Set Boundaries at Work: Sometimes You have to Know When to Say No

How good are you at setting boundaries around your workload?

A boundary can be defined as that perimeter around you within which you prioritize and do your best work.  Your workload boundaries are the limits to how much you can take on and still do your best work. It’s your limit in terms of what you can realistically handle at any given time, without compromising your values, priorities, emotions, or commitments.

However sometimes, boundaries can get breached…intentionally or usually without our realizing it, as we automatically agree to take something new on.

Many clients that come to me don’t always know where their boundaries are.  It’s easy to fall into a scenario where you are the one taking on a lot of work without the ability to say, “No.”

Sometimes it’s the corporate culture of high expectation.  In a culture such as this, it’s hard to set boundaries when you are expected to take on more and more.

It can also be your own high expectations of your abilities…” shoulding” on yourself.  I should be able to take this on.  I shouldn’t say no to this because this project offers great exposure for my career or because it’s manageable (when it really isn’t).  I should do this because it means a lot to the people who work for me or to those I work for, etc. etc.  If I want advancement, I should never say no.

Setting boundaries takes awareness and practice, but it can be done and can make you much more effective at what you do.

Here are some ways to explore and set boundaries for yourself:

  1. Look at how you prioritize your time. Do you have daily schedules and weekly/monthly/quarterly goals and actions?  A little time prioritizing, and scheduling can go a long way toward enabling you to make judgements about new requests/assignments.  Plan your day ahead and know the impact of changes to your schedule.
  2. Evaluate taking on something new by considering priorities as in #1 but also, think about prioritizing your career. Would taking this new request on really help you further your career?  See my article on Career Planning for more inspiration.
  3. Just say No. A wise mentor once guided me to give this response when I was asked multiple conflicting requests of my time and effort, “No, I’m so sorry.  I don’t think I can, given my current workload.  But, if that changes, I will let you know.”  This response gives you some wiggle room to potentially come back and say yes after you’ve evaluated your priorities.   It also keeps you from the automatic yes commitment.
  4. Say No first (as in #3) but find ways to realistically work the request in. Once you have given yourself the room to say no, there are some cases where you do want to take this request on, just not at the time.  You can always let the requestor know when you would be free to work on the item.  Schedule it on your own terms.
  5. Get out of the business of solving everyone else’s problems/work efforts, etc. I speak from experience here.  I loved the feeling of being wanted and being someone who could be relied on to take on new work at the drop of a hat.  It seemed like a real plus for my career.  In retrospect, I would say that this only added additional work to my already overburdened schedule and resulted in many late nights at home working on priorities that had been changed by my saying “yes” to more.
  6. Train others how you want to be treated. I have a senior leader client who wanted to work on solutions to her morning priorities.  It seemed that she came in each morning to a long line of direct reports and their reports with requests, needing to see her immediately, questions, etc. etc.  These individuals had not scheduled time with her in advance, and sought to catch her before she had a chance to settle in.  We worked together to establish open office hours on certain days that employees could “drop in.”  Anything else would have to be scheduled through her Administrative Assistant.  Through coaching, she found that she could finally come in every morning and close her door to get herself ready for the day ahead.
  7. Believe you are worthwhile enough to say no and set your own boundaries. Sometimes this requires some careful thought around why you continue to take on more and more.  Can you give yourself permission to say no and prioritize what you will get done?
  8. Get over the fear of “will I look bad if I say no?” There is a certain diplomacy when dealing with senior leaders who make requests, and sometimes you do have to say yes in certain business situations.  Through practice, you can begin to understand the urgent and non-urgent requests.  The other thing to consider is that you may “look great” saying yes, only to look bad if you can’t fulfill that request due to other time commitments.

Setting effective boundaries starts with knowing what you want to achieve.  If you don’t know, it’s easier to pull you in many different directions.

ACTION CHALLENGE:  Use these tips above to establish strong boundaries at work.  Envision your time as sacred and find ways to say “No” more effectively.

Lupe Wood