Want To Be Happy At Work? Learn How To Set Boundaries

What would happen if you drew boundaries around what you would do—and would not do—at work? One of the things we’ve found in working with people at hundreds of organizations is that employees who are the happiest and most productive are those who have the capacity to set boundaries.

In a world where business is conducted 24/7 and technology has made it possible to stay in touch at all times, boundaries have become blurred or nonexistent. Many people are never really “off” anymore.

In some organizations, even the concept of boundaries is alien. People are expected to be available as needed. That’s why you have to set boundaries for yourself.

A boundary is a limit you set that says, “This is what’s okay, and this is what is not okay.” Most importantly, a boundary is something that you personally honor and respect. It has to start on the inside. If you don't defend your own boundaries—and people find out that you don't—it can lead to a lot of hand-wringing, hard feelings, and frustration in the end.

For example, suppose you set a boundary that you don’t respond to email between 6:00 and 9:00 at night, but occasionally you end up responding. As a result, people are going to say, “This is a person I can call and ask to do things after hours.” Now you’ve set yourself up for workload balance issues as you wrestle with the need to get things done but still try to protect your down time.

It’s a balancing act

In today's weak employment environment, many people are timid about defending their boundaries. The fear is that if you uphold a boundary, you will be seen as someone who is not really committed to the organization. But in our experience, more often the opposite is true. People who work hard and maintain boundaries typically get more respect—and better results—than people who allow others to take their time for granted.

If you’re a person who has not set boundaries before, one of the best first steps is to create a list. This means writing down every single thing that you are working on or that you are worried about. Getting things down on paper will help you see exactly what you are up against.

Now, meet with your manager.

A tool that we created called the Performance Planner Top 10 can help with this. It is designed to help you and your manager rank order your priorities. The process begins with you and your boss each creating a separate list of the things you believe you are being held accountable for in your job. This alone is an eye-opener for many people. There are almost always large discrepancies between the two lists.

After you and your boss have created individual lists with the items you think you should be working on, go a step further and prioritize them. What are the things that are most important? What are the items that can be let go? Most people perform best when they can focus on a limited number of things. If you have twelve priorities, you really have no priorities—just a lot of stress. Use this tool to negotiate agreed-upon priorities.

Take action

Once priorities are set, it’s time to get down to work. David Allen, a productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, has a great system that works especially well for sorting through your task list. Allen believes that with any to-do list you have four possible responses:

  • Do it. These are the things that you can stop worrying about by just knocking them out. His suggestion is that if you can do something in two minutes or less, just do it.
  • Defer it. This means putting the item on the back burner—in good conscience—and just leaving it there.
  • Delegate it.  Find someone else to give the project to.
  • Drop it. Just let it go.

Use these four actions to address each of the daily tasks that come your way. The important concept is to address each issue only once and be done with it. If you delay, those seemingly minor issues will subvert and drain your energy. When worries roll around in your head—or cause you to roll around on your pillow at night—no one wins.

Restore balance today

Restore your workload balance by setting clear boundaries and prioritizing your work. Take the time to sit down with your manager and review all of the tasks you are currently involved with. Identify those tasks that are most important and those that can be dropped, delegated, or deferred. You’ll be surprised at the positive impact it will have on your work. Do it today!

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter at @KenBlanchard or@LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead< and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user paraflyer]

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