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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Set and Defend Boundaries—Like Your Life Depends on It

I will confess. I used to be horrible at setting and defending boundaries. Especially at work.

I have worked too hard and too long in every job I have ever had as an adult. 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 work. I’m embarrassed to admit that I once pushed to get a project done right before rushing to the airport to go to my grandfather’s funeral. I almost missed the flight. I almost missed his funeral.

Sadly, when I first started consulting, I repeated the same patterns I used when I was employed. 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.

Why was this happening?

As an employee, I certainly had bosses who loaded the work on and didn't ask if it was ever too much. When I started consulting, I assumed that being overloaded with work was typical for consultants. 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 but wasn’t it part of what you signed up for?

But I wasn’t working at one of the big firms where that kind of grind was endemic. I didn’t have bosses loading work on me and expecting me to do whatever it took to get everything done.

When the Problem is Me

The truth is, the more I looked at what was happening, the clearer it became that I was doing many things that created or contributed to the problem. A lot of those things seemed to be things I was doing simply out of habit. I wasn’t making deliberate, conscious choices. I was doing things a certain way because, well, I always did things that way.

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

Re-Habit Your Work

Once I realized that I was a big part of the problem, I was relieved. Why? Because I have control over me! It wasn’t some external force that I could do little to change or influence. I wasn’t easy to change, but at least I could.

Plus, I had had a lot of practice changing habits. Again, not always easy but definitely possible. And I knew that I had to develop and then maintain the habit of setting and defending my boundaries with others and myself.

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. So having something in front of you as a constant reminder—at least until the new habit is normalized—can be a powerful tool to keep you on track.

Recognize Relative Choices

Your choices don’t exist in isolation. All choices are relative choices. But if you say yes to one thing, you are saying no to something else, even if you aren’t aware that you are choosing one thing over another. Consider this example: if I choose to take on more work than can be done during the week and therefore am working every weekend, then I am choosing not to spend time with my family or exercise or enjoy other parts of my life. I may not know it, but the effect is the same.

So whenever you have a choice to make about saying yes to something, ask yourself what you would have to say no to and if it’s worth it.

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.

Many consultants, including me, have learned the hard way that we need to be the champion of our own boundaries. You may not be able to count on someone else to 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. Then 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 the person 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 difficult 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 and improve!

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.”

Weight Your Boundaries

I like to divide my boundaries into two categories: sacred and firm.

  • Sacred boundaries can never be ignored or violated by others or by me. No way, no how. Ever. They are tied to what I value the most.

  • Firm boundaries should rarely be ignored or violated by others or by me. Rarely means I should have a hard time remembering the last time it happened! If it happens once a month, it’s a guideline not a boundary. These boundaries are tied to what I value.

For example, one of my sacred boundaries is that every Wednesday from 9 am to 12 pm is Mom Time. That’s time I spend with my mom every single week. We go do fun things. I fix things around her house. I take her on errands. Whatever we feel like doing. This is dedicated time that means a lot to both of us. So I never miss it or say yes to anything that would make me skip it.

A firm boundary of mine is that I don't miss medical appointments. I spent years canceling appointments because something came up, and I paid a price with my health. So if I schedule an appointment, I keep it. Rarely will I change an appointment, but only if it’s easy to change and the reason is truly urgent.

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 gets 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. You also 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 during Mom Time, I simply say, “I’m not available Wednesdays before noon.” I do not add, “…because I’m with my mom every Wednesday.” That would create an opening for someone to push against my boundary because they don’t value the reason I’m not available. Why should they value it? Especially if they don’t have Mom Time.

Automate Boundaries

If you must 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.

The first time I did this is when I got rid of the sound alerts when I got text messages. I had a few clients who used text 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 keep me up 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 now 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 you could have and wanted to. 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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