• Deb Zahn

Set and Defend Boundaries While Consulting—Like Your Life Depends on It

Updated: May 10, 2019

In every job I have ever had as an adult, I have worked too hard and too long. My life always took a back seat to work. Over and over, I would work late into the night and on weekends. I would cancel plans because I got or took on a new assignment that just couldn’t be done during the week. I would go on trips with friends and miss half the fun because I couldn’t pry myself away from my work. I remember pushing to get a project done before rushing to the airport to go to my grandfather’s funeral. I almost missed the flight. I almost missed his funeral.

I had heard the horror stories about consulting being rife with overworked and burnt out people caught in a travel and work grind from which they could never escape. I didn’t want that life. I already knew what that life was like.

Sadly, when I first started consulting, I repeated the same patterns. Work dominated my life and left little room for anything else. I didn’t say no to anything my clients or colleagues asked—even if it disrupted the rest of my life and even if it wasn’t truly necessary or urgent.

It was a problem and it wasn’t sustainable. So I got curious about what was causing it. The more I looked at what was happening, the more it became clear that I was doing many things that created or contributed to the problem. A lot of those things seemed to be simply out of habit. I wasn’t making deliberate, conscious choices. I was doing things a certain way because I always did things that way.

Over the years, I saw that many new consultants had the same experience and easily fell into similar habits that made their lives harder and more imbalanced.

The good news is that habits can be changed! It takes time and practice to switch a habit, but it sure is worth it. Developing and maintaining the habit of setting boundaries is the single most powerful way I know to get your life back to the proportions you want. For consultants just starting out, this is the best time to set boundaries because you will teach your clients and colleagues how you do and don’t work from the beginning. That’s a lot easier than trying to retrain them later.

Here are some of the most helpful tips I have for learning how to set and protect your boundaries.

Identify What You Value

Before setting boundaries, it is important to first know why you want to set them. Once you set boundaries, you are going to have to defend them against others and yourself. And we only defend what we value.

Ask yourself what you truly value enough to defend. Is it time with your family? Your health? Your other activities? Your downtime? Are some more important than others?

Defining and articulating what you value in writing and out loud, especially to someone else, is critical. It helps make it easy to stand by them when you have to. It is too easy to forget what we value in the moment when we need to defend our boundaries. It is easy to forget that all choices are relative choices, even if we aren’t aware that we are choosing one thing over another. But the truth is that if you have the choice and choose to work every weekend, then you are choosing not to spend time with family or exercise or enjoy other parts of your life.

Own Your Choices

No one gets to make any choice they want any time they want, but we do have choices that we can make. The key is to recognize what you can choose and then make choices that align with what you value.

I and other consultants I have worked with often had to learn the hard way that we need to be the champion of our own boundaries. Except for rare occasions, no one will defend your boundaries if you don’t. And if you don’t defend your boundaries, you are teaching people that you don’t have any.

So when you can choose, stop and deliberately make a choice. If, for example, you have a habit of always saying yes, interrupt that pattern and, before you answer, ask yourself what you truly want. Than choose.

Pay Attention to What You Do

How do you currently set or not set boundaries? How do you defend or not defend the ones you have? What traps do you fall into time and time again? These are important questions to answer if you are going to add setting boundaries to your list of superpowers.

When I started paying attention to what I do, I saw some interesting things. I didn’t say no when working, pretty much ever. But why? When a client or colleague asked me to do something, I noticed the desire to please who was doing the asking. If I was looking just at work that might have been the end of the story, but when I looked at my overall life, I saw that always saying yes at work meant that I would have to say no to my family or not be able to get out to my garden (my happy place). I was pleasing some at the expense of others. That was a diificult but helpful realization. I also noticed that I said yes instantly. I never paused before the word “yes” flew out of my mouth. That was helpful information because I could do something about that. The process of paying attention to what I was doing revealed a fuller story of what my unconscious choices meant, made me rethink my motivation, and allowed me to pinpoint an opportunity to intervene!

