Do you ever feel like your work schedule is unmanageable? Does your boss ask you to fly across the country on a moment’s notice? Do you say “yes” to every new project that comes along? If this sounds like you, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Studies show that job stress is by far the major source of anxiety for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. A big reason for this is that technology allows us to lead 24/7 work lives with virtually no boundaries. According to author and motivational speaker Tony Gaskins, “You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop and what you reinforce.” Here are ten ways to set healthy boundaries at the office so you can work smarter, gain respect and increase your productivity.
1. Seek help
Setting boundaries at work may be as simple as seeking advice from your manager. New York Times bestselling author Ken Blanchard suggests this process:
- Begin with you and your boss each creating a separate list of the things you believe you are being held accountable for in your job. This exercise is eye-opening because there are almost always significant discrepancies between the two lists.
- Next, prioritize the items you think you should be focusing on.
- Lastly, negotiate agreed-upon priorities.
2. Conduct an audit
Beyond simply approaching your boss, conducting a boundary audit can go a long way in providing clarity around where you need to set limits. Start by becoming more aware of those people and situations that cause you stress and anxiety. Write them down. If you notice yourself feeling angry, resentful or guilty, that’s a sure sign that you may need to reset a boundary or communicate it more clearly.
3. Set limits
Once you have an idea of the areas where you need to focus, start setting limits. One example could be not checking work email in the evenings between 6-9 p.m. so you can focus on family time. Another may be to let your manager know that you need advance notice of work-related travel so that you can plan your family vacation.
4. Communicate clearly
Once you set limits, you need to communicate them to your team clearly and confidently. For instance, if you don’t want your team members to contact you at all hours, tell them exactly when you will be available for work conversations. If you don’t wish to be contacted on vacation unless it is an emergency, make sure to clearly outline what constitutes an urgent matter. When a boundary gets violated, address it immediately. It’s better to reinforce your limits in the moment than to wait.
5. Delegate more
Being a good leader means delegating. If you are expected to do the work of 50 people and feel overwhelmed with projects, chances are you’re not doing a good job of delegating work. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be developed. Learn to let go, trust your team and play to their strengths.
6. Take time to respond
One trick that may keep you from saying “yes” to that next project is the art of pausing. For example, the next time your boss asks you to take a last-minute business trip, hit the pause button before responding. This technique will give you a chance to check-in with yourself to determine whether you have a conflict. If needed, buy yourself time and say, “that might work, let me just check my schedule and get back to you.”
7. Practice saying no
Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done suggests choosing some easy, low-risk situations in which to practice saying no. Say no when your waitress offers you dessert. Say no to the street vendor offering to sell you something. Go into a room by yourself, shut the door and say no out loud ten times. It sounds crazy, but it helps to build your “no” muscle.
8. Develop a system
David Allen, a productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, suggests sorting through your to-do list and addressing each task in one of four ways:
- Do it
- Defer it
- Delegate it
- Drop it
The important thing is to tackle each issue only once and move on to the next.
9. Create structure
If you find yourself sucked into long, drawn-out meetings with your boss, create structure. One way to do this is to establish an agenda. An agenda puts you in control and positions you as a leader. You could also create structure by setting a meeting where one didn’t exist. A short weekly check-in might be more efficient than having your boss continually popping by your office unannounced.
10. Prepare for pushback
Once you start establishing healthy boundaries, you can expect others to react negatively. This is a sign that the boundary is necessary and that it’s working effectively. It’s also helpful to visualize your boundaries getting crossed and imagine how you’ll address those situations. That way, when a moment like that arises, you’ll be able to handle it rationally versus emotionally.
Employees who are the happiest and most productive are those who set boundaries. People who set limits gain respect because they show respect for themselves. Author and researcher Brené Brown says it best: “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval. Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say, enough!”