How To Set Boundaries at Work – 4 Easy Tips

I have talked about drawing boundaries at work in the past in different forms. And today I wanted to share 4 things I’ve done over the years to set boundaries at work that can be helpful if you’re struggling with it. Now, let me start by saying that I’ve been there. I’ve worked crazy hours for a good few years. I cannot say I was ever overwhelmed as such, I am (or better said, used to be) a little bit of a workaholic in the end so I rather enjoyed it. However, over the years I realized that there are other ways of enjoying my time. And, especially, that at the end of the day if you were to calculate it, the pay per hour doesn’t really work out that well when you are putting in too many hours.

I also realized that keeping such a high pace is not really sustainable. So, over time I learned to take a step back and set boundaries at work. Here you can read an old post about my battle with drawing boundaries from a few years ago and it’s a story pretty much live from the trenches. More than a struggle to set boundaries with my manager or my clients, for me it was always about doing it with myself. I was the one always pushing for more. I’ve come a very long way since and I am quite proud of the progress. And especially. proud of the fact that I’ve sharply reduced my emotional attachment to work. It’s still there of course. I still value my career and growth, but it’s there in a much healthier dose.

Use the 80/20 rule to manage your workload

Nowadays, I manage my workload using the 80/20 rule. I try and focus on the 20% of the tasks that deliver 80% of the value and try not to fuss too much about the rest. It’s not always perfect and it does not apply 100% of the time. However, I got better at distinguishing the high-value tasks/activities/projects from the low-value ones. So much so, that doing overtime is not something I do anymore on a regular basis. I do it very rarely and I try to be intentional about it. And only if I feel that the value I get out of it is high enough.

To do that, I often need to also apply ruthless prioritization. Something that anyways is the core of my work as a Product Manager, which has helped to further hone in on it. One tool that I like to use is a simple Impact x Effort matrix. I try to categorize the work based on it and apply it as much as possible. Low-hanging fruits are my favorite. And you can use this to also communicate your priorities with your manager, clients, stakeholders, etc. I found that transparency helps. Usually, people don’t like to embark on high-complexity projects unless the returns are clearly there or it’s absolutely necessary such as for compliance and regulatory reasons. People are usually happy to save time and resources and this will also help to clear out a few additional things off your desk.

Start saying no more often and learn to push back

This one is walking on a fine line … and depends a lot on how you present yourself at work. What the relationship with your manager or your team looks like. How you communicate. It also depends on your goals and whether you are chasing a promotion. You can still be perceived as a high performer without overworking. But you will need to be more strategic as to the projects you pick and how you position your workload. E.g. don’t pick up low-value work and only spend your time on high-visibility work. Be also proactive about getting that visibility e.g. presenting results of specific projects, giving updates, etc… to really make your work visible. More visibility does not necessarily mean more work, especially if you are careful as to what you pick up, but more visibility means much more chances for landing a promotion, whereas low visibility definitely means no one will promote you too quickly. If that’s not your goal though, then a low-visibility strategy will work for you just fine. I am not here to judge that.

If you find it helps you, you can also push back more transparently. For example, make your current workload transparent, and prioritize new tasks ruthlessly. You can follow the rule of one in, one out. If your manager asks you to pick up a new task or responsibility and you cannot fit it in, simply let them know you will need to drop something else in order to manage a new task. Easy and simple.

Once you get a hang of it, you will find out you can do it without justifying yourself and elaborating too much as to why you’re saying no. But if you’re finding it difficult at the start, use these tips as props to help you get there. Another thing you will notice on the way is that people need to be “re-educated” when it comes to how work should work. For some people respecting somebody else’s working hours, priorities and boundaries doesn’t come so easily. And if that’s the case, don’t give up. Just keep at it and I promise you it will get easier and people will learn how to work with you.

Block your calendar

I spoke about the benefits of using calendar blockers already in other posts like this one. But aside from using it as a productivity tool to make sure you get enough focus time in and work on the important tasks, you can also use it to protect your time and set boundaries at work. If you always end up invited to meetings past your working hours, it’s time to do something about it. Start to say no to the meeting and block your calendar in advance.

You don’t need to give people an explanation. But if it makes you feel better, you can make up a reason at the start. Maybe that’s having a doctor’s appointment, or a family commitment, or attending a course. Use things that people would surely understand you can’t miss. And use whatever helps you to say no to that meeting. Having a solid excuse is useful at the start to get you more comfortable with saying no. Once you get the hang of it, it will get easier to decline those meetings without any reason.

Don’t bring work home with you

With work from home it’s even more difficult to “leave work at work”. However, it’s not impossible, and it’s an excellent way to set boundaries at work. Here are a few things I do that help me keep my work thoughts away during my non-work time.

If you can afford it, simply don’t install work apps on your phone. If you can’t avoid that, then make sure you hide them in a separate folder. You can even move that folder on your secondary screen and of course, turn notifications off. I personally, like the pull approach with work apps instead of push. If I need to check my email then I can do it myself, rather than being notified about it. On the newest iOS version, you can also set up different Focus presets and customize which apps can send notifications during this time. Have a preset for Work time, Focus time, or Personal time. This works both ways. You can cut distractions when you work and want to focus. And vice versa, you can make sure you are not getting personal time interrupted by work-related updates. Win-win. For me, it works wonders and while it’s a small thing, it brought significant improvements.

For those cases when you find it challenging to close the workday, I’d suggest to finish your workday with a “transitional” activity. This can be going for a walk, or getting a gym session in, doing some yoga, whatever helps with switching the context.

On Friday evenings I also love to clear out my desk. I swap my work laptop for my personal one and also my mouse and keyboard. This serves two purposes: one, it puts work off my desk for the weekend, and two it helps me jump on personal projects much easier and more eagerly because I have my tools at hand and the desk is much prettier. These are the things that work for me, but I encourage you to explore what works for you too.

This is it, these are the four easy tips to help you set boundaries at work. I am curious to hear. What works for you? Do you have other tips to share?

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