Setting and Defending Boundaries Like Your Life and Consulting Business Depend on It
I am a recovering workaholic.
In every job I have ever had as an adult, I have worked too hard and too long. My family, my health, and other life joys 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!
Isn’t Consulting All About Overworking?
I had heard the horror stories about consulting being rife with overworked, 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.
My Habits Created My Hell
My first step was to get 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. Sure, I had bosses that expected too much but, when I took a good look at what the main cause was, it was me.
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, well, 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.
Boundaries Can Create Heaven
The good news is that I knew 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.
Name 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 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 also 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. One yes is another no!
Be the Boss of 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 boss—and 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. Then choose.
For example, if you always say yes when someone asks you to "pick you brain," ask yourself if you truly want to spend your time—without being paid—providing someone with your value. If doing so and doing so repeatedly means you have to work more hours to make up the revenue you would have made during that time, consider saying no or letting them know that access to your brain isn't free.
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. Why did I do that? When a client or colleague asked me to do something, I noticed the desire to please the person asking. When I considered the implications of doing that, I saw that this people-pleasing tendency was costing me in other important things in my 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). That was a painful 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! Instead of saying yes instantly, I would say, “Let me look at what I have on my plate and get back to you tomorrow.” That became my new habit. It bought me time to consider what saying yes meant and then make a conscious choice.
The process of paying attention to what I was doing revealed a fuller story of the implications of my unconscious choices, made me rethink my motivations, and allowed me to pinpoint an opportunity to intervene!
Specific > General Boundaries
I suggest writing down what specific boundaries you want to set and defend based on what you said you value. If you said you value time with 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 soccer games” than “I will spend more 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.
For example, one of my sacred boundaries is that I never miss my husband’s birthday. We always spend his birthday together. No matter what. I also do not miss medical appointments. I spent years cancelling appointments because something always came up, and I paid a price with my health. So if I schedule an appointment, I keep it.
A firm boundary of mine is that I don’t do consulting on Fridays. I switched to part-time a few years ago so that I could better balance my life and have time to spend with my family, in my garden, cooking, and doing other things I value. Occasionally, I will work on a Friday, but I have to be careful not to fall into the habit—or let others fall into the habit—of scheduling anything on Friday.
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, 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 don’t tell them why. 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.
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.
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 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.
I also have an electronic scheduling system. My clients love it because all they have to do is click a link and pick a time for us to meet. What they don’t know is that I created rules within the system that require at least 15 minutes between meetings. This prevents the exhausting cycle of back-to-back meetings. I baked in rules that only allow certain types of meetings on certain days and within certain timeframes. The beauty is that I rarely have to have a conversation with them about it or assert my boundaries. Certain times just don’t appear as options.
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?
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!