5 Expert-Backed Strategies for Setting Boundaries at Work To be successful in business, you need to prioritize your time and energy above all else.
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Dan was burnt out. Sitting across from me at the small cafe we'd chosen on a rainy Tuesday, he looked depleted. Normally known for his friendly and inviting demeanor, he was beginning to recognize he had a problem saying no.
"No, I can't help you with that brief."
"No, I can't chat for 15 more minutes."
"No, I can't answer your call during lunch."
All of this he wished he could say, but alas, here he was pleading for my help.
"I'm fed up," he looked at me earnestly. "How do you just…say no?"
Dan was one of my mentees who'd been running his startup for the past year and a half. His business was growing successfully, and he had a wonderfully supportive team, but his lack of boundaries was sabotaging his efforts.
I saw myself in him.
More than 16 years ago, I was that same young entrepreneur, embarking on this massive dream to start my own company, Jotform. I was eager to learn but also very lax when it came to setting limits — both personally and professionally.
It's taken a lot of trial and error and self-reflection to find a healthy balance for myself. Here are some of the lessons I offered Dan that day that might prove helpful to you as well.
1. Prioritize protecting your time and energy
Boundaries as a solution sit right in front of us," writes Harvard Business Review contributor Joe Sanok. "When we define what we need to feel secure and healthy when we need it and create tools to protect those parts of ourselves, we can do wonders for our well-being at work and at home," he writes. "Which, in turn, allows us to bring our best selves to both places."
This all sounds well and good, but you might be thinking how do I put it into practice? Especially if you've spent your entire life trying to appease others?
As Sanok wisely points out: "The good news is, no matter what skeletons hide in your closet, I have seen that even the most engrained behaviors can be unlearned through setting boundaries."
2. Don't shy away from hard conversations
Of course, the bulk of this work starts with how we communicate expectations. Keep in mind: Every time we consent to something we'd rather not do, we're giving up our power. So rather than simply going with the flow at work, we must have these hard conversations with colleagues.
In Dan's case, it was necessary to take inventory of all the tasks and activities that were draining him to make the changes needed. Then he had to do the difficult work of changing his mindset around saying "no."
Many of us (especially people-pleasers) have this erroneous idea that not giving in to requests makes us selfish somehow. However, experimenting with ways of declining is a good exercise in learning how to set boundaries.
For example, we can make it a point to turn down one task each day that drains us. Let that colleague who stops by your desk every morning know that you're on a tight deadline. Little by little, this will have a domino effect on how we handle the rest of our interactions.
3. Expect having to reset boundaries
Whenever we start to set boundaries, whether at work or home, we can expect to be challenged. According to Priscilla Claman, president of Career Strategies, this can be similar to scope creep, when we're asked to do more than we signed up for. For example, a coworker might ask if we can just look over a quick email draft for them, but it then turns into asking for help rewriting it.
If you don't yet feel comfortable giving a hard "no," try placing a time limit around the amount of help you're willing to offer. "I have five minutes to give you my feedback, and then I have to focus on my workload for the day." But remember you have to stick to your word. And as Claman suggests, don't over-explain when giving a boundary. Don't say, for instance, that you need to finish up so you can leave early that day.
Offering up myriad reasons why we can't take something on only undermines the limit we're trying to set.
4. Let people know how to communicate with you
"Another common distraction at work is the constant incoming communication from colleagues, whether it's by phone, online chat, email or in person," writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders for Harvard Business Review.
How your coworkers communicate with you can have an impact on how disruptive the communication feels, but by controlling how these messages reach you, you can lessen their impact.
Saunders' advice? Let people know you prefer them to contact you through email, and if they try to go through another method, respond by letting them know that your preference is to receive communications via email. By reasserting your boundary, you can start dictating how people contact you.
5. Be upfront about your availability
One of the best ways I've found to set boundaries is by being upfront about the expectations I have around my work and home life.
At Jotform, for example, I've created policies so that people know what they can expect. I've let them know that I never take business calls during supper, and I also ask colleagues and employees not to respond to work emails over the weekend.
This advice has proved especially helpful to Dan, who was openly available at all hours of the day, often sacrificing his lunch breaks and sleep in the name of collaboration. Also keep in mind that responding to messages at 9 p.m. only reinforces that you're available at that hour, even if you don't state it.
I've taken the above lessons to heart over the years and continuously revisit them when I start feeling depleted. I've found that the challenge is to find the sweet spot between maintaining harmonious relationships while also protecting our energy. While tough, it's a practice that is well worth the effort in the long run.