For some, setting boundaries comes easy. For those who struggle with people-pleasing, it can feel like an insurmountable task.
In any case, setting boundaries in the workplace is different from putting your foot down with a family member or friend: There are professional expectations on the table with both your coworkers and boss. But here’s a helpful reframe: Setting boundaries at work can actually make you more productive, so it benefits everyone involved.
“It’s hard to be productive without boundaries. Boundaries help us determine what we won’t do so that we have the time and mental energy available to work on the projects that matter most,” says Sarah Ohanesian, productivity coach, speaker and trainer.
“Boundaries at work skyrocket your productivity since they’re the way we define what we will and will not do. They help manage the expectations that other people have for us. And, boundaries help us make better and faster decisions.”
Common misconceptions about boundaries
Before diving into tips to set boundaries while working, it’s important to understand some of the common misconceptions that might be holding you back.
“We tend to think that boundaries have to be harsh and rigid like yes/no; black/white; I won’t do that/I will do this. Therefore, we tend to feel mean when we set or enforce boundaries,” explains Ohanesian.
“Instead, think of boundaries like a set of parameters that you set for yourself and communicate to others. I often describe boundaries as playing in the sandbox. Boundaries give people a safe sandbox to play in. They are simply a way to have parameters, or guidelines.”
If you still feel guilty about refusing to do something or communicating your needs, remember that some of your role models are probably really good at it. “The pushback I get from people around boundaries is that they feel guilty about having them. We forget that the most successful people in the world have boundaries. They are good at kindly saying no so they can focus on their key priorities and what really matters to them.”
Setting different types of workplace boundaries
Ready to practice setting boundaries at work? Here’s how to go about it in different settings.
This is your workspace and personal space. Even in an open office floor plan or while working from home, have a dedicated space for your things so you start each day with the right tools and info immediately, recommends Ohanesian.
“Your space can and should be part of your productivity process so you’ll want to make sure no one else messes with it!”
“Do you take on too many things? Are you saying yes when you want to say no? Are you on too many committees? Involved in too many projects? Staying up too late? Do you try to make things perfect? Do you have enough time for yourself?”
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, it’s time to set some time boundaries. “Time boundaries help us make sure we are not spending too much time on things that either aren’t worth it or are out of alignment with our priorities,” says Ohanesian.
Sometimes your schedule is under control but you are struggling with a toxic coworker. In that case, you want to think of setting a people boundary. Think about it in terms of who is making you uncomfortable and why, and which relationships need an adjustment. This process is not always synonymous with cutting a person off, but it can mean renegotiating the terms of your dynamic and interactions.
Now, if you work in a team context, it’s important for everyone to be on the same page as far as expectations. Providing guidelines for how you’re going to work together can save you misunderstandings and trouble down the road — and it’s also a form of boundary-setting.
“It’s critical to make sure everyone is on the same page. I recommend outlining these boundaries with your whole team, department, and company. This can be setting office hours or workplace cultural norms. There are all kinds of boundaries that can make teams more successful,” says Ohanesian.
You’ve heard of Zoom fatigue. It’s the kind of thing that could be prevented with healthy boundaries around tools and tech such as “limiting the number of times that you’re going to check email and Slack during the day” or “determining the appropriate response time to your emails,” according to Ohanesian.
“Will you be expected to respond to emails after these hours? Or perhaps, asking clients to only use one mode of communication to contact you?”
Things to avoid when setting boundaries at work
She also suggests avoiding the following habits for best results while flexing your newfound boundaries at the office.
A lack of communication
“Once you know what your boundaries are, you have to actually communicate your boundaries. Setting boundaries is great. But what good are our boundaries if we don’t tell anyone what our boundaries are?” she says.
“Clearly communicate those boundaries you’ve set to your coworkers so you are all on the same page.”
Saying yes right away
As an effective professional, it’s critical to avoid committing to things right away, even when you want to help and don’t technically mind. “When you are talented, capable, and good at things, people will ask you to do more and more. This can lead to burnout and overwhelm,” says Ohanesian. “So, make sure that when people ask you to do things, you know that you don’t have to automatically say yes.” Here’s what you can say instead:
- “I need to check…”
- “I need 24 hours to decide…”
- “I’ll get back to you…”
- “Can you send me more info on that to look at?”
Expecting others to uphold your boundaries
Finally, remember that boundaries are about you, not other people. Expecting others to go out of their way to be mindful of your boundaries is not only not realistic, but it can also be harmful.
“No one cares about your boundaries as you do. So instead of blaming other people for ignoring your boundaries, take control of your boundaries and kindly communicate and enforce them.”