Boundaries - set, honor, survive: a 'how to' guide

Boundaries - set, honor, survive: a 'how to' guide

“Balance is not better time management but better boundary management.” – Betsy Jacobson

Have you glanced at the clock in the corner of your screen and said, "wait, that can’t be right? How can it be 6 p.m. already!" You tell yourself you are almost done and then another hour goes by. The need to figure out dinner, spend time with your family and get a good night’s rest are all tossed aside. You may besetting boundaries but then rationalizing or negotiating them away.

During the pandemic people spend a lot more time at home, working from home or home-schooling, etc. The boundary lines have blurred between work/school and home activities. Now is when we need to most reset our boundaries because honoring the balance between work and other activities helps keep us healthier and happier.  

Leaders set the example for honoring boundaries

If we don’t honor our own boundaries that we’ve set, how can we expect anyone else to? As leaders we are setting an example for others, even when we don’t realize it. The example we are setting may be “just a few more minutes working,” but it is sending the message that ourselves and those we love are not our priority. As a working mom for over half of my corporate career this was a daily struggle – at times exacerbated by the leaders that surrounded me.

One of the leaders I worked with would often come into the office very early in the morning and send e-mails at all hours as thoughts occurred to him. This system seemed to work for him but left others around him stressed. What he didn’t realize is that people watching him and on the receiving end of his emails interpreted the way he was working as an expectation for them. He noticed that his direct reports were coming in earlier and earlier so that the boss wouldn’t be at the office before them. He also began getting email responses back quickly after he sent the emails, even if it was the middle of the night for the person responding. What he had done to try to stay on top of all his responsibilities and ideas had ended up creating more stress for everyone. Once he realized what was going on he called a meeting to discuss his expectations and maybe more importantly, what he didn’t expect.

Let’s talk about boundaries

There was a collective sigh of relief when everyone realized that the leader worked the way he did to make his responsibilities manageable, and he didn’t expect them to come in as early as he did nor did he expect instant responses to his emails. He DID expect them to strive for work-life balance and spend time with their families and take their vacations. Because he wasn’t honoring his own boundaries, he inadvertently sent a message that he expected others not to have/honor boundaries either. The leader learned from that situation and started doing a better job of setting a good example for others.

Much has been written and discussed about work-life balance. Some say it’s not attainable. Others say that if you’re doing work you love, that is a balance in itself. There is no one right answer. But whatever your definition of work-life balance is, achieving the balance requires setting boundaries. There will be days where things don’t go according to plan and you must disregard the boundaries to take care of some crisis. Life happens. The important point is don’t let the difficulties that crop up become an excuse for giving up on boundaries all together.

Debbie Collard practices work-life balance by taking a vacation to the beach with her daughters.
Part of setting boundaries and honoring them is making sure to take time with family. My recent trip to the Central California Coast was a welcome break after more than a year of staying home due to the COVID-19 virus. 

How to set and honor boundaries

Part of great leadership is being a life-long learner. I wanted to learn from others, and I needed to break the cycle of blurring or negotiating away my boundaries. To put myself back on the path to healthy balance I started small. These are steps anyone can follow to get on track.

First, commit to set work hours. Leave on time (or stop working at that time if at home) and don’t schedule any work appointments or meetings outside of those hours.

Second, change clothes when done working. This seemingly small step signals to your brain “I am now on “me” time.”  

Third, schedule exercise (or another activity that is important to you) to make sure you fit in the number of workouts (or activities) needed to keep healthy and reduce stress.

These three things may sound small, but they made a big difference. I sometimes slip, or something comes up to interfere and blur the boundary lines again. When that happens, I remind myself that I have a choice and I am purposeful about choosing when to break the boundaries and when not to, so that it’s a conscious choice rather than just happening.

In the Seasons Leadership Program, Leading Self and Leading Others are two of the main acorns of our program. Setting boundaries and honoring those boundaries contributes to both acorns, by setting a good leadership example. You can sign up for our program or learn more by joining our community at

Want more leadership insights from the Almanac?
- How to be a motivational leader
- Lead with vision

Debbie Collard, co-founder of Seasons Leadership, has 30+ years of leadership experience. She served on the National Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors for 15 years, including as the first female Chair of the Board. She is an iPEC- and ICF-Certified Professional Coach and co-author of The Making of a World- Class Organization, a practical guide for leaders to engage employees and increase profitability.

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