Where are your boundaries?
“I feel so drained,” he said as he sat down to begin the session. “I’ve been working silly hours again and I’m continually exhausted. I don’t know how I keep getting into this situation.”
Do you feel like that? It’s so easy to get drawn into things, to get so busy that you feel powerless; like you are no longer in control. This situation is so common regardless of whether you have a tough boss...or that boss is yourself. But how does this happen?
There’s a proverb that says “Like a city whose walls are broken through, is a person who lacks self-control”.
I live in St Albans, which in its heyday during Roman times was the third largest city in Roman Britain. It was protected by a boundary wall which went right the way around the city. Anyone going in or out could be assessed as they had to go via the main gates.
You can visit the remains of one of those gates, the Londinium gate, which was the main entrance and exit point to the city at the time. This was a natural and time-tested way to build cities for the protection and security of the inhabitants. It kept in those who were supposed to be there and kept out those that weren’t. There is no debate about it. You are either in or out. The wall meant the citizens felt protected, they could sleep at night.
The wall comes tumbling down
So what if the walls are broken? Over the years, the boundary of the city will become ill-defined as the walls disintegrate and other things are built up in and around them creating further confusion. Anyone can come and go as they please. There are no fixed entrance and exit points. The citizens feel anything but secure.
Just as with cities, without clear boundaries, it’s easy to let anything come and go as it pleases, in and out of your life. It can even seem noble at first. You don’t have to say no to anything or anyone. But reality soon hits home as stress levels rise and you feel constantly drained, succumbing to everyone else's demands.
So how do you set boundaries?
A key thing, as the proverb says, is to have self-control. Self-control means to have self-mastery or self-restraint. When it comes to boundaries here’s two things you can look at to protect yourself and have that restraint to be able to say no.
Set criteria - decide what goes in and out
Enforce it - put it into action
Set your criteria - decide what goes in and out
Imagine saying yes to everything. I mean, it’s not nice to let people down right? And it might mean extra money, extra recognition. That can’t be bad surely?
If you have criteria for how you choose opportunities; how you make decisions over what you will and won’t do, you immediately give yourself a fighting chance to remain in control. This is a critical first step.
Your criteria become the gate in the wall of your city. Any opportunity has to be able to pass through to get in.
Your own criteria will depend on your values as well as the specific area of opportunity you are looking at. Here’s some example of criteria you might choose.
Is it legal, decent, honest and truthful?
Will it detract from my priorities (family, other commitments)?
Will it take me closer toward my goal and not push me further away from it?
Will it give me a good return (not just financially)?
Do I currently have the time and resources for it?
Is it in line with my values and beliefs, or contrary to them?
You may have other items that will go on your list for you to use every time you need to evaluate an opportunity.
Enforce it - put it into action
All of the above is utterly useless if you don’t follow through and consistently put it into action.
Just recently I was asked to design some banners for a client. It was a Friday and they said it would need to be done before the weekend. I hadn’t had a lot of design work recently so it could have been quite good to keep my hand in design, not to mention financially.
However, my boundaries when it comes to rush jobs are set high...very high. From experience, I know how 99% of jobs like this turn out. It would be a lot of unnecessary stress as I’m essentially paying for someone else’s bad management. Why was it a rush job in the first place?
I would have to charge a higher fee for this which inevitably the client almost always seems to quibble over. This means spending even more time negotiating the price, reducing the already minimal time I have to complete the project in the first place.
I know many people who would have just taken that on as it can be a struggle to say no, to feel like you’re letting someone down. But through experience, as I know my boundaries in this area, it’s an easy decision to make. Naturally, I turned it down.
There are always repercussions for every decision. Not letting something through your boundary wall can mean pain–but often only in the short term. You may have less money, less respect or it can seem like it will push your goals further away.
But on the positive side, you will be less stressed, be able to build and plan for the future instead of constantly fire-fighting, and often you will gain more respect. I have had clients say to me over the years that they admire when I turn a project down–as they know for themselves, the stress vs reward is not a good equation.
You are the only one that is in control of your boundaries. How you set them says a lot about what your priorities are, and as Greg McKeown says, “If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will”. Don’t let someone else decide what goes in and out of your life. Avoid unnecessary stress and continual exhaustion. Set your criteria and constantly enforce it.
If you want help with setting priorities, I have a wonderful FREE tool to allow you to do just that called the Clarity Wheel. Download it here and feel free to let me know how you get on.