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Setting Boundaries: The Key to Maintaining Control of Your Life

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Read Time: 16 min
This post is part of a series called Essential Productivity Principles.
4 Important Personal Habits for a More Productive Life
How to Stay Productive and Stick to a Daily Rhythm

Boundaries are not optional. They're necessary if you want to focus, achieve your own goals, be able to rest and enjoy life, and reach your standard of success. There are more opportunities, more obligations, more options, and more demands than you can ever handle. Your time and your resources are limited, so you have to decide how you're going to allot them. 

Setting Boundaries Maintaining Control of Your LifeSetting Boundaries Maintaining Control of Your LifeSetting Boundaries Maintaining Control of Your Life
Learn how to set and stick to healthy boundaries. (Image source: Envato Elements)

If you don't set boundaries, your resources will simply be spent on the needs that show up first or scream the loudest. Boundaries give you the ability to guard how you spend your time and resources, so you don't waste yourself on drama, crisis management, or low priority tasks. 

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything. – Warren Buffett

Saying no is just as important as saying yes, but it's not always easy. This tutorial will teach you how to set and stick to healthy boundaries, so you can deal with distractions, manage your time, keep your task list under control, and be more productive in work and life.

1. Set Boundaries Quickly

The sooner you set boundaries, the better. You're training others on how to treat you; it's easier to set a new precedent in a new situation or with new relationships than to undo established patterns of behavior. So, when you find yourself in a beginning phase of a project, client relationship, or work environment, explain and stick to your boundaries from the first day. 

In many cases, of course, we're already neck-deep in something before we realize that we have allowed way too much freedom. It's not impossible to set new boundaries or change the ones you have in these situations. Realize, however, that you'll have to overcome old habits in addition to training yourself and others in new ones. 

People tend to be slow to change, so have patience and be ready to explain yourself a few times. When setting boundaries in a situation where they haven't existed, it's even more important to be consistent. Lack of consistency will tell people that you're not serious about your "new boundaries" and they will default to their old behaviors. 

2. Identify the Obstacles

In order to clarify exactly which boundaries you need in your life, you need to think about your highest priorities—the goals you want to achieve, and the ways you want to spend your time—and then think about what keeps you from those priorities. 

Step 1. List the Things that Matter

To figure out where you most need boundaries in your life, think about the things that matter most to you: maybe your top three goals, or one important work goal and one important personal goal. Or think in terms of things you enjoy and want to do most, but often feel you don't have time to do. 

Hipster Office with List PadHipster Office with List PadHipster Office with List Pad
Making a list can help you to figure out where you need boundaries. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Step 2. Look for the Obstacles

Once you've got a short list of your highest priorities, you're ready to identify the things that keep you from them. Remember that obstacles may not keep you entirely from making progress or from putting time into your priorities, but they make it difficult. The most insidious obstacles, in fact, are the ones that creep in quietly, establish themselves in a corner of your life, and then chip away, a bit at a time, from your focus, your energy, and your time. 

Step 3. Address the Three Types of Obstacles

There are three types of obstacles to look for in your life. First, there are situational obstacles. These obstacles come from seemingly random circumstances, such as the traffic or the weather. Although situational obstacles seem to be entirely out of our control, if you find yourself blocked by them repeatedly, you can probably make some changes that will help you avoid them, at least sometimes. For example, if you lose an hour of your evening sitting in traffic, you could negotiate with your boss to come in an hour earlier and leave an hour earlier. The situation (high traffic) still exists, but you've changed your behavior so you don't have to regularly encounter it.

Second, there are self-created obstacles. These obstacles are the main topics of productivity posts: how to focus, how to stay on task, how to manage your time, how to quit procrastinating, how to set your own priorities, how to build an efficient work flow. The key to dismantling these obstacles is, of course, to change your own behavior. Easier said than done, but still quite doable.

Finally, there are interpersonal obstacles. These obstacles, created by other people in your life, are by far the most common. Think about the babysitter who cancels at the last minute, the boss who throws an urgent task at you on Friday afternoon, the client whose project keeps expanding, or the friend who always needs urgent help with some unforeseen crisis. People obstacles are frustrating, because we assume that people consciously choose to create chaos and stress in our lives. They must be acting on purpose to derail us, right? 

Not really; usually, people are just focused on their own problems and unaware of how they're affecting you. When you see an obstacle with a person behind it, resist the urge to create drama and conflict over one obstacle; generally, other people will see your resistance as random and feel offended by your attack. 

They may concede to your requests, but then they will default to the same old patterns of behavior. To get rid of these obstacles in your life, you've got to take a step back, identify the patterns, and build boundaries that prevent the patterns from being part of your life. 

3. Identify the Patterns

You've found an obstacle. Now you need to find the pattern that allows the obstacle to exist in your life. For example, let's say that one of your obstacles is busy weekends. Your priority is to spend weekend time working on your personal goals or side projects, and spending time with friends and family. It seems, however, that you end up finishing work tasks, running lots of errands, and catching up on your own chores. 

