Boundaries are hard – especially at work. We do everything it takes to get the job done but without clear boundaries we may set unrealistic expectations, say “yes” to more than we can handle and fall into people-pleasing mode. Think of boundaries as invisible limits that help us prioritise and focus on what is important. Setting clear boundaries between our professional and personal lives helps us take care of ourselves first, so we are able to bring our best selves to work.

Why is setting boundaries important?

To sum it up; you must put on your oxygen mask first. When you’re on a plane, and there’s an incident of low cabin pressure, the air hostess will instruct you to put on your oxygen mask before you try to help others put on theirs. This is for the simple reason that if you try to help someone else before putting your mask on first, you could pass out from a lack of oxygen. Putting your mask on first enables you to focus on helping others who may need your help. When it comes to boundaries, if we don’t look after ourselves first, we run the risk of being overworked, exhausted, and frustrated.

Boundaries encourage us to have dedicated time for our work and not allow it to spill over into our personal lives. Here’s how to establish work boundaries and stick to them:

Be clear about your boundaries

Before communicating your boundaries to your colleagues, make sure you understand why they’re important to you and your work. It’s easy to let the apologies creep in but they can dilute the message you want to send. Communicating that you sign off at a certain time every day, letting your team know you only respond to emails during specific hours or that you’re out of the office can help assert clear boundaries.

Manage expectations

Letting your colleagues know when you can complete a task builds trust and protects yourself from overcommitting. Or communicating to your team that you need to complete a project just before your upcoming leave can set clear boundaries. Managing expectations ensures everyone is on the same page and that everyone’s needs are considered.

Beware of burnout

Lack of boundaries at work leads to a decrease in productivity and an increased risk of burnout. We cannot create more time, but we can do less and ask for help where we need it. The good news is that once you communicate your boundaries, your stress levels will drop. This helps us become more focused and have more time and energy to get the job done.

So now that we know what boundaries are, here are a few ways prioritise, implement, and honour your boundaries:

  • Say no. We know it’s a lot easier said than done. If you find yourself taking on more work than you can handle, explain the scope of work to show how your primary tasks may have to take a back seat. This gives the other person a chance to reconsider your priorities and the amount of work you need to get done.
  • Swamped with work you cannot complete? Pass on some of the load to a colleague. Delegating work is not just for managers. But before you do, ask yourself whether the work is better completed by someone else.
  • Take control of your workspace. Your colleagues are less likely to interrupt you if you set clear do-not-disturb signs. Print some lighthearted signs to hang on your office chair to show you’re in productivity mode. If you’re working from home, create visual boundaries by shutting doors, using green or red cards to signify how busy you are, setting timers, or putting on headphones, for everyone at home.
  • It’s also good to use tech when setting boundaries. Technology can be great at letting people know where you are or how busy you are. Block off lunch time in your calendar for your team to see when you’re unavailable or set an Out of Office message on emails.
  • Keep things professional. Yes, your team feels like your second family, but the lines can get blurred where boundaries are concerned. Use your lunchtime to catch up with a work buddy but let them know that it’s business as usual when it’s over. Our colleagues are there to get the job done – this is everyone’s priority.