Set Specific Boundaries

I’d suggest writing down your boundaries based on what you said you value. If you said you value your family, you may set a boundary about not working during evening meals with your family. If you value having downtime or doing some other activity, you may set specific times that you are available and will respond to emails, calls, and texts.

This is where specificity is your friend. The more specific you are, the more likely you will be to defend your boundaries. For example, it is easier to defend the boundary of “I never miss my kid’s games” than “I will spend time with my kids.”

Say It but Don’t Over-Say It

Articulating your boundaries repeatedly helps you normalize them with you and your clients and colleagues. It helps get everyone in the habit of respecting your boundaries. That said, every time you say your boundary, you don’t need to articulate a defense of it. Be direct but don’t try to build a case for why your boundary is acceptable. You don’t need others to agree with why you are doing it, and you don’t need to give others an opportunity to look for an opening to violate it.

For example, if someone tries to schedule something for me or get me to do something on Friday, I simply say, “I’m not available on Friday.” I do not add, “…because I only work 80% time and take Fridays off.” That would create an opening for someone to push against my boundary because they don’t value the reason I’m not available the way I do. Why should they value it? Especially if they work on Fridays and don’t get to be off.

Automate Boundaries

If you have to choose every time you need to set a boundary, you won’t do it as much as you truly want to, especially at the beginning. You can make it easier by automating some of your boundaries. That means you make a choice once and then set up a system so the boundary is automatic.

One of the first things I did was get rid of the sound alerts when I got text messages. I had a few clients who texted me at all hours. At midnight. At 2 am. On Sunday. At first, I’d text them back, which basically trained them to believe that I was available 24-7. If I was available 24-7, that meant the rest of my life would always be secondary to work. I didn’t think that I was going to be able to change my clients’ behavior. So I knew I had to change my behavior. First, I tried to stop myself from responding. It worked most of the time, but it didn’t do much for the rest of my life because either it would wake me up and I couldn’t go back to sleep or I’d start thinking about the text, thus putting me in work mode. Turning the sound alerts off was the key. It was a small thing, but it had a big impact. It did not stop my clients from sending me texts whenever they wanted. It didn’t need to. But it did get them used to the reality that I wasn’t going to respond outside of work hours. Occasionally, if there is a true emergency, a real one, I break the rule, but as I learned to distinguish between urgent and non-urgent, I got better at making that truly occasional.

Plan for Your Weakness

Assuming you pay attention to and are now an expert at what you do and why, plan ahead for the times it will be difficult to set and defend your boundaries. What boundary will be difficult for you to tell people? What could make it easier for you or make you more able to do it? What boundary do you think you’ll have the most difficulty defending? What could you plan to say or do when you or someone else tries to violate the boundary?

For example, I had noticed that I said yes right away without considering what that means. So part of my plan was to create some time for me to consider and then decide when I am asked to do something. My plan included knowing exactly what I could say in the moment. I say, “I need to look at what I have going on right now, and I will get back to you by tomorrow morning.” If they need to know sooner, I may say I will let them know in an hour or later that day. That gives me the time I need to make the choice I really want to make.

Even with the best plan, you will likely relapse and not set or defend a boundary that is important to you. Everyone relapses. Try not to spend time beating yourself up about it. Notice what you did and why, and then use that insight to reduce the chances of doing it again. It’s not a failure; it’s information.

Trust Your Gut

If you think that someone is violating or chipping away at your boundaries, trust yourself that that is what is happening. They may not know they are doing it. Or they may be doing it intentionally. Either way, if you have the choice, stand firm. The more they see that your boundaries are real, the more likely they are to get in the habit of respecting them.

Celebrate Your Successes

Take time to give yourself credit every time you set or defend a boundary when working. See how it is making other areas of life better. What you are doing isn’t easy and every success increases the likelihood that the habit of setting and defending boundaries will stick. Just keep practicing. The more you do it, the easier it gets!

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