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Story time.

Back in 2002, before remote work was largely accepted as “a thing”, I had a remote job. It sounded like a dream—get paid to do work without having to leave my apartment, on my own schedule, making my own hours, which wound up being “whenever I wasn’t doing other things.”

It didn’t take long for me to quit that job because I was emotionally and physically exhausted, and my family, tired of seeing me working in last night’s pajamas at 6p, were telling me something had to change. 

Fast forward to 2009. I’m now working at a company full time, in the banking industry, which is known for its gender disparity. Being a woman in a man’s department was pretty daunting. I tried to make allies that I knew would advocate for me during meetings I wasn’t invited to. 

A vivid memory I have is having a text conversation with one of those allies, trying to find a way to tell him that he had a fiance and he should stop sending suggestive and outright harassing texts to me, which he continued to do anyway…while I was at my daughter’s softball game.

Fast forward again to 2016. I’m older and wiser now, a PM at an agency that had me, again, working from home. This time I knew to keep actual working hours and actually get dressed each day. 

But the job was ridiculously demanding, and I was working 12+ hour days trying to keep up. This included me keeping coworkers working 12+ hour days, too. I told management that I had too many projects on my plate—I know my limits (or I thought I did). They fired me not long afterwards.

What do all of these stories have in common? A complete lack of boundaries at work.

These things can happen to anyone, but I have found they happen to project managers far more often, due to the nature of our work, where we feel like we have to keep people happy in order for our projects to advance. Let’s learn from my mistakes and talk about setting healthy boundaries at work for digital project managers.

What are Work Boundaries?

Boundaries are essential to keeping our emotional selves happy. Without them, our mental health and personal well-being suffer. As PsychCentral says, “Without limits, it’s hard to be self-aware and independent.”

Even if we know what healthy personal boundaries are, many of us don’t know where to draw them at work, especially when power dynamics can be hard to navigate. And although we can feel that something has crossed a line, we don’t always know how to push back in a professional way.

But when you set a work boundary, you are giving yourself the gift of forethought. Future you, in a position where you have to, say, leave earlier than your colleagues on a certain day, will be so relieved that you set boundaries ahead of time.

Then, it’s a matter of reminding your colleagues about this boundary instead of trying to explain why it’s necessary as it’s happening.

Why Should You Set Boundaries at Work? 

Everyone has things they’ve decided are vital to their working-selves’ well-being. These can be all kinds of things, like:

  • They value their family time
  • They take a yoga or continuing education class every week
  • They have been burnt out before, and they know their limits
  • They have strong personal or religious convictions
  • They don’t want to take on more responsibility or work than they’re being paid to do (or are capable of doing well)

In order to keep ourselves mentally healthy, we have to draw clear boundaries with our colleagues and leaders around those things. I know first-hand how not setting those healthy boundaries can lead you to being unhappy at work.

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5 Types of Boundaries

list of the 5 types of boundaries: personal boundaries, safety boundaries, well being or emotional boundaries, time boundaries, values boundaries
There are generally 5 types of boundaries.

There are at least 5 types of work boundaries that all of us have—or should have. 

Earlier, the boundaries I didn’t set or enforce were: 

  • Personal boundaries: keeping my work and home life separated, not being contacted after work hours.
  • Safety boundaries: being able to speak up when I knew something really wrong and potentially unsafe was happening.
  • Well-being or emotional boundaries: knowing my limits, articulating them to management, and holding to them.

Other boundaries you might want to set are:

  • Time boundaries: defined times for starting and ending work days, or times when you know you won’t be able to work.
  • Values boundaries: not working on projects that align to values that oppose our own, or not engaging in activities we find harmful.

How To Set Healthy Boundaries At Work: 5 Steps

1. Define

The first step to setting healthy work boundaries is knowing what they are. Think about each of those boundary types and think about what you will and will not allow for yourself. Write it all down if you need to—some folks need to be able to see those things on paper, or refer to them from time to time as reminders. 

As you define your work boundaries, understand that some boundaries you may want to set are not reasonable. For example, if I am “on call” one weekend a month, I can’t set a boundary that I am not to be contacted via phone after hours for any reason. If your job requires you to do something that is outside of your boundaries, it may not be the right job for you.

Note that this is an exercise you should revisit regularly. Our personal lives change, our previously healthy work-life balance gets out of whack, and our mental boundaries may become more acute when dealing with what life sometimes hands out.

Revisiting your list of work boundaries and redrawing, adding, or subtracting some is an important way to reduce burnout.

2. Communicate 

Once you define your boundaries, you need to figure out when and how to communicate those to others. Some of your boundaries don’t need to be communicated until they’re threatened, like personal safety or well-being. 

But some should be established early on—things like “I need to be done at 4:30p every Thursday” or “I won’t work on a website that promotes violence.” Be upfront, and tell your manager and anyone else on your team about the boundaries you have that may affect them. 

You might say “I wanted to let you know that I have a standing appointment outside of work on Wednesdays from 11am to 12 noon, and I’m telling you this now so that you can plan appropriately if you need something from me on those days.”

Harder boundaries to communicate (and, heck, to define) are the ones that aren’t so concrete. Especially if they involve how much work you can do.

When I was at that agency that eventually fired me, I couldn’t adequately articulate that I had too much work to do, because I was managing the number of projects that they felt was appropriate. 

Nevermind that projects aren’t the same size, and number of projects is a terrible way to assess workload. But steady communication around this—like, say, prepping your boss that you will want to use part of your 1 on 1 meetings to talk about the amount of work you’re responsible for—will let you and your boss see pitfalls ahead of time. 

