Superstar television producer Shonda Rhimes wrote a terrific book called Year of Yes, which details how saying yes to opportunities and invitations transformed her life. Over the past few years, I’ve found myself on the opposite trajectory with similar positive results — learning how to say no at work and create healthy boundaries has done wonders for my well-being.
If you are familiar with the inner saboteur concept, my top one is caller the “pleaser.” Determined to be liked and valued, my default response was always saying yes when it came to career-related extra work. That behavior didn’t vary much whether I was climbing the corporate ladder, running my own PR firm or in taking my current job in October 2014 within the C-suite of a $2 billion company. Going into full Energizer Bunny mode in this role, I felt it was necessary to be included in as many meetings, key initiatives, and task forces as possible to demonstrate my worth. I worked a lot. Obsessively checked emails and texts from morning through bedtime. There were no boundaries with work. But this behavior wasn’t making me more successful. Instead, I was tired, irritable and becoming resentful of a job that I liked.
About 18 months in, I realized the issue was me. I wasn’t setting reasonable expectations of my workflow and interactions. So, I took four steps to create healthy boundaries between my work and life overall:
Get better at prioritization. Everything can’t be urgent and important, all the time. Even when Instagram and Twitter deem it so. If you start to focus on items that are truly important and impactful over the million other things that compete for your attention, you are going to get more done. President Dwight Eisenhower created this classic urgent-importance matrix to make tough decisions, and it was later popularized by author Stephen Covey. I started prioritizing the most important tasks each day instead of responding to everyone at the top of my emails, which made it easier to delegate and say no when needed.
Chose myself first. As I got better at prioritization, I saw putting my needs and self-care at the top of the list would create more energy to give to others. Every time I said no to unnecessary work, it gave me the opportunity to say yes to myself. Now I start every morning by making myself the priority, listening to a meditative recording and journaling before checking my devices. Then I exercise, shower, and drive to work listening to an audiobook or hilarious radio morning show to put me in a good mood. Work has my full attention by the time I arrive up until dinner and I’m a heck of a lot happier and productive because of it.
Trust others. I have a great team of smart, capable people. When I resist doing something myself and instead delegate challenging projects, it helps them develop. They know to contact me at any time for extra help or senior-level insights, but it is important to let them handle it first. Trusting others is necessary for their growth and my own well-being in setting reasonable boundaries.
Set expectations and adhere to them. I’m loud about vacations. As soon as one is booked, I calendarize it like crazy and start the reminders months in advance. When vacationing thousands of miles away, I quietly check email once a day because that is the expectation of my role, which is reasonable. But I don’t do actual work or try to get extra credit points after spending time educating others that I’m serious about being gone. Creating healthy expectations about my daily access is even more important. On weeknights, I will check email/texts around 8-8:30 p.m. but unless something is going on, that’s it until my typical 10:00 p.m. bedtime. My thinking is that I am not a brain surgeon, international woman of mystery, or someone who diffuses international crisis situations. The world is typically not going to end if I don’t check email again until 5:30 a.m.
Creating healthy boundaries at work has been great for me on so many levels. I manage stress better and am more productive. This practice has improved the quality of my sleep. I enjoy my job more and have gotten even better at self-care. Want to have a great career? Learn how to say no more often at work while saying yes to yourself.
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