ARTICLE: “Personal Boundaries: Essential for Balance”

Setting boundaries is critical if you want to increase your personal productivity and maintain balance. Setting boundaries is a way of defining who you are, what you’re all about, what’s acceptable to you, and what’s not. Have you ever had a heated exchange with someone, only to come up with all the things you should have said two hours later? That occurs when you don’t set proper limits and take care of business when it’s in front of you. 

You set limits are when you express feelings, opinions, desires, or needs—you bring problems out in the open, even if may cause conflict. It is not about revenge, seeing who can make the cuter comment, or being a smart-alec. It is about expressing your individuality in a world of differences and balancing respect for others with respect for yourself.

Creating boundaries is a crucial step in regaining control of your life. We often act like the full-service gas stations of old: “You pull on up into my life, and I will fill you up and make you happy. What can I do for you? I’m here to take care of your needs.” And what happened to full-service gas stations? They have largely become a thing of the past. Times are changing—the trend is now self-service. You still take care of the basics. You maintain your own car, you fill it with gas, and put air in the tires. However, anything beyond that, you ask for help, you consult, you collaborate. You draw upon the resources of your pit crew when you encounter trouble. You must do maintenance prevention on yourself. Ask yourself, “Am I a quart low?”

If the answer is yes, you need to get better at setting boundaries. For example, question travel requests when you feel a conference call would be sufficient. Tell the kids that your private time cannot be interrupted. Don’t take phone calls during specific times. Refuse to take business lunches. I personally don’t accept more than three out-of-town speaking engagements per month. It’s important for me to be around for my young children. So after three days, I tell clients my calendar is closed for that month and make up the rest with local corporate clients.

Take a close look at how much time you could save for yourself next week, if this week you started being honest with people about things you don’t really want to do. Say, “NO!” Some people have a jam-packed calendar because they just can’t say that little word. Be realistic! Your friend is not going to hate you if you can’t go shopping. The world will not stop revolving if you don’t chair the PR committee. If you’ve been asked to bake brownies for the Girl Scout meeting, offer to buy some during your next shopping trip instead. Think of other ways to accommodate requests made by others. If that’s not good enough, the meeting planner will ask someone else. Good! At least you’ve done your part.

If someone asks you to lunch and you just cannot find the time, you might politely say, “Ordinarily that would be fine, but it just doesn’t fit into my schedule right now.” Learn to say no to your boss too! When your boss asks you to take on yet another huge project say, “Right now I’m working on that database project you assigned me. I’m afraid if I take on something new, it won’t get done on time. However, I am willing to do this new project. Which do you prefer?” Or “I’ll be glad to handle that for you. However, I can’t get to it until I finish the XYZ project. I’ll have that to you in three weeks.” Ask your boss what the relative priorities are for the different pieces of work on your plate. That’s a reasonable way to call your existing workload to your boss’ attention, and you won’t be fired for pointing it out.

The key is to find a way to say no in a way that is polite, from the heart, and speaks your peace. Don’t be too passive and let others violate your rights, but don’t be too aggressive either and violate others’ rights. Here’s a good phrase that works for me: “Thank you so much for asking, but that just doesn’t work for me right now.” Then smile, look at them in the eyes, and BE QUIET! You don’t need to rationalize or explain. What can they say to that? If they try to object, just keep repeating, “That just doesn’t work for me right now.” It’s friendly, but firm. In addition, get into the habit of ALWAYS buying time. When asked to do something, respond automatically, “I’ll need to check my schedule and get back to you on that.” And remember, if you agreed to do something you’d much rather not, it is never too late to call the person and back out. Say, “You know, I told you I could do this, but I shouldn’t have committed. I won’t be able to participate after all.”

Equally important is saying no to YOURSELF. When you find yourself sitting on the fence about whether to go to a meeting or social function (especially if you’re not excited about attending), tell yourself NO and decline attending. Then you’ll have some time to get to some of those pleasant activities without guilt.

Keep a note on your refrigerator to remind you to stop carrying the world on your shoulders. Write, “Dear Laura, You are not 100% totally responsible for everything, taking care of everything, or taking care of everybody. That’s my job. Love, God.” Don’t exaggerate your responsibilities and make unrealistic demands on yourself by taking on more than your share. You are not in charge of everyone’s happiness and making sure everything goes well in every life that yours touches. Don’t do what belongs under someone else’s hood. 

© 2000 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at