Step 1. Recognize that Patterns Create Obstacles

When setting boundaries, we often focus on the obstacles rather than patterns. But setting boundaries for particular obstacles is short-sighted; there's almost always a pattern of behavior, either yours or someone else's, that needs to be addressed in order to prevent future obstacles. In this scenario, you could just decide you won't let errands, chores, or work tasks into your weekend. But those things have to happen, and if you don't identify the pattern that pushes them into your weekend, you'll eventually face an even bigger obstacle. 

The obstacle, then, is the busyness of the weekend; but what pattern of behavior is causing this obstacle to exist? Are you slacking on your household chores during the week, so you have a backlog on the weekend? Do you procrastinate on the less-inviting work tasks until the last minute, so you end up with unfinished items to do over the weekend? Do you let yourself run out of essential items, or push to the last possible minute on errands like buying birthday gifts, so you end up having to get all those things done at once?

Step 2. Set Pattern-Interrupting Boundaries

Once you see the patterns that allow the obstacle to exist, you know where you need boundaries. Let's say you realize that you put errands off as long as possible, because you don't like doing them. But that pattern of behavior creates a huge backlog of errands, and eventually, usually on weekends, you have to dig in and get them done. 

An obstacle-oriented boundary would be something like "No errands on the weekends!" But you need a pattern-interrupting boundary: so you decide that your boundary will be: 

No last-minute errands; all errands must be completed three days before they have to be done.

The boundary is a time requirement that forces you to complete errands early; you'll have to make a stop or two on Wednesday evening in order to get your dry cleaning and pick up that wedding gift for Saturday. When you get to Saturday, your errands are done. Set similar boundaries to interrupt problem patterns with work tasks and chores, and you will be able to spend your weekend the way you want to. 

4. Set Broad Boundaries

Specific boundaries interrupt a specific pattern, and thus prevent a specific obstacle or set of obstacles from entering your life. In the same way that pattern-interrupting boundaries are better than obstacle-oriented boundaries, broad boundaries are better and more efficient than specific boundaries. 

Step 1. Review Specific Versus Broad Boundaries

In our weekend scenario, above, let's say you went ahead and created the boundary around errands. You wrote it out, committed to it, told a few friends about it, and you've been doing pretty good sticking with it. You love that your weekends are now errand-free, so you decide it's time to free your weekends from work tasks and long chore lists as well. You create two new boundaries: all work tasks must be finished or tabled by Friday afternoon, and you'll do two household chores every night before you turn on Netflix. 

These three separate boundaries would work, and probably work well. But what if you could interrupt three patterns of behavior with a single, broader boundary? That would be less to remember, less to be accountable for, and much more efficient. Your broad boundary could be one of these:

Any one of those broad boundaries would prevent: 

  1. Piled-up errands. 
  2. Long, overdue household chore list.
  3. Unfinished work tasks taking over your weekend. 

That's because a broader boundary interrupts a broader pattern (procrastination and disorganization) which is driving those smaller patterns and creating the individual obstacles. 

Step 2. Set Broad Boundaries for Interpersonal Obstacles

In the busy weekend scenario, of course, you're dealing with self-created obstacles and patterns of behavior. Your boundaries are designed to change your own behavior, and if honored consistently, they will. 

Many times, however, you're going to be dealing with interpersonal obstacles, which means trying to interrupt other people's patterns of behavior. This can get tricky. Broad boundaries help prevent the Personal Offense Syndrome that is so common when you start standing up for yourself and refusing to be controlled by other people's needs and demands. 

For example, if you're dealing with a client who continually sends in last-minute requests, you could identify the pattern of behavior: the client waits until last minute to review your work, which then pushes requests and changes to the edge of project deadlines and screws up your entire workload. You decide to set up a boundary to prevent this pattern. 

The next time you turn work in for this client, you call and clarify that all change requests must be received by the weekend or you won't be able to complete them. That's a great boundary which would effectively prevent the pattern. However, it can also create offense and conflict if either:

  1. Your client finds out that you're only applying this boundary to her.
  2. Or, if a slightly different timing scenario occurs in the future, which makes your "by-the-weekend" requirement ineffective.  

The solution is to step back and look for the broadest possible boundary that will still effectively interrupt this pattern of behavior, not only for this particular client but for all present and future clients. Perhaps you could set a boundary that:

  1. All change requests must be received within 48 hours of work submission. 
  2. Or, All change requests must be received at least 2 weeks prior to project deadline. 

When you create a broad boundary, and apply it universally, you prevent a single person—whether that's your client, your colleague, or your best friend—from feeling as if they are being personally rejected or betrayed. Broader boundaries also prevent similar obstacles from being created by other people in future situations. They give you more autonomy: you're not just controlling your dealings with a particular client, but with all clients. 

5. Personalize Boundary Enforcement

Broad boundaries are better, because they apply universally and prevent personal offense. Broad boundaries are also more efficient, giving you more control over your entire life by working at a higher level. However, even though many boundaries will apply universally, or, at least, universally in a particular area of your life, the way you explain and enforce boundaries needs to be personalized. 

