There is always so much to do. In life and at work, the demands and responsibilities seem to be never ending. For years in corporate it was so easy for me to get consumed by what “needed” to be done, those fires to put out, the 50th iteration of a deck, the meeting to plan for the planning meeting for another meeting….
Back then, I had (sadly) been known to take an “important” meeting while home ill with food poisoning, make sure I responded to an email while in the hospital after a car accident, and go to a meeting in LA between two weddings that were a week a part on opposite US coasts.
Now, as a business owner it is the same. Different, yet the same. There is never a moment when there isn’t something you could be doing – whether it is business development, working on operational efficiencies, defining strategy, or meeting clients. There is never a moment when you are not thinking about things like your current customers, the pipeline, employees, the big picture, and the tactical steps.
Within the last couple of years, I realized that boundaries were the key to being less stressed, happier, and actually – more productive. Like any behavioral change, engaging new behaviors takes time and dedication before they can become a natural habit and response. But it is possible. The first step was figuring out what boundaries I actually needed to maintain. For me, I tended to start work early and just keep going – rarely taking the time to step away or even get up from my desk. Being so sedentary was not healthy – and I always knew it – but it was just so easy to keep going, addressing this email, that email, doing this deck, and taking that call…
So, I started taking a 15-20 minute walk outside around mid-morning and aimed for another around mid-afternoon – effectively chunking my day into portions with “renewal” breaks.
The ‘ah-ha’ factor was that the to-do list was still going to be there 15 minutes later, and…. shocker… the world didn’t end during those 15 minutes. At first, I felt a little guilty. Out walking when there was work I “should” be doing. However, what I quickly came to realize was that I felt so much more energized! Not to mention, I develop better ideas as answers pop into my head whilst walking. I was also much more productive as I came back to the office finding it much easier to focus on my next task.
The key to making the boundary work was context. Of course, people would still clutter up my calendar with meetings, even if you do have a placeholder. This is when you determine the value of how you spend that time. For example, if it is a person who you really need to speak to, who you likely cannot schedule for another two months, then of course you take the call. If something important needs to be done for a customer who is having issues, of course you take the meeting…but you do not need to cancel the detachment break…you make sure you shift it.
When we help people and organizations drive sustained behavior change, we find it works best when you engage one small new behavior and keep implementing it until it becomes a consistent habit. I use the same technique on myself. Once my habit of taking “renewal breaks” had formed, and the boundary was set, I started working on another. One boundary I am still working on is the boundary for acceptable behaviors. This is all about setting expectations with people for what you will and will not do. I realized that clients and partners were often asking for things last minute with the expectation that things could be done within unrealistic time frames. And, as is typical, because you want to provide a great experience, we would get them done. This just led to higher levels of stress and burn-out. Of course, there are still crunch moments when everything will truly need to be done and days that end up crazy. However, again the key is context. What is the importance, what is the actual time frame it needs to be done by, and what should be removed to make space for it? It doesn’t have to be an addition, more of an adjustment of your schedule. Another part was being okay with saying to people – when the priority was inaccurate or timeline was unrealistic – that you can get it done by such and such date because of other commitments, or that the earliest you can schedule in the work would be a certain date. Finding language that you are comfortable with can do wonders here. At first I was worried about people’s responses, but, I found that they were fine with it! Like anyone, through their own lens, what they are working on is very important to them, and their language can certainly portray this. Also, many times people will ask and hope…but in reality they will be fine if something cannot be done and the circumstance is clearly explained. You need to give yourself permission to maintain your boundaries because they lead to less stress and much healthier relationships, as you can set the expectations that people have on you and train them in what is acceptable and what is not.
The third boundary I have begun setting is focused time. I realized that early in the morning is my best time for focused work, or creative work. So I began setting aside a couple hours in the morning to do just that – not even looking at my emails. This has led to a great increase in productivity. I know the top 1-3 things I have to get done each day and prioritize these. If something unexpected comes up, again, it is the value judgement – does it warrant shifting today’s time, or shall it be scheduled for tomorrow or another day instead?
Setting and maintaining boundaries is a key characteristic in the most productive and positively energized people. When helping people and organizations with performance mindset coaching, we find it comes up as a challenge for many. There are several reasons; the workplace culture, others’ expectations, personal belief systems and more – but we also find that many have not even taken the time to consider their boundaries and what they are.
Boundaries enable you to set limits that form what you demonstrate as acceptable behavior for yourself, and those around you. There are various types of boundaries that we can set – boundaries for our work lives, interpersonal ones, physical ones and personal ones. Having healthy boundaries can help you stop feeling overwhelmed, reduce your stress levels, and foster healthy relationships. Boundaries themselves take careful consideration as having none can leave us open to too much and cause negative emotions, but too structured boundaries can impose too many limits and reduce happiness. Like many things, what is important is context – identifying what boundaries you have and then how they are applied in the different contexts and situations you find yourself in.
Understanding your boundaries and how to maintain them yields many benefits. They can:
To start, you can think about what your own boundaries are – what is needed to protect your wellbeing, happiness and productivity?