The Real Way to Set Boundaries When Working From Home

First we need to start off with the privilege that is working from home. I invite you to examine your circumstances and let’s collectively acknowledge that working from home is not something available to many people during the course of this pandemic.

Being “safe at home” may not be your right, but if it is your current reality, there is likely a lot you’ve been navigating over the past ten months. I won’t rehash those things here.

What I do want to talk about is boundaries. Specifically, a lack of boundaries. I’ve heard tons of examples: Working straight through from sun up until bedtime without a break, neglecting my kids/partner/dog because of millions of conference calls, being the one who doesn’t have a dependent at home and feeling like you need to take on the work of others… and I’m not even getting into the list of self-care issues.

There’s tons of advice out there on how to approach the integration of work and home life, including practical tips such as: get up earlier… carve out 30 minutes to eat lunch away from your desk… commit to going for a walk in the afternoon… schedule time to catch up with friends on Zoom… and so on.

To be clear, I think all of these are valid approaches and I’ve attempted to implement all of them. But here’s the part that bothers me about a lot of this advice:

  1. It glosses over the fact that it’s actually REALLY hard to make the time to do these things. Like, really, really hard.
  2. It can make you feel like it’s your fault. If only you just blocked that time out in your calendar, you’d just do it. Right?

Unfortunately, this is not how it works. Why? A ton of reasons.

I hope you work for a company/team/boss that is totally supportive of your boundaries. I am lucky enough to be in this situation. When I have to end a meeting five minutes early so I can get lunch for my kid before his next Zoom meeting, I say so. And some people may actually respect me more because of it. I’m completely aware of that and also aware that it’s my own dang privilege that gives me that license and freedom. And hidden in there is also the knowledge that I do run the risk of a negative reaction. Here’s the years-long secret to being OK with that.

You just have to not care.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a flexible schedule for many years. I went through all the clichés of the working parent: ducking out of the office early and hoping no one notices or announcing “I’ll be back on later tonight” if anyone spotted me heading to the elevator before 5pm. And then it all just got too exhausting to put on the show and I just had to stop caring. So, I did.

I know there’s a lot of people who face demonization for setting boundaries, and if that is you, here’s my take. You need to be willing to risk how you are perceived. You may not be perceived as a team player. You may be seen as less committed. You will need to not care if your peer is seen as “harder working” than you. You will need to stop caring what other people think. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in a situation where you’ve spent years building up your brand, so people “get it” or know it’s not “like you” but many people don’t have that luxury.

So am I saying that the surefire way to set boundaries at work is to come to a place internally where you truly don’t care what ends up happening to your career (at least in the short-term)?

Yes. I kind of think I am.

Is this fair? Not at all.

Should we collectively, as organizational stewards, be stopping any such behavior, reaction, retaliation? Yes.

Should all managers and leaders and colleagues take the unprecedented nature of these times to demonstrate the utmost flexibility, empathy and compassion? Absolutely.

Can I control someone’s conscious or unconscious bias? Definitely not.

Maybe the typical advice about setting boundaries has been helpful to you. I truly don’t mean to take away from that. But, once you have the plan, the calendar hold, the extra 30 minutes you’ve carved out for yourself, the plan to “just say no”… you may need one last ingredient that’s (to me) one of the hardest of them all: you need to just not care what anyone else thinks about it.

I don’t know about you, but that’s something I’ve been working on since third grade.

One tactical tip I have for this is as follows: Put yourself in your own shoes 10 years from now. Ask yourself who are you going to feel more annoyed you let down? Your kid, your mom, your neighbor, yourself? Or that thing for work you don’t even remember 1 week later? In the moment, this can be easier said than done, but with practice you may find it comes more naturally.

Here’s to caring so much about working on not caring so much in 2021!

Freelance writer, ghostwriter and writing coach. Specializing in helping individuals and purpose-driven organizations tell their stories.

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