Setting boundaries is absolutely critical to success at work and in life more broadly. Here is why doing so is so critical.
One of the biggest challenges we face in our careers these days is the issue of never being away from work. We are always pushing and never off. Even vacation is disappearing for the most senior professionals.
Sure, vacation still exists in name, but it would often be more aptly named “working from the location of your choice.”
Many of us have one smartphone for both work and personal use, and this means that even on vacation you check your email periodically. Maybe respond to a couple of the important ones.
And here is the story we tell ourselves to feel okay about it: “Well, if I don’t check it then there will be a giant pile when I get home, so this makes it easier.” Net result: a half vacation where you are never fully unplugged.
The Need to Feel Valued
Vacation though, is the least of our issues. After all, those only come a few times a year. The bigger issue is nights and weekends. How many times do we go home from work, turn our attention to our kids, then sneak a peak at our phone periodically when we think our kids might not be looking.
I know I’m guilty of it. Much less so than I used to be, but I still do it.
The challenge is that we never get a chance to unplug from the stress of the workplace. –Just knowing that your iPhone might have an important message on it means you don’t mentally relax… and of course the ping of a message coming in also stimulates cortisol and a shot of adrenaline, which can be somewhat addicting.
The important message that comes to us on our phone also makes us feel wanted… and valued. In other words, we have a device that we keep with us almost all the time that serves the purpose of making us feel good about ourselves… even if what is wanted from us is more work.
Of course, technology is just an enabler of workplace productivity with a tendency to reach into our lives. While we may tend to think that the late night and weekend work related emails are unfair, in fact they aren’t. They are just a function of the core reason most companies exist: to maximize shareholder value. Driven, ambitious leaders tend to push their teams to increase productivity, which is actually a very good thing.
Of course, working all hours of the day and night doesn’t increase productivity; it actually decreases it. Worse, it tends to take a toll on your personal relationships and your health, and this is where we need to push back and take accountability ourselves.
Beyond the research around our inability to focus for periods of more than 90-120 minutes at a time without a break, the fact that working all the time reduces productivity is pretty common sense:
- Ideas tend to come to us when we are out for a walk, in the shower, or otherwise doing something other than working.
- When we aren’t taking care of ourselves physically, we have less energy for work.
- When things aren’t going well at home in the relationships that matter most to us, our ability to focus at work is greatly compromised.
So what do you do about it? After all, there is an endless push to produce.
One of the most important things you can do is set boundaries.
Setting boundaries at work is really, really hard to do. If you want to get promoted rapidly you pretty much say yes to things (at least early in your career) and as you move mountains, you get a reputation for great results which puts even greater demand on your time.
In other words, after a while it can become difficult to establish boundaries. Yet it is critical.
I believe that the most important boundaries you can set are those where you will spend focused, attentive time with your family. As an example, being home for dinner with your family each weekday and having your phone off during that time.
Another example is a weekend event/routine that is important to your family, for example going to church, going for a hike together, or otherwise.
The point is to block this time off. Yes, you may have to adjust these routines periodically to accommodate work related events/issues, but the point is to establish these boundaries.
As I’ve shared in the past (see Career Coaching: Build Your Dream Life…Or Else), I’ve found setting boundaries to be extremely helpful to me personally. In fact, they have actually served to increase my personal productivity at work and increase my happiness at home. (-Amazing how these two things tend to go hand-in-hand, isn’t it?)
Now if you are looking to set some boundaries, there are two ways to approach it:
- The invisible boundary – i.e. set a boundary but don’t tell anyone about it until it is necessary.
- Publicly declaring a boundary – i.e. letting people know about certain boundaries on your time in advance
Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, but in either case sooner or later you are going to end up saying no (see How to Say No for details on how to do this effectively).
Let me offer one other clarifying note. Very frequently people think that a change in jobs is the solution to increasing their quality of life. In some cases this is true, certain corporate cultures are not conducive to a high quality of life. However, in the case of most organizations, the issue is often really about setting boundaries for yourself.
In other words, your quality of life is in your control.
A firm will take from you; that is in its nature. Your obligation is to provide as much value as you possibly can over the long term for that organization, which is most often accomplished by simply ensuring that you draw certain boundaries which allow you to take care of yourself… to sharpen the saw as they say.
My recommendation: take time to write down what your boundaries are specifically. Whether time with family, time to work out during the week, ability to participate in an event you enjoy, etc. Committing to how you will invest your time is critical to getting the results in life you want.