Help  |  Pay an Invoice  |  My Account  |  CPE Log  |  Log in

The power of boundaries

Jamie Peterson, PhD | October/November 2023 Footnote

Today we have the ability to work just about anywhere and at any time. We check emails while waiting for soccer practice to end and we take our work with us to extend a weekend at the cabin - but just because we can do these things, should we?

According to the American Psychological Association's 2023 survey report, workers are feeling stressed and are ending the day feeling emotionally exhausted, unmotivated and unproductive. Feeling stressed on a daily or even weekly basis detracts from our well-being and can harm our ability to make decisions, focus on relevant information and proactively plan ahead.[1]

Having work-life harmony and managing stress are complex issues that require multifaceted solutions.

One strategy we can use to chip away at these issues is establishing healthy boundaries. As noted by the Cleveland Clinic, boundaries help us feel a greater sense of safety, create work- life harmony, clarify our expectations and communication and help us to feel — and be — more productive.

The importance of boundaries

We are taking control when we set boundaries. We are prioritizing what is most important and building our capacity to do our most important work. For example, with clear boundaries for when and where you do your work, you can end your workday at 5:30 p.m., set up an autoreply for your email and, thereby, be truly present for friends, family and pets until you log in the next day.

Yet boundaries can be tricky. Ending your work day on time or saying no to last-minute requests can stir up all kinds of insecurities. You might worry that your manager doesn't think you're committed, that you'll miss out on future opportunities or that someone else might do the work incorrectly and make a mess of it.

These insecurities can fuel our boundary-breaking behavior and contribute to stress.

Determining your boundaries

There are several things to consider when establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries.
  1. Start with your values. Take time to thoughtfully answer these questions:
    • What is most important to you?
    • What is happening when you feel most successful? What are you doing, what context are you in, who is present and what are they asking of you?
    • What is happening when you feel angry, resentful or stressed? What are you doing, what context are you in, who is present and what are they asking of you?
    • Honestly answering these questions will help you create boundaries around what is most important to you. For example, you might feel most successful when you have time to focus on your work without answering a constant drip of questions via instant messenger or email. Creating a boundary that clarifies communication channels — and expected response time — can help you get that necessary focused work time. Or setting up a boundary in which you schedule an hour a day when you turn off all communication channels is another way to protect the focus time you need.
  2. Select one boundary to begin. Starting small can be helpful. If answering emails from the time your workday ends until 10 p.m. is your habit, then going cold turkey and not checking emails after 5 p.m. will be difficult. Instead, a helpful first step might be to limit your evening email check to just one hour after the end of your workday.
  3. Create a communication plan. If you are planning to stop checking email after hours, set up an autoreply for your email when you log off so others know you will conscientiously respond in the morning. Keep in mind that silence is also communication - not responding when someone has been warned you that they will not respond also communicates that boundary.
  4. Set up yourself for success. Consider how to make it easy for yourself to maintain the boundary. For example, if you are planning to spend the last hour of your workday off all communication channels to focus on your deliverables and tie up loose ends, mark that time on your calendar so everyone knows that time is reserved. Set up alarms and alerts as reminders and use autoreplies so others know you're focused on the task at hand.
  5. Prepare for pushback — both from your own insecurities and from others who rely on you. Your boundary is defining "mine" and "yours" and if your boundary requires others to communicate with you more proactively, to wait for a response or for others to do more of the work themselves, they may push back on your new boundaries. If this happens, go back to that first step and remind yourself of your values and goals and how this boundary helps you to do more of what you need and want.

Trust the process

As you take these small steps to create boundaries, check in with yourself on a weekly basis and consider what you need to stop doing, start doing and continuing as you establish and maintain your boundaries. This is hard work, so give yourself some credit when you slip. Consider the circumstances for each boundary and problem-solve to make the boundary work for you.

Creating and maintaining boundaries is not necessarily easy, but when you have healthy boundaries, you will feel greater focus, more productive and more present for what matters in each moment. Boundaries are powerful!

Jamie Peterson, PhD, is on a mission to empower others to live and work successfully. She is passionate about using psychological research to create opportunities for everyone to learn, grow and stretch themselves into new possibilities. Dr. Peterson earned her master’s degree in counseling and her doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota. She recently co-wrote and published the book, “College to Career: Making the Most of Your Journey,” a practical guide for early-career professionals as they build a thriving career.

[1] Anthony J Porcelli and Mauricio R. Delgado, “Stress and Decision Making: Effects on Valuation, Learning, and Risk-taking” (2017). Current opinion in behavioral sciences14, 33-39.