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iron fence boundary

I used to be terrible at setting boundaries at work.

In my last job, I was constantly chasing the next promotion and the next pay raise. I said “yes” to every request, and I’d go above and beyond to come up with new projects that would help the organization.

Even though “work-life balance” was one of the core values of the organization, setting boundaries was disincentivized. In fact, there were times where I’d take time in my check-ins with my boss to try to reprioritize things on my work plan. Somehow, I’d always come out of the meeting with more projects. 

In fact, I was even told once that I wasn’t going to be promoted in the next cycle because I needed to more independently manage my workload.  

Message received. Shut up. Put your head down. Go above and beyond. Get ALL of the work done without complaining.

This strategy did indeed work. I doubled my income in 4 years, and I was finally promoted for the second time.

Unfortunately, I was miserable and knew I couldn’t continue at that pace. So, I quit.

Within the last year and a half, things have completely shifted for me. I decided to accept a part-time job and have focused on setting appropriate boundaries at work.  Now, I have time and brain space to focus on things in my life that are important to me.  

Adjusting My Perspective on Work

This change didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t flip a switch and decide one day and completely shift my approach.

I took some time off of work and had a lot of time to reflect on my relationship with work and what I really wanted out of my life.  

There were two important mindset shifts that enabled me to make this shift.  

Purpose of Financial Security

I spent time reflecting on the purpose of financial security. For me, having financial security meant that I would be able to take more risks. I’d be able to consider the life I wanted to be living and figure out ways I could align with that vision now.  

This change helped me broaden my understanding of financial security. Initially, I thought of financial security as synonymous with financial independence. Once I realized that financial freedom was not all or nothing, I began to work toward my ideal life now.

I didn’t have to be miserable working a full-time job to earn a high income so that I could fully retire in a few years.

With this realization, my perspective on the employee-employer relationship shifted significantly. I now saw the relationship with my employer as much more of a two-way street.

I previously saw it as a relationship where they make demands and I acquiesce. Now I see it as a relationship where I provide them with my skills and effort, and they provide me with a paycheck and a good work environment.

If I am unhappy or if they aren’t providing me with what I need, I can ask for what I need or leave.

Because I now understand my value and don’t need the job in the short-term, I am able to set clear boundaries of what I will and won’t do.  

Decoupling Meaning from Work

It’s not uncommon to have a naive expectation about the amount of meaning and fulfillment we will receive from our work. The Atlantic recently published an article called, “The Religion of Workerism is Making Americans Miserable.” The author states that many people, particularly college-educated, young people are now trying to get the same things – meaning, fulfillment, and community – from work that people used to try to find in religion.

That struck a chord with me. I used to be one of those young people.  I had a messed up perspective and treated work this way. I think this perspective on work is particularly pervasive in nonprofits.

Oftentimes, nonprofit professionals will seek to get their life’s purpose through their work. While this may work for some, I personally think that work isn’t set up to provide us with these things. When people believe that their life’s purpose comes through their work, people tend to put too much of their time and effort into it. As a result, they become busy and stressed.

While it’s widely accepted in our culture, I’ve learned that being busy is not synonymous with importance and value. We’ve all received cultural messages that busyness is desirable. These messages tell us that busyness signals a higher social status, and everyone should seek to be busy all of the time. If not, our life must be meaningless.

I’ve come to realize that this is not the case.  

I no longer expect to get all of my meaning and fulfillment from my work. More importantly, I no longer believe that being busy is desirable. 

This coupled with a newfound understanding of financial freedom enabled me to make significant changes in the way that I approached work.  

6 Ways to Set Boundaries at Work

A little over a year ago, I decided that enough was enough, and I quit my job. I decided to pursue a part-time job and found a great job in a nonprofit organization whose mission I believe in.  

Since starting this job in early 2019, I have been very proactive about boundary setting. My new perspectives about the purpose of work and financial freedom were bolstered by new skills and approaches. I am also very fortunate that I found a work environment that is receptive to these boundaries.  

1. Set Clear Expectations Up Front

I wanted to ensure that I set up boundaries right away in my new job. I believe it’s easier to set expectations right away rather than give too much at the beginning and then need to pull back.  

During the interview process, I asked a lot of questions about the organization’s perspective on part-time work to ensure that they wouldn’t ask me to do a full-time workload in a part-time schedule.

I also asked about my boss’ openness to prioritization, and how she would approach a situation if there were too many things happening all at once. I even asked a potential future colleague what they had experienced in the organization when they had too heavy of a workload. I liked what I heard, so I took the job.

When I first started, I set the expectation early that I wasn’t going to work on my days off. I wasn’t planning to check my email, and I was going to separate myself from work as much as possible.  We created a plan that if there was an “emergency” and they needed something urgently, they could text me. 

Since starting the job a little over a year ago, I’ve received 3-4 texts on days off. There have even been times where they haven’t reached out to me about things that I later told them they should. 

