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How to Set Work/Life Boundaries that Work

The only job I’ve ever been fired from was at The Body Shop, and I totally deserved it. In my last year of high school I had enough credits to need only a handful of classes, so I got two retail jobs at the local mall to pay for car insurance and cigarettes (gross, I know). The Body Shop was a tight-knit collective of diligent young women who seemed to re-invest most of their paycheques back into Body Shop products. They loved the ethos of the company, and completed intensive product knowledge training that allowed them to chirpily recite the ingredients on demand for any one of our vast array of aromatic offerings.

I did not fit in.

I couldn’t get excited about the potential of botanical based cosmetics to bring the world together. Smelling cocoa butter and satsuma all day made me hate people. This manifested itself in persistent tardiness, and a minor meltdown when a young male customer mistook my abrasive ennui for an air of glamorous mystery, and left me a “mix tape” consisting of nothing but Jon Secada songs (he was clearly a serial killer).

They did the right thing letting me go. I was not a ‘culture fit’ as we’d say these days, and my presence was probably negatively impacting the otherwise highly engaged team. Some people might have taken this decision hard, drawn themselves a satsuma-scented bubble bath and listened to Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” on repeat, but I moved on without any serious scars.

My friends joked that I’d been ejected from ‘the cult’.

Since then I’ve gone on to hold roles at some truly great companies, and at times have found myself very much on the other side of things. The inside. If you’ve ever found yourself at that rare intersection point when you’re doing something you find rewarding, with great people, for a cause you believe in, you know that it can easily become all consuming.

The saying goes “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” but I’ve always thought this sounds slightly ominous. If it never feels like work then how do you know where work ends and the rest of your life begins? How do you stop it from swallowing you up?

The cult metaphor, while extreme, holds some interesting lessons. Bob Gower, an authority on agile development and responsive organization design, knows this first hand. He’s written and spoken about his harrowing experience in a (literal) cult, and the lessons he took away from that experience and into his life and his work with organizations. In his talk “How Not To Join a Cult” at the 2016 Responsive conference, he spoke about practices he’s implemented in his life since to ensure he’s guided by his values and sets strong boundaries.

Boundaries tend to be seen as limits to keep things out, and are often thought of as defining where we’ll draw the line, what we’ll say no to. But boundaries can just as readily be seen as a record of what we’ve said yes to, deliberately or by default.

Yes, I want to be great at my job

Yes, I want to train for a marathon

Yes, I want to be a great parent

Yes, and

Yes, Yes, Yes


When we say yes to too many things, our boundaries aren’t real. They stretch and leak, and fade, and we feel as though we’re not succeeding at any of the things we’ve said yes to.

So, our yeses must be rationed, prioritized. As Mark Manson says (quoting someone else), if it’s not a f@ck yes, then its a f@ck no.

We can layer onto this Gower’s approach (he uses an Alignment Worksheet to work through this). It can be applied to a job, a project, a hobby, or a relationship. You start by identifying how an initiative you are undertaking aligns with your own values and purpose,  your intentions (why you want to be part of it), concerns, boundaries (what won’t you do to be part of the team/project/organization), and your hopes for the initiative. Essentially, this makes up an agreement with yourself, up front, about why and how you’ll be involved, and what the limits of your involvement will be.

Maybe you have a pattern of taking on too much (work, ownership, blame), or of playing the martyr, or falling into analysis paralysis, or dealing with anxiety by working over the weekend.

Gower’s framework guides you through the exercise of anticipating these challenges, and (critically) deciding in advance what you’ll do to prevent these concerns from derailing your boundaries.

I’ll add one more layer to this practice. At a talk given by Andras Tilcsik this week about the research in his forthcoming book Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, he noted that conducting ‘pre-mortems’ or practicing ‘prospective hindsight’ to anticipate potential sources of failure is much more effective if you frame the potential failure as already having taken place.

So, instead of asking yourself “How is my plan to not work on the weekends likely to be derailed during this project?”, ask yourself “It’s January and I’ve just worked the last two Saturdays. What led to this occurring?”

Believe it or not, this subtle shift produces more insightful, specific, and thus actionable ideas than simply trying to predict the ways things could go awry. The result is some scenarios you can plan for, using if/then statements “If I’m really behind on my project work, then I’ll try to renegotiate another deadline and pick a few mornings to start work an hour early instead of working over the weekend”.

