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Set boundaries to protect your focus and wellbeing
Practical communication and automation tips for setting social and digital boundaries
If your personal wellbeing isn’t reason enough to enforce boundaries, because you think it might interfere with your company, job, customers, or relationships, consider the alternative: without boundaries, your peers will only ever connect with a frazzled half-focused version of you.
Learning how to set and communicate boundaries is on my shortlist for “most life-changing skill” that I’ve learned as an adult. The communication part of boundaries is critical.
I spent most of my life thinking that I was on the far end of the introversion-extroversion bell-curve. I had a rough estimation of my psychobiological needs, but because I didn’t know how to convey them, I was beholden to the idea that I was a strong introvert. I erected a handful of imposing and rigid barriers instead of setting small, reasonable, and frequent boundaries. I later found that personality assessments measuring the Big Five personality traits* placed me somewhere in the middle, even slightly extroverted.
Boundaries aren’t just about social limits. I think of them as: where socialization and habit meet restraint. They are a means of setting limits to strengthen long-term wellbeing and relationships. I use them in a multitude of ways:
Food and drink
Calendars and time
Practically anything that encroaches on psychobiological needs
To start, I define a clear vision of the intended outcome:
Recognize a need. What is a habit, behavior, or interaction that is causing angst?
What would an idealized version of that interaction look like?
What steps need to happen to reach the ideal scenario?
If the ideal scenario is out-of-reach, what is a smaller iteration that can be achieved?
Between the rational and subconscious
It can be helpful to first practice setting boundaries at a personal level, without the added complexity of relationships. This is between your rational and subconscious selves. Here’s how I use the checklist above to set a boundary with my phone:
I’m spending too much time on my phone. Social media claims to enhance connections, but I feel disconnected from reality. Friendships on social media feel fake, while in-person they feel hollow.
I find utility in having a smartphone. It’s useful for navigating with maps, listening to music (brings me a lot of joy), learning via podcasts, taking photos (photography is a hobby), and keeping in touch with people (preferably via phone calls as opposed to text or social media).
Ideally, I would only use my phone for features listed above, not much else, but…
Phone use is pervasive and enticing. I’m not going to change everything at once. I’ll start small. No phone in the morning until after I’ve gone through my normal morning routine (about 2 hours after I wake up).
I set my boundary, but to ensure success, I made a few lifestyle changes (make it easier on yourself. There’s no need to unnecessarily go through life on “Hard” difficulty):
My phone stays on silent and charges away from my bed. If I want to use it, I have to physically get out of bed. No more scrolling while in bed.
I bought a digital alarm clock with a night light—no using the excuse that I need my phone next to me as an alarm or to check what time it is.
If I have to check the weather in the morning, I do it the old fashioned way by poking my head out a window or door, or I can also look at my thermostat (many contemporary digital thermostats give you weather updates).
Setting social boundaries
Successfully setting boundaries with yourself can be fulfilling, but it’s like practice for the big leagues: setting social boundaries with others. There’s a common fear that this will create friction between you and others, signaling:
You don’t care.
You aren't committed.
In reality, if you can communicate boundaries effectively, people will generally have more respect for you. They recognize that you prioritize personal wellbeing and are confident enough to define and communicate your limits.
Also, people thrive in clarity. When you’re specific and considerate explaining your limits, relationships will flourish as others know what the rules of engagement are.
Practical tips for boundaries
Enforcing boundaries with others can be uncomfortable, but there are some practical steps you can take to make the process smoother.
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Be honest. If you make a habit of lying about why you're unavailable, people will lose trust in you and you'll miss out on an opportunity to have honest conversations about what your limits are. If you aren’t comfortable sharing details, say something like “Sorry, I’m unavailable then,” or “I can’t commit to that.”
Provide alternatives. Relationships require negotiation. Providing alternatives prevents alienation and lets people know you’re committed. For example: “Happy hour doesn’t work for me. What about lunch instead?” Or: “I can’t commit to a one-hour meeting then. What about 30 minutes on Tuesday at 10am instead?”
Be firm but polite. Most people are considerate and respectful, but if someone is trying to take advantage of your boundary, be firm but polite. Provide alternatives and stand your ground.
Automate and separate
Use notification settings. Turn off push notifications on most (or all) apps, especially Slack channels and group chats. Set yourself away or pause notifications when you need to focus. Use app settings to define working hours and automatically turn off notifications
Block time on your calendar. Create recurring calendar events for 1-4 hours at a time, during hours of the day when you work most effectively. I use Google Calendar’s “Focus time” to block off “Design Focus” every Monday-Friday, 7am-9am.
