How to set professional and personal boundaries

Do you work too much? Eat at your desk? Find yourself grouchy? Time to step back.
 How to set professional and personal boundaries

The modern workplace can be brutal. Many managers and leaders work too many hours, take on tasks that aren't their own, and don't take care of themselves physically and emotionally. They get distracted by social media, text messages, or emails, losing focus and wasting time. They don't spend enough time with friends and family.

And they lose sight of what success should be — hard work, but also a work/life balance so one can recharge. "If boundaries are clearly set, it can make for a happier and healthier environment, and clear up or drastically reduce the likelihood for miscommunication" in the workplace, said Michael Diettrich-Chastain, the CEO of Arc Integrated, a training and coaching firm in Asheville, North Carolina. "Often boundaries get blurred when we take on responsibilities that are not ours, whether professional or personal."

If managers don't set boundaries, the consequences run the gamut. They may resent or mistrust colleagues for pawning off work, have difficulty making decisions, or become irritable, which can cause disruption for their teams, Diettrich-Chastain noted.

Or they become unproductive and fatigued, experience burnout, and turn into ineffective leaders. "If you have a manager who cannot manage his time, he's not very good at managing other people," said workplace wellbeing mentor Sheila O'Malley, based in Dublin, Ireland. "If he's a perfectionist, he's probably a micromanager and poor delegator, and none of these things are what works."

Two experts offer the following advice for setting personal and professional boundaries, to avoid self-destructing:

Take ownership of your life and schedule. If you're overwhelmed and overworked, speak up and say, "No", when asked to do one more task. Determine what you can and cannot do in any given day. Perhaps leave work early, and communicate your boundaries to others, including your own supervisor if necessary. "Happy people are productive people, and productivity always comes from people who can prioritise," O'Malley said. "You've got to take the time back."

Stay focused. Ask yourself one simple question at the end of each day: "What is the most important thing I need to do tomorrow?" O’Malley advised.

Then tomorrow, focus on the most important thing for a designated period of time without distractions, no longer than 90 minutes. That means no meetings, no digital interruptions, and no distractions. "A boundary is, 'I'm not always available,'" she said. "And having boundaries around technologies means turning them off."

Seek outside help. Certain online platforms can assess your work habits, leadership style, behaviours, and decision-making. Tap into such tools offered by many organisations, such as ADVanced Insights Profile, Actualized Leadership Profile, or SCARF, to get a better idea of what makes you tick and where you may institute changes, Diettrich-Chastain suggested. Also, consider hiring a professional coach who can help you understand your strengths and blind spots. A coach "can have a drastic impact on the performance of an organisation, and identify how boundaries are off kilter", he said.

Solicit feedback. Others may see you more clearly than you see yourself — so ask for feedback from your colleagues and employees. This advice can help you understand what you can do better, how you can streamline processes, and how you can clear up boundary or communication issues with others. "We often find that leaders aren't having enough conversations with employees," Diettrich-Chastain said.

Take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, and budget adequate time to eat and digest your food. Walk around the block to clear your head. Exercise. Set a date night with your spouse or spend time with your kids, O'Malley said. Instigate self-care before anything else, since that is your most important task. "The best thing you can do for everybody else is to meet your own needs," she advised. "It's not selfish — it's the most unselfish thing you can do."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at