The last ingredient, unsurprisingly, is sharing and standing by those boundaries. I know that an insight for me that feels obvious in hindsight is that we can’t expect people to know and respect our boundaries if we aren’t explicit and consistent in communicating them.

When I worked in a traditional office, a boundary that I had set (with myself) was eating lunch sitting down every day. I ate at my desk, but it was important introvert-recharge time for me away from other people. And yet, at least twice a week someone would note my closed door, peer through the adjacent frosted glass panel, and then knock, to ask or tell me something “just really quick”. This made me incredibly grumpy, especially since it almost always could have waited 20 minutes.

The thing is, I never told my colleagues that I needed that time, and I always answered the door, stopped eating and accommodated whoever was interrupting me (with a not altogether friendly demeanor, mind you). If I’d been up front about my intent, and consistent with my reaction (“Unless it’s an emergency, I’ll come find you in 20 minutes”) I would have quickly set expectations with others to respect this boundary, and I wouldn’t have felt so put out because others weren’t reading my mind.

I should mention that I struggle greatly with the practice of setting work-life boundaries, which is why I’m writing about it this week. I need to take my own advice.  And I’ll take yours, if you have suggestions and thoughts on this topic. Please share in the comments.

Read This Week:

The Latest Trends in HR Design – Lucy Adams

This post is not quite what its title sounds like, and I mean that in the best possible way. Lucy Adams of HR Disrupted describes challenges and alternatives to the way that HR teams are typically structured. There’s some interesting stuff here, but what actually had me nodding and laughing out loud was her take on that controversial figure, the HR Business Partner:

“We need a strategic and commercial HR business partner. They must have experience in the full range of HR elements, be a coach, a law enforcer, a spoon-feeder, a tear-drier and the conscience of the business. They must be prepared to come up with lots of new ideas, only to have them ignored, take the blame when things go wrong, and always to have their item put last on any team meeting agenda, after finance, operations, marketing, IT and problems with the toilets. They must be relentlessly cheerful and be prepared to listen to the ravings or woes of anyone who seeks them out. Above all, they must be able to present the latest Group-wide HR initiative that has absolutely no relevance to their business unit, to their MD as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

When you look at what we want from them, it’s amazing to me that we can find one, let alone the numbers that most HR structures depend upon.

And she highlights a critical problem we’ve all experienced when saddled with the role of policy enforcer:

“I am often brought in to provide fresh challenge and ideas for HR teams. Whilst they like the innovation, they equally are concerned about their ability to deliver as their managers “wouldn’t do it”. They may be right but this means we are stuck in this vicious cycle where – we don’t trust managers to manage – we therefore produce rules and processes that make them do it – we spend our time enforcing and monitoring the process to make sure they have – which means we don’t have the time to develop their capability – so we don’t trust them to manage – and so on ….”

A Couple of Truths About Adulthood That No One Tells You – Courtney E. Martin, OnBeing Blog

It’s a little outside the HR realm, but I’m a fan (if infrequent listener) of Krista Tippet’s podcast OnBeing. The companion blog had a lovely piece this week on the truth that most people do not have their shit together, even (perhaps especially) the ones that seem to from the outside. And that this is also true of the collection of humans we call organizations. This reminds me a lot of a post I wrote a little while ago.

“What is true in micro is true in macro. All of the organizations and institutions that are run by these imperfect humans are also imperfect. Sometimes fatally flawed (in which case, don’t walk, run), but sometimes just broken in various, potentially fixable ways for various, complex reasons, and this, too, can become a testing ground for wisdom.

When I first started working in the “real world” and got to pull the curtain back on various organizations, I was shocked over and over again to discover that they were not well-oiled machines. Emails go unanswered. Purported values get dishonored in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day. Money is wasted. Good work goes unrewarded. Dehumanizing bureaucracies build up. No one ever sticks to timelines, no matter how well-intentioned. Everything takes ten times longer than you estimate it would or think it should.

But this, too, turns out to be a potential balm for your anxiety rather than only a disappointment (although it can often be disappointing). It means that you are needed…There is a lot of opportunity in all this brokenness. If you can stay the course with organizations that fall short of their visions and values, you might just have a hand in shaping something long-lasting and far-reaching.”

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Body Shop”… I thought you were talking about fixing cars at first!

    November 6, 2017
  2. Adam Durie #

    Fantastic, as usual Jane. I’m so very much guilty of biting off more than I can chew. 🙂

    November 6, 2017
  3. Miriam #

    Great post!!

    November 7, 2017

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