How To Set Better Boundaries At Work

Licensed Clinical Social Worker By Nathalie Theodore, J.D., MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Nathalie C. Theodore, J.D., MSW, LCSW is a lawyer-turned-therapist located in Chicago. She received her J.D. from Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington, and her master's in social work from Loyola University, Chicago.

If you had asked me ten years ago whether I had good workplace boundaries, I would've looked up from my computer screen just long enough to give you a quizzical glance before diving back into my legal research.

As a young attorney, I was concerned with meeting my billable hour requirement and not much else. I worked insanely long hours, got very little sleep, and routinely overextended myself to take on more projects than I could handle.

Three years later, having crossed the threshold from chronically stressed to severely burnt-out, I quit my job, went back to school and made it my business to learn how to find a healthy work-life balance.

Today, as a therapist who helps women manage career stress (and with my personal experience as part of my toolkit), I often discuss the importance of workplace boundaries with my clients. If a demanding job has you feeling completely consumed, read on for tips on how to create better boundaries at work:

1. Let go of your existing expectations, and re-create new ones.

In my therapy practice, I find that talking to women about boundaries is particularly important; we tend to set extraordinarily high expectations for ourselves to juggle everything life throws our way, both in and out of the office. And then when we can't meet these unrealistic expectations, we layer on the self-judgment.

So consider alternatives, and recognize their viability. Can you tell yourself that you will finish your work by 7 PM and stick to that, rather than volunteering to help out with a co-worker's project, all the while rationalizing your choice to stay at the office until 10 PM?

Recognize your power in setting intentions for your workday. Rather than being your own harshest critic, be kind to yourself, which involves being stern in setting limits. Remind yourself what your actual responsibilities are, and don't take on everyone else's.

2. Learn how and when to say no.

As a fledgling attorney, I habitually accepted more work than I could reasonably handle in an effort to people-please and impress others. As a result, I became the go-to associate to handle every crisis that would invariably arise at 4:55 PM. on a Friday afternoon. Knowing how and when to say no at work requires a certain level of self-confidence that I didn't possess at the time.

If this sounds like you, stop selling yourself short. Trust that you can make an impression with the quality of your work rather than the quantity. You’ll soon find that a little confidence at the office goes a long way.

3. Re-examine your relationship with your smartphone.

In terms of work-life balance, the real downside of our smartphones is that we can also check work email at all hours of the day and night. If you have trouble leaving work at the office, something as simple as turning off email push notifications on your phone can help you stay present so you can actually enjoy time away from work. And when you do check email, keep in mind that not all messages require an immediate response.

4. Make self-care as much of a priority as anything else on your to do list.

Self-care at work is both extremely important and often neglected. Skipping lunches and subsisting on vending machine pop-tarts and venti Americanos may get you through a busy day, but it's not a sustainable lifestyle. Take breaks when you need them; eat a healthy lunch; go for a quick walk outside. Give yourself five minutes to listen to a meditation app on your phone, or try some office yoga at your desk.

But self-care can be more subtle too. For instance, you can also exercise self-care by asserting your needs at work. If you want more support or guidance on a project, ask for it. If your back hurts from hunching over your laptop all day, look into getting a standing workstation.

The main piece of advice here is to recognize that self-care is the only way to succeed and push yourself sustainably. Your well needs to be full in order for you to give to others, to projects, and so on. So the same way you make a commitment to meeting a friend for a plan, or to a coworker for a meeting, make a commitment to yourself to be your best supporter and caretaker.

Whether you've been in your current position for a week or a decade, it's never too late to start setting healthy boundaries at work.

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