Marsha Egan explains why we need to set boundaries

Have you ever seen a circus plate-spinner? Those people who spin flatware on tall spikes, dashing frantically from plate to plate to keep them airborne as, if they let their guard down for a moment, the whole lot will come crashing to the floor? Do you ever feel like that? Like there’s so much going on and so many “plates in the air” that you simply can’t cope? Do you feel like there’s no way out of this crazy circus?

Let me tell you that you’re far from alone. Millions of people all over the world, just like you, are stressed at their seemingly endless to do lists, their apparent inability to get anything accomplished, and their 24/7 “always on” lifestyle.

Our modern lifestyles not only seem to be getting faster and faster, but also are becoming increasingly blurred, thanks to our updated technology. Communications technology has blurred the line between our home and work lives, as well as the line between working and leisure time as global communications put us in the position where we could work 24/7 if we allowed ourselves to, not to mention the tasks we all take on on behalf of others.

This is why we need to set boundaries.

If we don’t set boundaries for ourselves, we risk pushing ourselves beyond what is sensible or healthy. By setting clear limits for ourselves both at work and in our home lives, we are providing ourselves with the tools to find the healthy balance we will need to provide energy to each aspect of our lives. Setting boundaries gives us the opportunity to get stuff which is important to us done.

Set your boundaries

Step one in building boundaries is to decide what boundaries are important to you. For example, if you have young children, you might want to avoid business calls at home after 6pm except for emergencies, to allow you to have some quality time putting your children to bed. Alternatively, you might value your lunch hours to clear your head and recharge, so one of your boundaries might be that you do not schedule meetings in that time. The clearer you are on what your boundaries are and what you will and won’t allow, the easier you will find it to communicate those boundaries to others.

Decide what is important to you

A friend of mine is an editor and works from a home office with clients from Canada to Australia. She works flexible hours to fit with her clients in different time zones. However, she found that clients were waking her up in the middle of the night with phone calls. She decided that it was important to her to get a full night’s sleep and, both because of her religious faith and for family reasons, she wouldn’t work on Sunday so she could spend the day with her family and attending church. She explained to her clients, who understood that they would get a better service from her if she had a good night’s sleep.

Your priorities and values inform your boundaries

We all have different priorities and values, which will inform the boundaries we set for ourselves. Everyone’s boundaries will be different, and should be based around protecting whatever is most important to you.

Personal Values

An example of boundaries formed through personal values in action is a situation where your values are being challenged by what you’re being asked to do. You may, for example, feel that your children should come first while they are small, yet you are being asked to cover evening shifts. By acknowledging to yourself that doing those shifts would prevent you seeing your children properly on those days, which would cross one of your boundaries, it gives you the power to politely refuse.

Job Responsibilities

Another example is when someone asks you to carry out tasks that are well outside your job responsibilities. In these instances, it is important that you focus on your ability to get your own work completed on time to the required standard ahead of your wish to help others. This is not to say that you shouldn’t help others – quite the reverse, but when the work of others infringes on your own work, your boundaries will have been severely compromised.

Let your boundaries work for you, not the other way around

A client of mine avoids evening and weekend meetings, as that is her family time. A good opportunity arose and the person involved wanted to meet with her in the evening. She politely explained that she didn’t do evenings and weekends, and they arranged a breakfast meeting that worked well for both and was a great success.

Share your boundaries

Once you have your boundaries in place, it’s important (not to mention helpful!) that those around you understand what they are. This doesn’t need to be some terribly formal announcement, just bring them up in conversation with those that need to know. Keep it respectful and positive. For example, there’s no need to send out a company-wide memo announcing that your smartphone gets switched off at 7pm prompt, just politely mention to those you work with that you regularly check your email until 7pm.

Flex your boundaries

It’s important to be flexible, especially when the boundaries you are setting involve your work. Don’t be a slave to them – setting boundaries doesn’t mean you can’t change them on an exceptional basis. In those circumstances, it’s usually possible to work out a win/win arrangement which benefits both your goals and those of your employer. Being too rigid about your boundaries, especially at work, could be career limiting, which is the opposite of what you’re aiming for.

As the saying goes, knowing what you stand for limits what you’ll fall for, so know what your priorities and values are and honor them by letting them set your boundaries. This is a powerful tool to help conquer the overload we all experience.

Marsha Egan, CPCU, PCC is CEO of The Egan Group, a Florida-based workplace productivity coaching firm. She is the author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence. She can be reached at, where you can also read her blog. To listen ... (Read More)

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