Boundaries are essential if you want to thrive, not just survive in life and business. As a solopreneur (sidenote: I really love that we’re inventing all these fancy words to basically say “I work from home in my pajamas everyday and love my life”) and a veteran of the customer service industry, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Not cultivating healthy boundaries at work leads to burnout, procrastination, anxiety and binging reality television HARD.
Before we jump in on how to set healthy boundaries at work, let me give you a quick refresher on what I mean by the word boundary.
Boundaries are not brick walls; they are fences. You are drawing a line in the proverbial sand (or building a rustic wooden fence around a beautiful meadow) that let’s people know what they can and can’t do, what you are willing and not willing to do, and how they can and can’t treat you. These fences have gates that you can choose to open if you want to let people through or choose to shut if you need some time to frolic in your meadow solo. The fence posts are the specific details you set up around your boundary i.e. from 1-2pm I have quiet, uninterrupted work time.
Now that you know what I mean when I talk about boundaries, let’s explore some boundaries you can set at work.
Boundaries with bosses
One of the simplest ways to build a fence is to say no. Notice I said the simplest way, not the easiest.
I’m an empath and also a very ambitious person which lead to me saying and emphatic “YES!” to every request I ever got from a boss when I was first starting out in my career.
“You need me to cover that shift last minute? Of course, I’d be happy to cancel my plans, even though this will be the 7th day in a row I’ve worked.”
“You’d like me to take on a project that is way above my pay grade but you aren’t offering me a raise or promotion? Of course, I’d be happy to kill myself getting this project done on top of all my regular responsibilities that already take up 40 hours a week.”
Here’s the thing, it feels good to say yes, at least at first. Helping another human releases happy hormones. Being offered a project that is way above our current role feels like a compliment (and who doesn’t love a compliment!?). But these feelings are short lived if we are stretched thin. We have to help ourselves first, like taking days off and asking for fair pay for the work we’re doing.
I promise that saying no won’t get you fired (and if it does you probably don’t want to work there anyway) or make your boss hate you, it will actually lead to more respect.
If even thinking about saying no to someone makes you want to throw up give them a “BUT”. For example, your boss asks you to cover a shift tomorrow but you need that day to yourself, tell them “I can’t take that shift BUT I know Suzy has been looking for vacation coverage next weekend and I’m able to take her shift on Saturday.” You DO NOT have to give them a “but”, however if you’re new to saying no this is a way to ease into the practice.
Boundaries with communication
Are you a slave to email? Do you feel like you spend more time talking about the work you’re supposed to be doing than actually doing it? Yeah, I’ve been there.
There’s an easy fix… keep your work email separate from your personal email and turn off notifications on your phone and computer. I can feel some of your FOMO as I’m writing this. It will be ok! Set aside an allotted time every workday to check your email (or a few times) and give yourself a time limit to write your responses. This will increase your efficiency, thus allowing you to get more work done.
Repeat for any other communication platforms like Slack and text.
Can’t sleep one night and decide to make productive use of your time by catching up on emails? Use the handy dandy “schedule send” feature! You can write emails to your heart’s content at 2am in the morning and still uphold your boundary by scheduling them all to go out the next day. This way you aren’t sending the message that it’s ok to send you emails at all hours of the day and night.
Boundaries with clients
Setting boundaries with clients is a sticky one but it’s incredibly important. I have a service-based business and coming from a customer service background, I am used to bending over backwards for clients. And don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of merit in going above and beyond for your clients and customers. The key here is going above and beyond without compromising your own well being.
The most important boundary I recommend setting with clients is…wait for it…communication! Like I mentioned above, you don’t want to be a slave to your email or Slack or Zoom etc. Sometimes you have a really needy client who emails 10 times a day with questions and concerns. Now answering those 10 emails every day will prevent you from actually doing the work you were hired to do, but if you don’t answer them your client probably won’t have the best experience working with you.
There’s a happy medium. First, try to anticipate their needs by sending them an update before they can even inquire about one (this goes for bosses and coworkers too). Second, if you’re going deep into work mode and you’ve noticed they’ve sent you five messages, just shoot them a quick note saying “I’m working on X today and need to turn off all distractions so I can work efficiently. I will get back to you [insert timeframe here]” – could be the end of the day or within 24 hours or on Monday, whatever feels appropriate for you.
Your client (or boss/coworker) will feel seen and heard (which is very important btw) and you have set a boundary that allows you to get your work done!
One strategy that makes upholding your boundaries a whole lot easier is stating them from day one. When a new client signs on to work with me, I send them a standard “Let’s Get Started” email. This details everything from what the project process will look like, to their payment schedule, to the best ways to communicate. That way if any boundaries are crossed, I can go back and reference the email OR if I choose to open my gate and go above and beyond for a client, they are SUPER grateful because they know it’s a special exception (hello VIP service).
At the end of the day, boundaries are very personal. What is okay for one person might not be okay for another person. It will take trial and error to figure out what your boundaries are. When I first started my business I was very rigid, trying to set boundaries like “I never start work until 9am” and “I’m only available for phone calls on Tuesdays.” That didn’t even work for a week, so I adjusted my boundaries to be more flexible. Be open to adjusting, reinforcing or flat out burning yours.
The last strategy I have for you when it comes to boundaries is…
Respect the boundaries other people have set.
You can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. Your coworker tells you they can’t talk right now because they are on deadline and need to finish this project, DON’T TALK TO THEM. Even if Suzy in marketing just started dating Brad from the executive team and you really want to dish about it. Put the energy that you want out into the universe, i.e. uphold other’s boundaries and they will uphold yours.
If you’re struggling with this whole idea of boundaries, figuring out what yours are, how to uphold your boundaries, and how to talk about them, I highly recommend working with my friend and Spiritual Biz Coach, Paige Kane. Her 1:1 coaching program is the reason I am able to write this wonderful article on boundaries. Before her I was like “wtf does that word even mean!?”