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4 not-so-obvious boundaries that might save your sanity at work

by Laura Vrcek

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“Don’t expect others to hold your boundaries for you.” This advice from psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson seems like common sense for our personal lives, but what about in our work lives? This is a particularly complex challenge, as overworked millennials often take pride in self-sacrifice in the name of career development.

When considering setting healthy boundaries in the workplace, there are some obvious questions to consider: How much of my inner self should I reveal to colleagues? Should I accept my boss’s Facebook friend request?

But there are also some not-so-obvious boundaries that affect the way we work—many of which have to do with energy management. Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. and author of “The Happiness Track”, considers this the practice of balancing high-intensity and low-intensity emotions. In a sense, we must be conscious of our own emotional spikes, often brought on by external influences, as to not dwindle away our finite emotional energy.

Continually accepting work that’s beyond your capacity is fuel for "success as a catalyst for failure".

Here are a few ways energy can be drained at work without you realizing it, plus some creative ways for how to handle these scenarios.

Feeling pressured to take on another project when your workload is full?

Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, believes that we should see saying “no” as an obligation if the alternative of saying “yes” means we will compromise our “ability to make our highest contribution.”

To a degree, going above and beyond is a positive quality for employees—it shows dedication, passion, and drive. But continually accepting work that’s beyond your capacity is fuel for what McKeown calls “success [as] a catalyst for failure.”

While it may feel good to be a reliable employee for new projects, consider how the extra work will affect the quality of your current workload before signing up for more.

Far too distracted by “shoulder tapping” in an open office?

In open offices, the struggle to feel ownership and control of one’s space is real. While office spaces with open floorplans are touted for their ability to foster impromptu collaboration, they can also cause higher levels of stress. But even if you are successful in canceling out noise pollution with headphones, the chances of being shoulder-tapped by a colleague are still high.

The next time a teammate shoulder-taps you with a question, consider asking them to email or Slack you instead so you can give their question your full, unswerving attention.

Feeling obligated to change focus on a dime?

Between impromptu meetings and swarms of digital notifications, there are seemingly endless distractions that tempt us to shift attention from the task at hand.

As someone who works primarily from a home office, I’m continually making decisions about whether or not to pick up the phone, for both unplanned work calls and personal calls. I’ve learned that I’m not any less efficient for deciding to silence a call and follow up thereafter if I’m deeply in “the zone.” If something’s incredibly urgent, I know I’ll receive a text or email which will help me vet the need and respond appropriately.

Being aware of how sustained (or strained) your focus is can help you be more productive, be a better communicator, and feel more in control of your work life.

Feeling overwhelmed by email?

Boomerang, a Gmail add-on, now includes a feature called Inbox Pause, which allows you to stop receiving new, incoming emails until you’re ready to turn them back on again. This might not fly with every boss, but it can be a helpful tool if you’re the type to struggle with “turning it off” at the end of the workday or need extra incentive to pay attention during meetings.

Ultimately, boundaries, at work or in our personal lives, are all about consistency. If you’re inconsistent, colleagues, friends, and family will have a difficult time understanding how to best interact with you. Show them the best way by sticking to the boundaries you’ve set for yourself, with one caveat: be flexible as an exception, rather than the rule.

Artwork by CHRIS MARTZ

Laura Vrcek

Laura Vrcek is a writer based in Northern California. She’s currently working on a memoir about spreading her father’s ashes in four bodies of water across the U.S.

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