I also set up a time to meet with my boss early on, so that we could discuss our work styles and how we’d work together. During this discussion, I shared that I have dealt with anxiety.

Because of this, I “ruthlessly prioritize” my time because working too many hours can impact my mental health. Therefore, I always want to ensure I’m doing the highest impact thing at any given moment.  This has created a platform for me to communicate when I believe a project or task is not important.

2. Prioritize Important Work

I’ve found it important to have clear goals and project plans that are aligned with my supervisor.  In my work plan, I’m able to map out the project milestones and due dates. This enables me to be able to look ahead to see when my workload will be heavier or lighter.

When I see that there will be particularly busy times, I am able to adjust the workload by moving certain tasks forward to a less busy week, by asking for help, or by requesting to push off certain deadlines.

I also use the “Eisenhower Matrix” to determine what is a “must-do” vs. a “nice to do.” I try to spend the majority of my time on things that are of high importance. This provides a framework for me to be able to communicate when things are of low importance.  

Eisenhower Matrix chart
Eisenhower Matrix

3. Define Ownership

I like to know what things I need to spend my mental energy on, so I can let other things go. For me, it’s helpful to know if I “own” something, which, to me, means that I am responsible for the emotional labor of moving it forward.

If I don’t own a project but am involved, I don’t need to take on the emotional labor.  

When there’s a new project that comes up, I will always clarify my role, so that I know the level of mental investment I need to put into the project. Sometimes, I will even lead by saying, “I’m happy to help with this, but I don’t think I have the capacity to own it.”

For example, my boss is responsible for the creation of the overall talent management strategy.  I am involved in the project, but I don’t need to take on the emotional labor. I’m actively choosing not to. My boss needed to compile a summary of all of the inputs and feedback we had received through various sources.

I knew she was busy, and I had some free time, so I offered to help her out.  When I finished compiling the summary, I sent it back to her saying that she could take it forward however she wanted to and to let me know if there’s any additional support she’d like on the project. This communication was my way of reinforcing that this project was not becoming mine even though I was helping with it.  

4. Communicate the Implication of Saying “Yes”

There will always be unexpected projects that come up. Sometimes I can integrate them, and sometimes, there’s too much going on. When this happens, my response is usually something like, “I’d really like to do this. Here’s what doing this would mean for my other work…”

For example, about two weeks before a training day, they realized that the original training couldn’t happen. My boss asked me if I’d be interested in facilitating training on a particular topic we had been discussing. I asked if I could have a bit of time to think about what it would take.

When I came back to her, I said I could do it, but we’d need to deprioritize a few other things until then. I also let her know that I needed time with the leadership team to ensure they’d be on board with it.

My boss agreed. I was able to say yes and also make it clear that there were conditions. By asking if this was more important than the other projects, I built buy-in that those things would be pushed off.

5. Become Okay with being Bored

When I first started my new job, I had a hard time being bored. I took a slight step down in responsibilities and had less stress, so I was bored much more often than my previous job.

At first, I hated being bored. Things felt too easy. 

When I first started my job, I think I still bought into the myth that being busy means that you are important and valued. When we believe this to be the case, we often believe the opposite to be true as well.

When I was bored, I realized that I felt unimportant and undervalued. I’ve worked hard to change the narrative around this for myself.

In fact, I now realize that I do not want a job that uses up all of my mental energy. I want to have the mental energy to spare so that I have brain space to focus on my life outside of work. 

I’ve begun to see my life in a much more holistic way. I’ve tried to see blogging and coaching as my “main” gigs and have begun to approach my part-time job as if it’s my “side gig.”  

Now, even if I’m slightly bored sometimes, I reframe it. I’m grateful that I will have the excess mental energy to put toward other things in my life.  

6. Have a Rich Life Outside of Work

I find it vital to have things in my life that bring me meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and enjoyment that have nothing to do with my job. If I were still looking at my job as the core place to get life satisfaction, it would be tempting to spend more time and brain space on work tasks and challenges.  

I also go out of my way to encourage my colleagues to take time off and to find things outside of work that bring them fulfillment and joy. I believe when people have rich lives outside of work, it’s also easier to let go of work stress.  

Why Work Boundaries are Important

Setting boundaries at work is incredibly important. Setting boundaries helps us to:

  • Maintain our physical and mental health
  • Spend time with people we love
  • Limit stress and avoid burnout
  • Spend time doing things we enjoy
  • Be more productive in all aspects of our lives
  • Enjoy our work more

I believe that we can all set better boundaries at work. It can be harder if you are still in a stage where you are trying to increase your income, but it is possible. We can learn to prioritize, set expectations, choose to not take on the “emotional labor” of pushing another person’s work forward, communicate more effectively, and build up rich lives outside of work. It might even make people at work respect you more. 

We can claim the freedom and power to set boundaries even if we haven’t yet reached financial independence. 

What have you done to set boundaries at work?

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