Home office photo with laptopHome office photo with laptopHome office photo with laptop
The way you explan and enforce boundaries is important. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Three Types of People

There are three main types of people who will encounter your boundaries: yourself, work-related people (colleagues, clients, mentors, your boss), and people with whom you have personal or social relationships. You can't necessarily explain or enforce boundaries the same way for everyone. Well, you can, but it's probably not wise.

When setting boundaries for yourself, you can be brutally honest without fear of misunderstanding or offense. And you can, and should, call in outside help for accountability and use tools that force you to be honest and consistent. For example, you can share with your spouse or a friend that you're going to limit your time on social media to, say, 30 minutes a day. Then you could use a tool like SelfControlStayFocusd, or Moment to force you to stick to those limits. 

When setting boundaries for others, however, you have to consider the closeness and limits of each relationship. You can be rather blunt with your best friend or your work peer, but you might need to rethink your phrasing when sharing the same boundary with your boss or your mother-in-law. 

For example, maybe you're only going to check and respond to email twice a day, no matter who it's from. For your friends or family members who send you random memes and articles, no big deal; there's nothing urgent there, so you can simply respond when you're doing one of your daily checks. For your work colleagues and clients, however, you may need to set up an autoresponder with a brief, courteous message so they don't feel like you're ignoring them and know when to expect a response. 

6. Hold the Line

Assume that people will roll right over your boundaries, or try to, because they will. Most of the time boundary violations will be completely unintentional. People won't be aware of your boundaries unless you explain them, and even if you do, people will forget or act according to habit. 

People who violate your boundaries are thieves. They steal time that doesn’t belong to them. – Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Step 1. Plan for Boundary Violations

When a boundary violation occurs, you don't need to be offended by it; simply plan on it happening and have a plan for when it does. 

What will you say? What phrases will you use? Write a script with several response options, and practice saying them out loud. Then think about your method: Will you have a face-to-face conversation, send an email, or make a phone call? If all of those modes of communication are possible, which one is best? Create a hierarchy: first, I will send an email; next, I will make a phone call; finally, I will ask for a face-to-face conversation. Or work the other way around, starting with a non-confrontational conversation and following up with a call or email. 

The goal is to get your message across without creating unnecessary conflict. Of course, you might face conflict, anyway. Some people will understand and honor your boundaries; their violations will be unintentional, and you'll often be able to deal with them by kindly reminding them of your boundary. 

Other people, however, will resent the fact that you are choosing to be autonomous. You will encounter sabotage and manipulation, bullies and gossips. This won't be fun to deal with, but ignoring these people and their poor behavior makes it inevitable that they will violate your boundaries again, and each violation will be more difficult to handle. 

Step 2. Quick Responses Are Best

When you ignore boundary violations, you signal to others that you're not really serious about your boundaries and they feel even more free to ignore them in the future. When you finally decide to stand your ground, you'll have a lot of disbelief to overcome.

Deal with violations as soon as possible. Having a plan helps you to do that; if you've already memorized clear but kind phrases and have a strategy for your response, you don't have to depend on your wit, intelligence, and emotional control in the moment. Simply follow your plan. 

If you feel mentally or emotionally unable to respond well, it's okay to buy yourself some time. Just don't let that bit of recovery time turn into a failure to respond. The longer you wait to address boundary violations, the less serious you seem about your boundaries. Remember, you don't have to be rude or harsh, just firm and consistent. 

Step 3. Address Why You Don't Enforce Boundaries

Be aware of the reasons you might not enforce your boundaries. According to John Townsend, Ph.D, who is a business coach, psychologist, and co-author of the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, there are three primary reasons we don't enforce our own boundaries. Those reasons are:  

  1. fear of losing the relationship
  2. avoidance of anger or conflict
  3. feelings of guilt 

When we're afraid, avoiding conflict, or feeling guilty, our minds have a neat way of making absurd or poor reasoning seem logical and objective. But you can learn to be more honest with yourself and become more truly objective about your choices. When you've set a boundary, and then you hesitate to enforce it, stop and ask yourself why: Am I afraid of losing or jeopardizing this relationship? Am I avoiding anger or a conflict? Am I feeling guilty? Once you can identify your primary feeling, examine why it's there. 

This will help you determine if it's a feeling you should follow, or if your feeling is feeding you false information. 

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Know the reasons you might not enforce your boundaries. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Boundaries Create Success

Boundaries can be difficult to set and hold, but boundaries aren't optional, remember? You've got to establish your own lines if you want to be able to dedicate time to what you love and consider most important. 

Boundaries give you autonomy. Boundaries keep you from being controlled by the trivial. Boundaries can set you free from other people's drama and poor decisions, and help you establish control over your own life. 

Once you have control, you can direct your own life much more effectively, and reach the success you want.


Graphic Credit: Fence icon designed by Creative Stall from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in December of 2015. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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