I had a job a few years ago where I was so stressed, that every Sunday night I started feeling sick. I knew that in just a few hours, I would need to go back to work, into a job that was overwhelming. I was good at my job, but the company was so big that I just couldn’t keep up with the amount of work. It was exhausting.
I already worked late nights and weekends to try to keep up, and my social life had basically evaporated.
And I was miserable.
I didn’t have any hobbies. I didn’t have many friends. And I would never achieve the big dreams I had for my life at this rate.
While I was searching for a new job, but I knew these things take time. It might be six months before I could find something I wanted. So I needed a middle ground to help me regain some sanity in my job – so I needed to try something new at work.
A friend told me to try setting boundaries around work. Setting boundaries would mean that I wasn’t constantly stressed about work and I would actually have time for my hobbies, make new friends and plan my big dreams.
Here’s what I learned.
Why set boundaries?
Our brains simply work better with rest. That’s a fact. In order to solve complex problems, us humans need rest, relaxation and sleep.
It’s kind of ironic, but taking time not thinking about work, makes you more effective at work.
Setting boundaries is a really simple way ensuring this happens.
Here are some techniques to help…
1. Setting realistic timelines
One of the big tricks for setting boundaries is to set expectations before we do something.
Let’s say your boss says “I need you to create this 50-page report that I need to present next month”. You think it will probably take five hours to make.
You could say:
a) “sure, I can do it overnight!”
b) Sure, I can do it in two weeks”.
And they will expect it in whatever timeframe you say. So if you give them the shorter timeframe because you’re feeling anxious – remember that they will expect it in that timeframe. If you give them the longer one – they will expect it then.
From their end, they need it in a month. But all you’ve done it made it a bit easier on yourself to achieve it because you aren’t rushing.
Now, this example might sound a little silly, but it’s pretty common that we add more to our plate, and we set unrealistic timeframes and expectations ourselves.
The thing is, other people don’t know how long it takes to do a task. They don’t know how much work you have on.
So the next time someone asks some something to be done, think about how long it will take, and double it. Then, tell them that new deadline.
You would be amazed at how often people are happy with that longer deadline. There are very few legitimate emergencies in this world (unless, perhaps, you work in emergency services!) so suggest a longer timeframe so you’ve got time to balance your life, and see what the other person says.
Sure, in some cases, they will need something done faster, which you could accommodate. But again – set expectations: “Next time, I will need a week’s notice for this kind of project”.
Setting timelines expectations that give you time to breathe is a magic trick and it works wonders.
Now that we’ve covered off setting expectations, let’s get to the real nitty-gritty of setting boundaries.
2. No email outside of work
I wanted to do my work in the office, and only in the office. The simplest way to do that was to remove my email from my phone. This meant that when I was at work, I was at work. And when I was at home, I was at home.
And, let’s be honest, if you’re in a 9-to-5 job, no one will be able to do anything about an email you send at 7pm until the next day anyway, so there’s no point sending it at 7pm. It just means your workday is mentally extended into time you’re not being paid to work.
Again, you can totally set expectations around this. Tell your colleagues you don’t check your email outside of 9-to-5. Tell your boss that they can call you if there is ever a legitimate emergency for something that can’t wait until the next day. Put an out-of-office autoresponder on your computer overnight letting colleagues know that you don’t check email overnight.
3. Have a lunch break
When I started having a lunch break away from my computer, it was nothing glamorous. I just walked around the block, with a sandwich, found a patch of sun between some buildings, and stood there for a few minutes.
I found it handy to do a mindfulness exercise to pull me from my head and into the now: I did a ‘senses scan’ where I went through each of my five senses to see what I could see, hear, smell, taste and touch at that moment. It was a great way to get out of my head.
The benefits, however, were massive: just using that time to walk, breathe and reflect on my morning. It gave me a mental break, time to connect the dots and solve challenges from the morning so I would be ready with a fresh perspective for the afternoon.
Putting a lunch break in my diary and ensuring I physically left the office made a massive difference.
4. Leaving work on time
Leaving work on time was one of the biggest challenges. My workday officially ended at 5pm, but I struggled to leave before 7pm. I always found there was ‘one more thing’ to do.
This required a multi-pronged attack to work on this one!
Firstly, I needed to set the expectation with my colleagues that I was leaving at 5. Let your work buddies know that you need to leave at 5 that day at the start of the day, so they remind you to leave. One tactic I also tried was to actually book an event in the evening – like a games night with friends – so I actually had to leave on time until I was used to the fact that yes, the world would keep spinning without me in the office.
