Learn to Thrive at Work and in Life

A while ago, I was working with an executive coaching client who struggled with setting boundaries at work.  She was a successful entrepreneur with decades of experience running her company, but was considering quitting it all.

“I love what I do and normally love bringing in new business,” she told me. “But lately, I cringe whenever I see a new inquiry in my email. That’s a new feeling, and it worries me. I want to scale things back or slow things down, but I don’t feel like I can. I feel so guilty whenever I even think of putting boundaries around my time.”

We discussed simple, completely reasonable parameters she could start putting in place around her business.

When she tried to put these into place, the predictable guilt appeared.

“Just thinking about taking a bit longer to respond to a call or email or turning away business–that I don’t even need at this stage– makes me feel so guilty!” she repeated. “I want so badly to have better boundaries, but the guilt is just too intense.”

I get excited when I hear and see this. Those intense guilty feelings that make her feel held hostage by her work are now on notice.

You’re in good company. The most responsible, conscientious people are most likely to feel guilty about boundaries at work.

It’s extremely common for highly conscientious, successful, responsible people to have unreasonably high standards for themselves. Those standards can make them feel trapped in a cage made of stress, unrealistic expectations, and burnout that they feel they can’t get out of.

When someone starts to think about what they’ve been doing and how things could be shifted, the door of that cage opens wide.

Obviously, a business owner has more agency over these decisions than someone working in a corporate environment. But still, I constantly work on these types of skills and boundary shifts with executives and managers. It’s important to look at what you’re doing that’s unnecessarily stressful or inefficient and see how you can create better practices.

If you want to set more reasonable boundaries at work, but guilt or an excess sense of responsibility stops you every time, here are some tips:

1) Identify any unrealistic expectations (and their source).

For many high performers, the pressure is self-created. No one told them they have to answer emails or calls immediately. No one said they have to work on Sundays. In many cases, they have people around, including leaders, telling them to have more balance in their lives.

Are there any standards built into your work habits or schedule, that are unnecessary? How did they get there? Are there any unnecessary beliefs or standards tied to them? How might they be modified to be more manageable?

2) Expect to feel guilty, and do it anyway.

I told my client that she shouldn’t let guilt stop her from taking the actions she longed to take.

What actions would you take, if your guilt didn’t control you?

Wait until tomorrow to answer that non-urgent email. Call someone back later, rather than interrupting important deep work. Say no to a new business that isn’t aligned with the direction you want your business to go. Give it a try, whatever it is.

When the guilt comes, allow yourself those uncomfortable feelings. Cultivate a new wait-and-see approach. The guilt will tell you that if you put this new boundary in place, something bad will happen. But…if you find the courage to take the step and watch what happens, the results will likely surprise you.

3) Recognize the benefits of your boundaries.

When you start implementing strategic boundaries at work, people won’t care nearly as much as you thought they would. Sure, sometimes you need to give people a head’s up. For example, if they’re used to you being available on Sunday nights (I sincerely hope that this is not the case!). In most situations that I’ve seen, coworkers and clients are happy to adapt. Not much really changes–except that you feel way less frazzled and more in control of your work and time.

In a classic study by Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter of Harvard Business School, a group of perpetually overworked, always-on consultants at Boston Consulting Group were required to take “predictable time off.” In one configuration, the study participants had to take one full day off during the week. At first, everyone resisted. Understandably, they feared that the quality of work would suffer and that the client would be displeased. People had to be forced to comply with the new scheduling guidelines.

According to Perlow and Porter, the participants “either worked and felt guilty…or they didn’t work and felt guilty because of the stress they thought they were putting on their teammates.”

Guilt, guilt, guilt.

As it turned out, people who participated in the “time-off teams” reported higher job satisfaction, more open communications, increased learning and development, and a better product was delivered to the client. It was a win-win for absolutely everyone.

Focus on the genuine benefits of better boundaries at work, not on the guilt.

Figure out where any guilt is coming from. Does it genuinely need to be there?  What would the benefits be–to you and others–if you no longer let guilt run the show?

Feel the guilt, and do it anyway. Until that (misplaced) guilt realizes it’s out of a job.



Prevent Work-From-Home Burnout Through Better Work-Life Boundaries

How Lack of Boundaries Leads to Burnout 

If You Set a Boundary, Expect to Deal With Anger


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