re furious or someone is shaming you.
I hope you never need them, but I also want you to get clear — IN ADVANCE — of what kind of communication you tolerate from other people. Can you do good work if someone is yelling at you? (Some people can; I definitely cannot.) What happens when a boss condescends you? How comfortable are you with clients and prospective being flirtatious?
Knowing in advance what kind of communication you accept, and how to respond when something is unacceptable to you, will make sure your professional relationships are respectful and mature.
Because you cannot control whether someone else yells, is condescending, or put their hand on your thigh. But you can control what you tolerate. And how you respond when behavior is no longer tolerable.
‘But what if my boss is an ***hole?’
This is such a delicate question, and it’s impossible for me to answer it for everyone. Sometimes, you will make adjustments for your direct supervisor or the owner of your company. Remember: Boundaries aren’t static.
Occasionally, a project will require you to work outside of your most efficient hours. There will be an “all hands on deck” crisis that requires you to do things you’re not great at, because that’s what need to be done.
But if you are consistently being asked to do these things… you might consider looking for a different job. Or working for yourself. (Because if you’re self-employed, when your boss as an a-hole, you can just tell them.)
If you aren’t “allowed” to have boundaries at work, you are not an employee, you are a captive.
If “this is just how it is” — that is not a workplace, it’s a prison.
Knowing who you are willing to occasionally make exceptions for is important. But when you find someone is crossing a line of tolerable behavior into making you feel small, stupid, or ashamed — I hope you will call me.
There are so many places to work where you don’t have to work like this.
You deserve to have work that gets you out of bed in the morning, and lets you sleep at night.
And you also deserve weekends, vacations, and “off-days.”
You deserve boundaries at work. And your work needs your boundaries.
Do you struggle with this? Send me a message.
Would you like support in building boundaries at work?
If you work for yourself, boundaries are essential, and sometimes different than if you work for someone else.
I work with ambitious, passionate professionals to find work they love, that shines their unique light on the world. If that sounds like you, set up a Coaching Inquiry.