The next trick was that I put a reminder in my calendar, not at 5pm when I needed to leave, but at 4pm (a full hour before I needed to leave!). That reminder was to tell me that I needed to review my to-do list for the day, prioritise what needed to be done that day, and to put everything else on the to-do list for tomorrow. At that point, I looked at what I could actually do in the next hour and left the rest for tomorrow.
Creating a to-do list for the next day is a really great way to unwind at the end of the day to ‘leave work at work’, but also help you get focussed and into work immediately the next day because you know what you need to do as soon as you get in.
5. Keeping meetings on time
One of the biggest time saps of all time was meetings at work. I’d be invited to a million meetings a day just to ‘be looped in’. It would take up most the day and I’d have no time left for my work. And, then I found myself working late to try to do my real work.
So, I changed the way I did meetings. I cut them out from my day as much as I could.
Firstly – it’s about ensuring every meeting has an objective with a clear action. For example “The purpose of this meeting is to decide xyz.” If you’ve been invited to a meeting without a clear objective, write back to the meeting creator and ask what the specific objective of the meeting is. Otherwise, it all gets a bit waffly and turns into a total time suck.
Turn up to a meeting early or time and set the culture and expectations that meetings start on time. If everyone isn’t there, begin anyway, because time is precious. People who are running late will learn over time that meetings start – and end – on time and that it’s more awkward for them to turn up late and waste people’s time.
When you’re in the meeting, the meeting also needs to be kept on topic. If a meeting goes off and into a separate topic, either assign that as a task for someone to research further or move it to a separate meeting.
If a meeting is getting into a circular discussion with no result, turn that into an action item – have someone research that specific point that people are stuck on, and email it around to everyone after the meeting, so the discussions can progress.
Assign actions to specific people – not just to ‘anyone’. ‘Anyone’ always thinks it’s ‘someone else’! It makes clear next steps for everyone.
Ensure the meeting meets it’s objective on time. If it’s ten minutes until the end of the meeting, just remind everyone “we came here to come up with a solution for xyz – we’ve got ten minutes left and we’ve all got busy days, can we focus on xyz for the next ten minutes?”
I also went super old-school, and wore a real watch to ensure I could discreetly look at the time, without looking like I was secretly Snapchatting the meeting with my big old bulky phone.
A few other ideas you can try:
- Ask HR to run training in your business on how to run effective meetings so everyone in your business has the same approach to keeping on time, agenda and taking action.
- See if you need to be in that meeting at all. If it’s just so you’re across the new plans for something – can you just be emailed about it?
6. Prioritise and push back
Sometimes you are actually given too much work from your boss. In this case, you need to prioritise or push back. You only have eight hours a day at work, and if you’ve been given a bunch of projects which take longer that eight hours to do, you need to reassess your workload. It might be chatting to your boss and asking them which tasks are actually critical to the company. It might be sharing the work amongst the team. It might be pushing projects back a few months. In the end, having an honest conversation with your boss about the work you’ve got is important.
One simple thing which really helps with this is evidence. If you track how long it takes to do a task, you can go to your boss and show them why you need support. Let’s say you’re editing videos and it takes on average three hours to edit, and they want you to do three in a day – that takes nine hours, not eight. If you use a timetracking app (Toggl is one that is free) over the course of a week or a month and track your different tasks, you can really clearly show how long different tasks take in order to better balance your work.
7. Share the love
This is one which a lot of people struggle with: if you’ve got too much on your plate, can you ask for help, or ask someone else to do it for you?
Let’s say you need to create a weekly report each week. It takes three hours on a Monday and it makes your week really stressful trying to do it and your regular work each Monday.
If you delegate this task to a new employee, it might take three weeks to train them and guide them to ensure they are up to scratch – but then that task is off your plate.
Learning that you don’t need to do everything, you don’t need to fix everything, you don’t need to solve everything is a massive realisation that helped me.
And, of course, we’re human. We can’t do everything. I’m not the best in the world at everything. I’m good at a few things. For other things, it helps to connect with and collaborate with other people who are better at those things. If we think big picture and ‘what is the best way to do this task for this company’ – sometimes the answer is not you.
And that’s okay. Because there are loads of other things you are good at and you’ve got value in the world outside of the tasks you do for work.
What I learned
Through setting boundaries, I got to work on time, I left on time so I suddenly had hours left to make new hobbies, friends, and… well, live my life.
Setting lunch breaks and writing a to-do list at the end of the day were great approaches to help me unwind throughout the week.
Restructuring my workload through managing meeting times, prioritising my workload and delegating tasks also meant I had more time in my workday to finish my work.
I was working smarter at work, not longer hours.
Rest, rejuvenation and time off are so essential to helping us work better at work.
So look after the one resource you can never replace: you.
Want to try one of the items on this list? Integrate one item into your day this week and practise it. You’ll get better over time!