So, if you can’t communicate the boundary in absolute terms, at least communicate that you know you have a limit and will tell someone when you know you’re approaching it.

3. Enforce

This is the hardest part of all, and the part that got me into trouble a few times. It’s good to have boundaries, and you do have to communicate them, but holding people to them is difficult. As project managers, we tend to ensure the team has what they need before we attend to our own needs. 

We also want to preserve trust since we work so hard to achieve that. Enforcing boundaries is usually, at best, uncomfortable. Enforcing a boundary really relies on the first 2 steps—defining and communicating. If you haven’t defined them, you might feel like something isn’t right, but you may not be able to point to why. 

If you haven’t communicated them, they’re not going to be easy to enforce—the person won’t know they’ve crossed a boundary if they don’t know it’s there. (Except that person who was inappropriately texting me—no one had to tell him that he’d crossed a line; it was obvious.)

Confidently enforcing your boundaries can sometimes be the most difficult part of your job. It’s also the part that helps you to not burn out, and to keep you mentally (and sometimes physically) healthy. 

The key to enforcing boundaries is to reiterate them clearly, with confidence but without strong emotion, and to understand that a person who knowingly crosses your boundary is in the wrong, not you.

You could offer up something else instead, as we PMs often do: “I can’t stay late, but I can set aside an hour to do this tomorrow.” But you don’t have to.

4. Revisit

Some boundaries wind up “expiring” in time. If you have a child care obligation, when your child is older and doesn’t need rides to and from daycare, your boundary may change. 

Some boundaries may loosen up, like “only taking on 3 projects at a time”—you may find that with experience, you will feel comfortable taking on more. Take a look at the list you created from time to time, and see if anything should change.

Additionally, you might want to revisit any work boundaries where you get a lot of push back: is that boundary reasonable, or have you not explained it in a way that allows others to respect it?

5. Reflect

Sometimes we can give mixed signals about our boundaries. Maybe you’ve established with your team members that you won’t be responding to work emails after hours, but then you start responding to email after hours. Or you have told your boss that you have too many projects, but you volunteer to take on something new. 

If you won’t respect your own boundaries, others are far less likely to as well. So take a hard look at that list you made and check in with yourself—are you violating your own boundaries?

If so, ask yourself why. Is the boundary no longer needed? Is the boundary unreasonable or unhelpful? Do you have the tools you need to say no confidently? 

Take that feedback and redraw those lines, and be sure to explain to others what’s changed (or what hasn’t changed) and why you may be doing things differently in the future. And if you need help learning to say no, here are some great resources to help.

Examples Of Boundaries At Work

Here are some examples of boundaries that you might set at work, or that people around you may set and you’ll need to respect, along with language used to set those boundaries:

Not taking on more work than you’re comfortable doing“I have other projects that I’m currently responsible for, and adding to that load will put all of my projects in jeopardy.”
“I can take that on, but not until x project is done.”
Starting or ending work at a certain time on certain days, or ad-hoc time constraints“I can’t attend meetings before 10am.”
“I will need to leave work early this Friday for a personal obligation.”
Not attending work functions where alcohol is served, or for religious or other personal reasons“I can’t attend happy hour this Friday.”
“I will need to leave before sundown for the next 4 weeks.”
Staying out of someone’s office or workspace until being acknowledged:“I need to stay focused, so please knock and wait for me to say ‘come in’.”
“I’m adding a sign to my desk that says ‘Available’ and ‘Unavailable’ so you know if I’m able to talk or not.”
Declining to donate money or time to a work-sponsored charity“I’m not able to accommodate that now.”
“That activity isn’t something I feel comfortable doing.”
Not being contacted via phone“Please use my cell number only for urgent text messages; otherwise, email me.”
“My cell number is reserved for family only. Please send me a slack message—it will be delivered to my phone and I’ll see it right away.”
Only being addressed by your full first name, or by a specific nickname“I know people sometimes want to shorten it to Pat or Patty, but please address me as Patrice.”
“I go by Topher, not Chris or Christopher.”
Respecting personal space or physical boundaries“I’m not a hugger, but I am so happy to see you.”
“I’m the kind of person who feels uncomfortable with physical touch.”
Declining to disclose your social media“My Twitter feed is pretty personal, so I don’t want you to include it in my bio.”
“I keep my Facebook private, so I won’t be able to boost our socials by posting there.”

Be sure you respect others’ boundaries

Respecting others’ boundaries is almost as important as setting your own. If someone is clear about what they will or will not do, it’s your job as a good human to respect that.

If you have tried, but can’t do that, then it’s time for a conversation with that person about how to draw a boundary that makes sense for you and for them.

Remember, boundaries are a healthy gift you give yourself

It can sometimes feel uncomfortable drawing and holding your boundaries, but in the end, you’re letting yourself down the most.

But you won’t just be letting yourself down: Brené Brown says it best: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. Boundaries allow you to be kind to yourself and to be kind to others. What are some of your boundaries? Comment below, because I’m always on the lookout for good, healthy boundary material.

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By Patrice Embry

Patrice Embry of Project Menagerie is a freelance digital project manager and Certified Scrum Master. After 25 years in the field, she has been fortunate to work for agencies, corporations, and everything in between. Her clients have spanned far and wide across verticals: pharmaceutical, finance, construction, ecommerce, race cars, you name it. Her client roster includes LeBron James, ExxonMobil, Merck HCP Education, Lundbeck Pharma, ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, GS1, SEI Investments, Hamline University, and many more.