Create email filters. Use a combination of sender email address, subject, or keywords to create an email filter. You’ll still receive useful notifications, but they won’t distract you by going to your primary inbox. For example, I find utility in receiving Jira Software notifications, but they shouldn’t take priority over regular email. They get relegated to a Jira inbox that I can check at my leisure.
Create physical boundaries to reinforce psychological boundaries. This is especially useful for devices, food, and drink. Create a literal physical boundary by placing items out of sight and reach. If you’re watching a movie, put your phone and snacks in a separate room so that you’re not tempted to indulge.
Reaching a breaking point
Working at a startup naturally requires a generalist mindset. I’m technically the Manager of UX, but I get involved with everything: QA (quality assurance), product requirements, release notes, customer success, support, marketing, code contribution, code reviews… I’ve even setup a handful of sales and investor calls.
I fell into a habit of “getting caught up” with email, Slack, and Github at the start of every morning. It’s a bit of a joke, because it’s not possible to truly get “caught up.” I placed the needs of others above my own, which lead me into an anxious state of chaos, playing a never-ending losing match of ping-pong. I reached a breaking point this past January.
While coordinating several major feature releases, I broke down and lost it. I took some personal time off in the middle of the week and spent the day at my favorite beach. I read my Kindle while soaking in the sun, I went for a swim, and I treated myself to a waffle cone (I love ice cream). It was incredible; it was exactly the reprieve I needed.
Yet my day at the beach was temporary. Having a generous PTO policy is wonderful and I’m thankful that I could sporadically take a day off in the middle of the week. But when I went back to the office the next day, I resolved to change my boundaries so that I wouldn’t have to take a random day off because I was squandering the most productive hours of my day, and boiling over with stress in the process.
Imposing focus time changed my life
I used Google Calendar to set “Focus time,” every Monday-Friday 7am-9am. Truthfully it didn’t affect much in the way of scheduling. 7am-9am is a pretty quiet time of the day anyway (which is why I love mornings). But I also decided that during that time I wouldn’t even open any other applications except for Figma (design/prototyping software).
For at least two hours every morning, I completely commit to the part of my job that brings me the most joy: designing. I frequently lose myself in the flow state, zoom right past 9am, and keep designing late into the morning.
I’m still able to handle my other obligations and by starting each morning in a blissful state of focus, I’m more effective collaborating with others when the time calls for it. Creating a creative bubble energizes and reveals new connections that otherwise don’t sprout when I allow others to have unfettered access to my attention.
With the extra inspiration, I even took on a few more initiatives by regularly contributing to the company knowledge base and blog.
Aside from “focus time,” I have a few other work boundaries that I stick to. Most importantly, I define my working hours: Monday-Friday, 7am-5pm. One caveat: some of my best ideas develop on evening walks, so I’m allowed to bring some “work” home with me…
Work that I’m allowed to bring home
Ideas for conflict resolution; an opportunity to apologize, own a mistake, or improve a relationship.
Work that I’m not allowed to bring home
Slack and email.
Tasks and projects.
Stress, ruminating, “should, woulda, coulda.”
If I ever find myself encroaching on working hours, I tell myself: “The work day is over. Set this down for now and you can come back to it tomorrow.”
Start small and iterate
Negotiating power will vary. If you have a family, you might need to make more concessions than if you’re a bachelor or bachelorette. Maybe your work environment doesn’t afford the kind of leeway you prefer. Don’t abandon your efforts. Think smaller. Start by setting manageable boundaries, then iterate. Maybe you can’t block off two hours every day for focus time. What about an hour? 30 minutes? Or try enforcing a strict lunch period: 30-60 minutes of complete personal time. As Dr. Alex Korb notes in The Upward Spiral:
The important thing here is not actual control, but perceived control. Making decisions may not increase your actual control over a situation, but it will likely increase your perceived control. And when you increase your perceived control, you increase your confidence, mood, and future decision-making capabilities.
Try making small, incremental, and practical changes today by reviewing sources of angst, defining your limits, and creating a vision for an alternative ideal. Then communicate to your peers verbally and with automated notification settings. Through consistent repetition you’ll hopefully find a greater sense of focus and less frazzled chaos.
I’m barely skimming the surface. Entire books have been written on this topic. Anecdotally, I emphasized digital boundaries the most. That’s because they tend to be the greatest source of discomfort for me.
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*I’m aware of critiques of personality assessments, including ones that measure the Big Five. They can still be useful tools for bringing awareness to personality tendencies, recognizing that people aren’t static, and realizing that people are capable of positive life changes.