How to Set Boundaries at Work

Find work life balance by setting boundaries between your work life and home life.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #138

BoundariesAbout a year ago I wrote an article that answered reader Rusty’s question about how to get his boss to stop calling him after work. (See my article on how to set boundaries with the boss.) But what if you just have trouble setting work boundaries in general? This article is for you.

Technology has freed us! Once, we were chained to our desks. We had to be serious at work. Smiling was frowned upon, and frowns were smiled upon (which were then frowned upon). Outside of work was where we could play, laugh, and have warm, meaningful relationships.

Thank to cell phones, the Internet, and laptops, all that has changed. Last night I was at a birthday party. One of the guests, Sam, was “on call.” He kept hopping on and off his laptop, complaining the whole time. I wanted to hop on his laptop too, only I’d hop on it with spiked boots. The Internet lets us work at a party, or while dining with our boyfriends, girlfriends, significant others, and polyamorous family units. Marketing people call it “progress.” Get out your spiked boots, my friends, because we’re going to do a Riverdance on quote-unquote progress.

How to Set Boundaries at Work

Guess what? If you wait for your boss to help you separate work and play, you’re out of luck. Your boss’s only goal is to get you to devote your entire life to slaving for the company without being paid extra. That is called “being on salary.”

It’s your job to assert yourself, starting with yourself. Choose your rules! Will you take any work-related calls or interruptions in the evenings? How late? On weekends? Maybe you’ll take them at any hour, but not when you’re actually with friends or family. Maybe you’ll check email daily, but won’t take calls (except when you’re visiting in-laws and need an excuse to escape). Decide when, where, and for how long you’re willing to be interrupted. Also decide how much time you’re willing to devote to unpaid work after hours or on weekends. Remember if you’re salaried, you’re not being paid overtime, so every extra hour is a pay cut.

Set Boundaries By Making Rules

Before taking action, think about your specific rules. In some offices, not working after hours or on weekends will dead end your career. In some professions, limiting your interruptions will tank you. My party friend Sam is a system administrator. His job is being on call. If he wants a life, he has to switch careers.

How to Draw Your Boundaries

Start setting boundaries based on your rules. Set them for yourself first. Work during work time, and play during play time. See whether or not you even like the rules you set up.

Keep work purely work. Keep play purely play.

Work hard during work hours, and play during play hours. Don’t mix them! Don’t think about work while you play, and don’t think about play while you work. Your brain will respect that. If it knows you’ll leave work at 5 p.m. to play, it will let you stay focused on work all day until then.

Use Markers for Work and Play

Set up markers to show you clearly when you’re at work and when you’re at play. Location was once a popular marker. If you were at the office, you were working. Otherwise, you were playing. Technology smashes that distinction, but you can still use location. When you physically leave the office, stop answering your cell phone or email. If you work from home, have a separate work area. When you leave that area, you leave work.

Clothes can be a marker. Even working from home, you can wear work clothes during work hours. When you change into your psychedelic sarong pants, you know you’re done with work for the day. Time can be your marker: you’ll work from 8 til 5 and leave promptly at 5. If you’re using time as a marker, respect that! If you’re still in the office at 5:15 p.m., you’ve been done with work for 15 minutes. Few of us have the willpower to use time as a marker. Location is much more powerful.

How to Set Boundaries with Your Coworkers

[[AdMiddle]Once you’ve drawn boundaries for yourself, tell your coworkers. When Bernice notices she always goes to voicemail after 5, explain. “It’s important to me to keep a clear line between work and play. When I leave work at 5 p.m., I stop answering the phone. I will pick up my voicemail the first thing in the morning. Evenings are reserved for my family.” State your behavior. Your coworkers may push back, but stand your ground! “I’m paid to work from 8 a.m. To 5 p.m. I work my hardest and give it my all during those hours. And outside those hours, the rest of my life is mine.”

(If it’s your boss who’s giving you the push back, read my earlier article on the topic.) Of course remember the consequences! As I mentioned in my earlier article, if not working extra hours may lead to getting fired, take that to heart. If you’re not willing to be fired and not willing to find a new job, then you just decided to blur your work and home lives for the sake of keeping your current job.

Bottom Line:

Choose your rules for when and where you’ll work. Draw your boundaries for yourself using location, clothes, or time. Draw boundaries for coworkers by politely-but-firmly saying “No” to interruptions. Make sure to give them an “out,” however, like telling them you’ll check your voicemail the first thing when you return to work.


Riverdance – Irish folk dancing troupe

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.