Saving Your Soul: How to Set (And Keep) Boundaries at Work

New year, same zoom meeting. I doubt I’m the only one who feels at less than full throttle walking into 2022. In fact, I know I’m not. LinkedIn is filled with stories about burnout, Omicron, and the Great Resignation (or the Great Reshuffle, for the optimists).

For a lot of people, the holidays weren’t as restorative as we hoped; 2022 is lacking in the energy and confidence we seek at the start of the New Year. Yet, there are still meetings to attend, metrics to hit, and goals to achieve.

Yet our personal sanity (or what’s left of it) still matters. In fact, it’s essential. And a lack of boundaries is the predecessor to burnout.

As LinkedIn News reported, “It’s increasingly easy to find yourself answering work emails late at night, from the couch. Yet, it shouldn’t be like this,” says Hamilton Chan, head of executive education at Loyola Law School. “Not only can establishing boundaries improve mental health and beat chronic burnout, it provides the space and structure for increased focus when we’re actually on the clock.”

Tempting as it may be to fall into the same “check my email one more time before bed” cycle this year, setting clearer boundaries can make you happier and more productive. Here are three tips to help:

  1. Be a cheerleader instead of the quarterback

Sometimes it’s the fear of missing out (fomo) that prompts us to break our own boundaries. Remember, you can be a cheerleader instead of a quarterback.

My friend Ryan Holmes shared this great “polite no” script earlier this week:

“Hey ______ , thanks for thinking of me. It sounds like a great idea but I just don’t have capacity at this time with (family/project) taking up a lot of my attention this year. I’ll be rooting for you from the sidelines.”

This talk track felt so much more authentic to me than the traditional ‘due to my bandwidth’ jargon. Because the truth is, I AM really excited for people. And I AM rooting for them. I WANT them to feel supported and excited, even if I can’t be with them every step of the way.

  1. Pick a physically absorbing hobby

Over the weekend I decided to watch the movie ‘Don’t Look Up.’ And I told myself, I’m going to put my phone down so I can really  “focus on the TV.”  Hello, focus on the television?! And that I had to consciously make myself do it!! That’s a tell.

If you’re anything like me, all it takes is a single *ping* to bring you back into your work inbox.

A physically absorbing hobby can help you maintain the ‘out of office’ boundary. That’s why I ride the Peloton (ok, I know there’s still a screen, but there is no inbox on that screen).

If you are struggling with boundaries mentally, try physical boundaries first. Put your phone in another room and focus on doing something tangible. It can be exercise (like Peloton) or even just a puzzle, a walk, or a color-by-number. Occupying yourself physically can be the catalyst to occupying yourself mentally.

  1. Make your goals more specific  

When your goals are specific, you’re more likely to recognize a boundary-breech: something that’s taking a whole lot of your brain space and not really contributing to the future you had in mind.

For example, if my goal is to “be a better leader,” it’s going to be impossible to discern what is or isn’t contributing to that. My employee asked for help with a customer escalation. I want to read this article about leadership. I should spend more time on strategic thinking. My team should have more learning and development opportunities. Is my feedback thorough enough?

The ways to be a better leader are endless. And if you pursue every single avenue, kiss your boundaries goodbye.

Contrast that vague goal with the more specific goal to “Give each person on my team 1 hour a week of dedicated, uninterrupted coaching.”  It becomes pretty clear what is aiding that goal, and what might be taking away from it.

If your day is not created by design, it will be created by default. Boundaries are a precursor to great work performance and a necessity for personal sanity.