Setting Healthy Boundaries

Air conditioning. Powered flight. Radio broadcasting. Washing machines. Assembly lines. Affordable motor cars.

What do these game-changing innovations have in common?

They were all invented between 1902 and 1910.

That’s less than a decade after the director of U.S. Patents and Trademarks declared that his agency was obsolete. In 1902, Commissioner Charles Duell is purported to have said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

The quote may be apocryphal, but it sheds light on our natural tendency to both underestimate and to resist change. Most of us tend to protect our status quo — positions, procedures, relationships, whatever. Often, our first reaction is to push back on anything that even slightly affects or disrupts our current situation.

On one level, we know change is inevitable. We know it’s necessary. We know it can bring about good results. But to be honest, most of us are still a little wary when it knocks on our own front door. So don’t be surprised when folks are suspicious (and even a bit upset) when you attempt to institute change.

Over the years, I’ve found that other people’s resistance to change can sabotage your best intentions to improve things — especially when it comes to boundaries.


Redefining boundaries

Most of us agree with the concept of boundaries, yet we may put off establishing them in our own work environment. If you’re wondering if you need to institute new access limits or modify your existing protocols, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel stretched thin and pulled in a hundred different directions? Are you sometimes overwhelmed by non-stop interactions?
  • Do clients (and peers) demand your time outside of scheduled work hours? Do they request access to you beyond your comfortable capacity?
  • Do you feel burned out or like you never have enough time for yourself? Are you resentful of others for intruding into your personal time?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, it’s safe to say you could benefit from establishing stronger boundaries in your business. When a leader has trouble saying “no” to demands on their time (based on worries about losing revenue or momentum), they run the risk of negatively impacting their health, sanity, and well-being. Plus, the health of their teams and organization will suffer in the long run.

The acronym FOMO (fear of missing out) describes the driver behind the nagging reluctance of leaders and entrepreneurs to strategically disengage from “the action.”


What happens when we rock the boat?

Recently, I was speaking to a successful individual about his rather glaring need to establish healthy boundaries. Specifically, I was talking about managing his work schedule and blocking off Fridays so he didn’t have to take meetings.

I could tell the idea was appealing. But there was a problem. An objection. His hang-up was, “What will others think?” Fair question. None of us live or work in a vacuum. At that point, I steered the conversation toward explaining what’s likely to happen when we attempt to shake things up in any area of life or business.

I told him, “When we decide to establish healthy boundaries for ourselves, others will react. Their reaction tends to evolve over time and go through distinct phases of response, not all of them positive.”

Based on years of coaching and observation, I’ve condensed this complex series of reactions into three basic phases…

  1. They Resist. Anger, fear, confusion, pushback — people need time to process the emotions they feel about the change you’ve just laid on them. Remember, most people don’t like change, so you can expect some form of resistance. In this stage, you’ll hear comments like, “I can’t believe he’s not accessible on Fridays … What a slacker … How dare he bail on us like this?”When this happens, we need to hold strongly to our new boundary. If we do, those around us will eventually move to the next phase.
  2. They Respect. Once the change is firmly established, they’ll learn to accept it and even start to respect your new boundary. Over time, they may begin to defend your decision and explain it to others in positive terms. Comments move to something like, “Nope, you can’t meet with him on Fridays … I’m happy to set you up for Monday.” This transition happens best when you conduct yourself graciously, express yourself humbly, and manage your new boundaries consistently. Respect is a two-way street.
  3. They Replicate. Over time, respecting you may shift to envying you. Witnessing how your new boundaries improve your attitude and performance can make your peers jealous (in a good way). You’ll start to hear comments like, “Man, I wish I could control my schedule like that guy … I wish I had free Fridays … Can you tell me how to do it?” Motivated by your success, they may copy what you’ve done. In that case, you’ve helped another person move into a healthy behavior pattern. Congrats.


Barriers versus Boundaries.

Working without set limits is not sustainable, effective or smart. If you don’t pace yourself, no one else will do it for you. But it’s easier said than done. You will inevitably hit some barriers, both internally and externally. When faced with the daunting task of setting new boundaries, it’s natural to worry about the impact…

“If I reduce the number of days I’m available, my team will freak out … The only way to keep my accounts is by sacrificing my free time … But I’ve always been available on Fridays. If I back off, my competitors will jump in.”

Guess what? That may be may not be a bad thing. Living and working based on the whims of overly demanding clients or coworkers is not healthy or sustainable. Your team will kill you if you let them. Not really, but you get the point.

If your peers are not willing to support you as you adjust your lifestyle to a more sustainable model, maybe they’re not a good fit. Likewise, if your clients won’t accept anything less than 24/7 access, maybe you need to adjust your customer base.

When you commit to grow as a person, you may outgrow some of your current team members and some of your current clients. Hopefully not, but don’t be surprised if things move that way.

Finding the right balance between personal happiness and business performance is not cut and dried. It may take some trial and error. But stick to it. Keep driving toward your vision, stay on course, and the right associates and customers will come.

Lots of people try to carve out boundaries. Only a few succeed. For one reason or another, they quit. They give up on making self-care a top priority. They stop safeguarding their personal lives. Here’s my advice on how to go the distance: During all three reaction phases, think positive, stay focused and ignore negativity.


Lessons from a blockbuster.

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

That classic line is from the third installment of The Godfather. In it, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) sincerely tries to change his ways and turn over a new leaf. He tries to “create boundaries” between himself and the underworld. Corleone went to great lengths to legitimize his business dealings and restore his reputation. Unfortunately, the people around him were stuck on what I call “phase one” — they resisted.

In any organizational structure — mob or legit — it’s difficult to escape our old habits and ways of doing things. If you decide to set boundaries, expect to bump into a zillion reasons to cave in and go back to your former “business-as-usual” schedule.

Bottom line?

Don’t expect others to immediately embrace your new self-imposed parameters. But remember, you are ultimately the one who defines how you want to live your life. So make sure you communicate your expectations clearly. If you persist, I guarantee you’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive. It may also help combat stress, protect your relationships, and increase your life expectancy.

Eventually, if you stick to your boundaries, your clients, co-workers, and family will thank you for it.

And that’s an offer you can’t refuse.