Setting Boundaries: Lessons of an Over-Achiever
I have always taken great pride in my work, specifically in my ability to write and present on a topic or issue in a succinct, informed, and interesting manner. The downside to taking such pride and ownership in what I do, is that is has led me more than once to obsess over my final product.
I can, to my own detriment at times, spend hours analyzing each word, researching each idea, contention, and theory, and designing the visual appearance in order to ensure that my product is presented in the most captivating format (even a simple memo can be “perfected” in terms of margins, page numbers, tile, etc.). The problem with my borderline-obsessive pursuit for perfection is that a simple project can turn into an overly-detailed and time-devouring endeavor (What? It’s noon!? When did that happen?).
It has taken many years and a great deal of stress-induced anxiety to finally realize that there is only so much perfecting I can do and that there must be a stopping point for any and all projects, be they work-related or personal.
Over the last month, I have immersed myself in the study of a necessary yet arduous art form – setting boundaries. Those of you who are familiar with and employ this technique in your daily lives are likely the most productive, disciplined, and relaxed people on earth.
Conversely, those of you who are like me – passionate, obsessive, and unbridled – tend to lose your heads and feel overwhelmed to the point where you convince yourself that you cannot disconnect from the office, EVER. Clearly, boundaries are the solution; however, implementing those boundaries is a much more difficult task than one would think.
Why is it so difficult, you ask? The answer is that I LOVE my job; I love what I do for a living, the people I work with, and I have a slight need to not only impress people with my work, but also gain verbal recognition and kudos for my efforts.
I am an over-achiever. As a result, the only boundaries I can set and stick to are in those areas of my life for which I am accountable only to myself (dating, family, daily tasks, exercise). My career is not one of those areas; regardless of whether I am my own boss or a member of a larger organization, I will always be accountable to a third party, be it a client, boss, or co-worker.
However, I recently came to realize that setting boundaries is not only just as necessary in my career, it is vital to my success (and maintaining my sanity). I also discovered that in order to set boundaries and stick to them, it is easier to take baby steps rather than giant leaps (I am more of a leaper/Formula One racer when it comes to performing a task or completing an object, so “taking it slowly” is not really part of my vocabulary).
Nevertheless I came up with a series of baby steps which have effectively allowed me to implement boundaries where none previously existed. I chose the following three areas which needed to be immediately addressed in order to maintain a decent level or work/life balance (and sleep):
- Setting hours for email communications
- I began with setting a strict shutdown time for using my laptop (a boundary inspired by my efforts to wind-down mentally and fall asleep at a normal hour), then set an absolute shutdown time for reading and/or responding to work-related emails (a boundary set by my coworker who, after noticing the alarmingly large number of emails I was sending out past 11pm, felt it necessary to give me that much-needed push toward achieving my goals).
- Telling myself that I cannot control everything and even if something happens and/or comes into my email inbox that needs immediate attention, it will not make a difference whether I respond at 11:30pm or first thing in the morning (unless of course there is a literal implosion/explosion that requires overnight attention, which hasn’t happened since I left my previous life as a television news reporter).
- Attempting to assuage the anxiety I endure from imagining and/or seeing my email inbox grow with correspondence.
- Learning to ignore my emails when I have a hard deadline I must meet (if something is so important that it needs immediate attention, the person who is trying to get ahold of me will call me).
Out of Office Work Hours
- Setting a stop time on work that I take home with me.
- Telling myself that it is okay to take a day, or half day, or even just a night off from working on a project.
- Another difficult boundary to set, given the nature of our business. Much like my email correspondence, I came to realize that no one will die and/or notice if I took a few hours to myself.
- Telling myself it is okay to put off a project until the next day, depending on the deadline, rather than finishing work during the weekend or at night in order to mitigate the paralyzing effects of watching my task list grow out of control.
- Writing lists of items which I feel need to be addressed, then setting that list aside until morning. This is very helpful in preventing me from spending an entire night losing sleep as I obsess or worry about the things that need to get done (especially when I can’t do anything about those things until morning).
Time spent researching and “perfecting”
- Accepting that my work is near perfect, or at least as good as it will get, and moving forward (this is especially applicable when an item has gone through multiple rounds of edits).
- Realizing when I am spending too much time on fixing margins, lines, headers, footers, etc. and putting the kibosh on it immediately.
- Setting a stop time for research. The stop time depends on the item (reports and issue briefs require more research than simple statistics to be included in a correspondence).
- Asking for help when I hit a wall. It is amazing how much easier it is to ask the people around you who may have more knowledge or experience about an issue, or at the very least know which direction to point you.
- When I can’t think of a word, or I need advice on the proper grammatical format for a sentence, I now ask my pod-mates for help.
As you can see, these boundaries are rather basic, but many of us still have a hard time drawing even the simplest lines. Regardless of what level of mastery you have achieved in terms of setting boundaries, there is always room for improvement. Letting go and taking a break will at the very least allow you (and me) to maintain a decent level of sanity.