When people think about setting healthy boundaries, it is usually in the context of friendships, family, and personal relationships. Boundaries are an important tool for setting the basic limits and rules for how we wish others to treat us, and they are essential to good emotional health and wellbeing. Boundary setting can seem like a daunting task at first. It is easy to see tending to one’s own needs and saying no to a friend, colleague, or partner as a selfish act that will create barriers and tension.
The prospect of setting healthy workplace boundaries can feel even more intimidating because of hierarchy and structure and a fear of being seen as uncooperative by colleagues. In a working environment, where long hours and always being contactable is normalized by many, one can feel an implicit expectation to follow suit or otherwise risk being seen as less committed and resilient. Yet, professional workplace boundaries actually work to the contrary. Defining boundaries enables you to take control of your time and protect your energy, which ultimately serves to make you more efficient and productive in your work. Equally, learning to set healthy professional boundaries makes it easier to maintain equilibrium in your work-life balance and prevent excessive levels of stress.
In 2020, many people made the unexpected transition from office-based roles to working from home. Makeshift home-offices and endless zoom meetings have created a very different working environment. While working from home has obvious benefits, such as no commute, greater flexibility, and greater autonomy, it also has potential pitfalls. In the absence of traditional office boundaries and structure, there can be an unspoken assumption that we are, and must always be, available, and all too easily time management and work-life balance can be eroded.
So, how can you maintain balance in the working day, whether that be in a traditional office setting or when working from home? The answer is by resetting and communicating professional boundaries that align with how you work best and that will protect your wellbeing. There are simple actions you can take to regain ownership of your working day. Think of these actions as your own privately agreed set of non-negotiables that are communicated to others and actively enforced by you on a daily basis, flexing them only when absolutely necessary to get the job done. The boundaries that you need and feel able to put in place will depend on your own individual preferences, as well as your job and organization.
Here are a few examples of small actions that I found easy to implement and maintain in order to protect my time and reclaim the working day. Hopefully they will feel attainable and will serve as a guide for setting your own workplace boundaries.
Block out time in your calendar
How many times have you had meetings droppinto to your calendar without prior consultation and suddenly you have another day of back-to-back meetings? Time blocking is a good solution. This involves scheduling your to-do list against your calendar and blocking time out in advance to focus on specific tasks. It is helpful to label these blocks so that when colleagues are looking to book time in your calendar, they know when is and is not a convenient time. Labels can be in the form of a reminder of the task you intend to focus on, such as, “write report” or “prepare presentation” or simply “DO NOT BOOK OVER.” This strategy also allows you to create structure in your working day and to stay accountable to yourself.
Prioritize your priorities
Managing your daily workload means prioritising what needs to be done. Does the following scenario sound familiar? You have mapped out your week or day and then ad-hoc requests from co-workers, with quick turnaround times, completely disrupt your plan. Instead of bending immediately to others’ demands, pause briefly to ask yourself, Is their priority my priority? Is it really as urgent as they suggest? It is reasonable to ask the person some follow-up questions in order to determine the true urgency of the matter for yourself and whether or not it absolutely has to be done at that moment. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “My current priorities will not allow me to do that today, but I can do it on Friday.” Avoid putting yourself under pressure and sacrificing your own workload in order to please others.
Designate time for emails
Do you feel like a slave to your inbox? The moment an email lands, you feel obligated to read it and respond promptly. Learn instead to be the master. Have designated times in the day when you review your inbox and respond to emails. Outside of these times, ensure that your email client is closed. Be ruthless and efficient when you do decide to check your inbox, be it twice or three times a day. Think, “Do I reply and file, delegate or delete?” Mastering your inbox will free up more time to be productive. If someone has an urgent request, they will call, so do not worry about missing an important email.
Take a break
We are not meant to stare relentlessly at a computer for 8+ hours a day and not move our bodies. You are entitled to a break and you can make time, even if it is just 10-15 minutes to get up, walk around and shift your focus. You will feel rejuvenated and more focused when you sit back down. Block out 30 minutes for lunch in your calendar and set the status to out of office. This will serve as a daily prompt to take a time out while signalling to colleagues that you are unavailable during this time. Alternatively, you might choose shorter 10-minute breaks that are spread across the day.
Have a ritual to signify the transition from work to home life
Making the mental switch to home-mode and downtime can be difficult when your office is only a few steps away in another room and work feels omnipresent. When working from home, it is beneficial to have a ritual that signals to the brain that you are now entering another part of the day. While the usual office to home commute can feel laborious, it does create that transition from work to home and allows the brain to switch off. You can make that same distinction using a different transition ritual, such as going for a walk, doing a workout, calling a friend, listening to music, or doing a meditation. The ritual does not have to be the same each day. Just focus on picking an activity that you enjoy and that helps you to relax.
Setting and maintaining boundaries at work can feel uncomfortable, but start small, and the more you do it, the more empowered you will feel. Make time to set your own non-negotiable boundaries and begin to see the benefits.