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It’s spooky season. Does your calendar have you spooked? Do you find yourself adding more tasks to your already unrealistic list? When was the last time you said “No” or “Yes, but not that way or by that time” when asked to meet a deadline? Do you avoid your email at times because you know you will see another “ask” requiring your time and energy?
If these questions resonate with you, then it is possible that there is tension between your boundaries and work capacity. This is the norm for those that tend to overcommit or of whom have been tasked with too much.
Certain workplace behaviors and patterns can perpetuate a sense of urgency exasperating this issue of violated boundaries and workloads at capacity. While the work and urgency might not be going anywhere, there are ways to advocate for respected boundaries by simply sharing and honoring our own, and our colleagues’.
It is important to acknowledge that not everyone is in a position of privilege to respond with “that’s a no for me,” when assigned a task. A layer of complexity builds when employers do not have (or respect their own) boundaries. So, how can the individuals who report to them have and maintain their own?
Supervisors must model the behaviors that we want to perpetuate in our organization’s culture. Many of us are working within a culture based in White Supremacy values that rewards quantity of work over quality of work. Therefore, to say “no” to work is often done at the risk of being seen as incompetent or undeserving of recognition and reward. As we all work to dismantle these oppressive systems, I offer the following suggestions for consideration.
(Here is your gentle reminder that you have permission to find and implement solutions that work best for YOU.)
Identify Your Limits
First, you must know your boundaries because you can’t enforce what you do not know. One of the hardest parts here is identifying them.
Start here: you know when they are being violated even though you may not be able to definitely state what they are. If this is true for you, spend some time reflecting on instances that have frustrated you. It is likely that the frustration was associated with one of your personal boundaries.
- Was it the email that frustrated you? Or was it that the email was sent on the weekend and made you feel obligated to respond?
- Did the request to draft the slide deck annoy you? Or was it that you didn’t receive enough information that would allow you to tailor the deliverable to the intended audience?
- Are you really sick of Slack? Or is it that the constant notifications make it hard for you to focus?
The goal of this reflection is not to create a list of every single boundary you could have but to instead identify three to five core boundaries that have the most impact on you.
Capacity Is Finite.
After identifying your core boundaries, the second step is having a real conversation with yourself about your capacity. Nobody can do all of the things, all of the time. To force ourselves to do this over long periods of time will lead to burnout. It is not only unsustainable – but also harmful.
There are so many great tools and systems that can help you track and plan your workload. Find one that is “good enough” for you and implement it with fidelity (can you really finish that report in 4 hours or will it really take 9?) and consistency.
Start small by planning out your next week, next few weeks, next month, et cetera. Once this becomes a habit, find a planning cadence that works best for you. It has been my experience that most find success with having time each week to plan for the following week and also finding time once every three to four months to plan out the next quarter.
Learn The Expectations
The third step is having a conversation with your immediate supervisor to align on expectations. Use this conversation to gain answers about what their preferences are in regard to work. If you aren’t comfortable with this, think about what they pay the most attention to, and what they praise. Here are just a few guiding questions to frame this conversation or your reflection:
- What is their definition of “close of business”?
- If they had to choose, do they prefer an on-time deliverable or an error-proof final product? (Some supervisors will say “Both”; A response to this a the same question reframed “Which frustrates you the most, needs for edits or overdue deliverables?”)
- How do they prefer to be updated on the status of projects; how frequently?
- What does their boss value the most in regards to work?
- What work products do they value the most and which ones are not high on their list?
Knowledge is power. Knowing that your supervisor sees the most value in the quarterly reports you draft but rarely reviews the agendas you draft to guide your weekly check-ins allows you to make a well informed decision as to how you spend your time.
The fourth step is to find the best way to communicate out your boundaries. In some environments, this may be an announcement in a team meeting about your boundaries where you share them and ask for team support in honoring them. In environments with norms and practices involving communicating via shared calendars, this may start with you blocking off time in your calendar that is aligned with your boundaries and priorities. And in some environments, your first step may be to shift from saying “Yes.” to “Yes, and which of these other priorities can I put on hold while I complete this new task?”
Ultimately, what is most important is that you find an approach that works best for you and your specific circumstances. As you work to implement and tailor the suggestions that best fit you, always keep in mind that you have permission to advocate for your needs.
Sherrell Hendrix is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Gladiator Consulting. At Gladiator Consulting, Sherrell creates spaces and opportunities for stakeholders to share their voices and ideas in strategic planning projects. She also works with executives on ways they can best prioritize their time and efforts so that they can create their personalized balance of work and home. One of her primary responsibilities in her role as Director of Strategic Initiatives is to create evaluations plans and assessments to measure not only Gladiator Consulting’s regional impact but also the impact of clients. Learn more about Sherrell Hendrix.