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Having Trouble Saying ‘No’ to Work? You Need a Boundary Plan

You’ll be more apt to stick to your boundaries if you follow these three strategies.

Credit: Chris Montgomery, Unsplash

Most professionals have a love-hate relationship with work. They love getting paid to do the tasks they enjoy, but they hate when work usurps personal freedom and downtime.

Is it any wonder that so many people complain of burnout and related issues? Try as they might to keep professional and private boundaries separate, the lines inevitably blur. Even when they’re not physically on the job, they’re engaged in cognitive role transitions, in which they can’t focus on the here and now because they haven’t given their brain access to an “off” switch.

Ironically, those same people often justify staying at their desks for long periods to “take off early” the next day. However, that’s flawed thinking, as Amy Tokos, owner of Freshly Organized, points out. “Work will fill as much time as you let it,” she explains, adding that the next day usually brings new surprises and responsibilities. Ellen Delap, certified professional organizer, agrees: “If you plan to leave work at a certain time, it appears more important to complete that last email than get home to dinner with your family. When priorities get fuzzy, it’s hard to stay consistent.”

What’s the solution? According to productivity experts, it’s to establish firm work-life boundaries.

Defining Work-Related Boundary Goals

Boundaries give you guidance. When you have your goals in mind, you can say “no” more easily, which is something that’s needed in a work world where nearly a third of people spend too many hours at work and are at risk of higher-than-normal stress.

No one wants to destroy important relationships as a result of a workaholic lifestyle. However, a full 400 million of us are already working 49 hours or more per week, according to International Labour Organization figures. Consequently, boundaries make it possible to feel more controlled, productive, and engaged. Even Elon Musk has lamented that he’s sacrificed family and friends as a result of working 100+ hours a week. That’s a powerful reason to work smarter.

Just being able to turn down an opportunity leads to less work resentment and more motivation while on the job. It can also help loved ones accept the occasional need to burn the midnight oil because it isn’t happening constantly.

Of course, Tokos recognizes that everyone’s definition of a boundary differs. Thus, her recommendation for goal-setting is for people to ask, “How will my family members remember me in this phase?” when defining goals. And Delap notes that having more than three priorities is a recipe for ineffectiveness, so she counsels clients to set no more than a trio of boundary objectives.

For instance, one goal might be to have at least one family meal a day. Another could be to hit the gym Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays without fail. Keeping these boundaries strong provides a distinction that many workers need to turn off the responsibilities and voices in their heads.

To be sure, writing down boundaries isn’t hard. However, following them is. You’ll be more apt to stick to your principles if you follow a few strategies:

1. Find an accountability partner.

Go to your spouse, friend, colleague, neighbor, or whomever, and ask that person to help you pull away from your work. According to Tokos, the best accountability partners are the ones who will be honest when you’re not following your work-life boundaries, so it’s important that you remain open to hearing the truth.

A couple things your accountability partner can help with are adding fun activities into your life and helping you unplug when you’re away from the office. For example, scheduling hobbies, volunteer opportunities, and sports can make it easier to walk away from work, and putting your phone away during dinner and other family activities can help enforce those work-life boundaries, Tokos says.

2. Include self-care in your work-life boundary plan.

From hydration and exercise to time with friends and a good night’s rest, Delap notes that it’s crucial to map out some moments to recharge. Keep this time precious by adding it to your task management tool and creating routines that will ultimately become second nature.

However, at the same time, it’s important to keep your perfectionism in check. If you’re scheduling every waking moment and are trying to fit dozens of activities into each day — even if they’re all healthy, relaxing activities — you might be overdoing it. When it comes to work and play, be sure you’re spending the amount of time required to get the results you want. Delap explains that there is often a disconnect between doing and redoing work with little return on investment. “This happens at home and at work,” she says, “so be sure to be mindful of its interference with work-life balance.”

3. Get off the email train.

Why let email control you? Leverage technology and suspend emails during non-work hours. Jan Lehman, president of CTC Productivity, enjoys sharing a story about a colleague who sets up email expectations so senders don’t expect her to be “on” 24/7. “[She] actually has a fun autoresponder that says she is enjoying the weekend with her family so she can be refreshed and ready to be productive on Monday,” Lehman explains. “It helps put things in perspective.”

While it might not seem possible to keep work and personal life from sometimes ebbing and flowing into each other, you have a responsibility to your health and relationships to do your best. In time, the more you practice drawing lines in the sand, the more often you’ll be able to relax on the warm, sunny shore.

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