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Managing your work boundaries for better balance, control and success

Boundaries come up regularly in coaching

  • What's ok, what's not?

  • What will you allow in and what will you keep out?

  • What will you accept and what won't you accept?

  • How will you establish your boundaries?

  • How will you maintain or defend them?

Boundaries can relate to all sorts of things but this blog is focused on your work/workload boundary.

It's one of a series of blogs providing ideas on how to get better at time management and be more productive.

When it comes to the work you do (and don't do), boundary management will help you to

  • Achieve a better work/life balance

  • Feel more in control at work, rather than overwhelmed or stressed

  • Be more productive and perform better in the areas that count, which generally means you'll be more successful at work.

Good work boundary management is a fundamental part of good time management.

So what's in this blog...

  • What happens if you DON'T manage your work boundary?

  • How to become a boundary manager

  • Set your boundary

  • Managing your boundary with ruthless prioritisation

  • Defending your boundary

  • How else you can keep within your boundary

What happens if you DON'T manage your work boundary?

Failing to establish and maintain a work boundary is likely to lead to...


Working probably way more than your contracted hours per day in an attempt to keep up with your workload.

This means that you'll be getting paid less per hour than your contracted rate.

Suddenly that great salary or rate you negotiated has been eroded!


Feeling like you have more to do than you can cope with leads to stress, which doesn't feel nice. But because of the way your body and mind react to it, you also become more emotional and stop being able to think straight...which adds to the problem.

You get caught in a vicious downward stress cycle that comes with all sorts of mental and behavioural issues that impact your performance and productivity and ultimately your success.

You may even end up off sick or burnt out as a result of stress, in which case none of the things that you've been trying to do will get done. Or they'll end up with your colleagues and increase their workload and stress. Making the problem even bigger.

Overpromising and under-delivering

If you have a leaky boundary and try and do too much, you're more likely to miss something or not do something very well. Particularly as you're likely to be stressed.

And that isn't generally a recipe for success.

Your home life will suffer

Even if you manage to spend time at home, if you're stressed or preoccupied with work through poor boundary management, you're not likely to be the person you want to be in your time off.

You owe it to yourself and the people around you to establish and maintain your work boundary

How to become a boundary manager

The key thing is to make sure you're OK with becoming one. You need to give yourself permission to prioritise yourself and treat your time as precious.

Lots of people have an issue with this fundamental step as they associate it with being selfish. Their default is to put themselves last, or they are totally driven by wanting to please others.

If the benefits and risks above don't help you get over any internal blocks, then I'd recommend working with a coach to find a way to be OK with it and then...

Set your boundary

Make a commitment to only work a set number of hours a day.

Imagine you have commitments before and after work that you HAVE TO meet, like a major dental appointment for a painful tooth. Treat all of your own time with the same importance.

If you decide to do more than those hours, make that the exception and not the rule and do it consciously. Keep it temporary and build in extra self-care and support measures to look after yourself during that time.

Managing your boundary with ruthless prioritisation

How do you decide what to let in and what takes priority within your boundary?

Assess any new stuff
  • Do you have a really clear understanding of the task and the expectations around it?

    • When does it need to be done by? - not everything is urgent!

    • What does success look like? - not everything requires your definition of perfection, which will take longer than your 'fit for purpose' version.

    • How much time will the task need as a result?

  • Is it the right task? Does it seem like the right thing to do to meet the purpose or is there a better way?

  • Are you the right person to do it? Is it your task or should/could it sit with someone else? Make sure you only do the stuff that only you can do. If someone else can do it then consider delegating it.

Is there room for the task within your boundary?

Your time and energy are limited by your boundary.

As you know, you can't fit a pint into a half-pint glass without expecting some spillage.

And the same principle applies to your work boundary. So if you're not going to defend your boundary and keep the new task out, you need to

  • Think 'swap' rather than 'add'.

  • Be clear about what you're saying yes to and therefore what you're saying no to.

  • Everything that you say yes to that isn't already within your boundary means that something else has to drop out and become spillage!

So what do you need to do?...

Prioritise ruthlessly
  • How does the new task compare in priority to existing tasks?

  • What's most important within your boundary?

How do you decide? Here are a few things to consider when prioritising...

  • What tasks are most important in terms of your objectives/mission/purpose/situation?

  • What will you be most cross about leaving or not progressing today that you won't want to face again in the morning?

  • What will make you really happy if you get it done or at least make progress today?

  • Which stakeholder is this task for? How important is it for them? If you have multiple stakeholders all asking you to do stuff, what takes priority? How can you negotiate between them?

  • Is there someone (like your manager) who can provide clarity on how you should prioritise?

You'll find lots more methods of prioritising on the internet (e.g. the Eisenhower matrix). So have a look and experiment with any that appeal to you.

And if you're struggling (which many people do), you could also talk it through with a coach. A coach provides a different perspective and can challenge your thought processes. This can help you clarify the criteria you need to consider and the decisions you need to make.

Apply the same rules to meetings!

Meetings rob time and many people find they are in back-to-back meetings all day without actually having time to do any of the things they should be doing.

So it's a good idea to ask all of the same task questions above when considering meetings you're being asked to attend. Challenge your assumptions and challenge the organiser. Do you REALLY need to go? Could you rely on a delegate or provide input and not attend? If you rely on a delegate could you replace multiple meetings with a small number of catch-up meetings?

...and if you're the meeting organiser, make sure your meetings are necessary, efficient and only involve the people who you really need.

Defending your boundary

The most common reasons people end up with leaky boundaries are

  • Problems delegating - if that's you then check out this blog.

  • Not being able to SAY NO, even if you know it wouldn't get through your ruthless prioritisation process.

As for the reluctance to set a boundary in the first place, many people don't want to SAY NO because they don't want to appear selfish and they want to please people.

Others don't SAY NO because they don't want to appear negative, be judged as 'a jobs-worth', 'not a team player', lazy, unhelpful etc.

So you have to find a way to SAY NO in a way that's right for you and overcomes your internal objections to doing so.

The most popular ones that seem to work for the majority of my clients:

  • "No, because..." and explain your reasoning

  • "I'm going to have to say no I'm afraid. If I do this, I can't deliver that, which takes priority because..."

  • "No, but you can..." and provide a signpost to where they can get more help or find the answer for themselves.

  • "No, but let me explain what I would do..." so they can do it themselves.

How else can you keep within your boundary?

A coach can help you uncover and deal with common blockers that cause performance and productivity issues like

  • being a perfectionist

  • having imposter syndrome

  • having a lack of self-confidence

  • not being good at delegating.

They can also help you think through other options that could help, for example

  • Thinking through how to make the case for additional resources

  • Exploring different, more efficient ways of doing things so what you have to do takes you less time and feels easier.

Do you need to work on your boundary management?

If you'd like to


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