3 Steps to Identify the Boundaries You Need

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

Feeling overwhelmed? You might think, If only I had more time and more energy. But what you might need instead is to set a boundary. A boundary acknowledges that your time and energy are finite and clarifies where your limits are — for you and for others. These steps can help you set the right boundary so you can spend your time and energy on what matters most — and be less stressed.

1. Determine which of your needs are in conflict.

Stress has many sources, but one of the most common is a situation in which you’re trying to meet multiple needs that are in conflict with each other.

For example, maybe you feel stress because your co-workers frequently interrupt you when you are trying to concentrate on your own work. When that happens, you experience two important conflicting needs: your need to complete your own work and your need to be a helpful colleague. You can’t meet both needs at once. This is the type of stress that setting a boundary can help relieve.

When you feel your stress increase, pause and ask yourself, What needs am I trying to meet? If you can identify needs in conflict, you can take some steps outlined below to set boundaries to help you meet those needs.

2. Based on your values, determine how much of your time and energy to devote to each need.

When your needs conflict, it’s because each need has some value to you — otherwise you could just ignore one completely. It’s likely that at least one need is taking up more of your resources than you want it to. To continue the example from No. 1, if you get stressed when your co-workers interrupt you, it may be because responding to them uses time and energy that you’d rather spend on your own work.

To determine if you’re using your resources in a way that aligns with your values, record and evaluate how you currently spend your time and energy. Doing so can give you an accurate view of how you spend your days — an essential step for setting boundaries that help you focus your limited resources on what’s most important to you.

What’s most important to you depends on your individual goals (which may depend on the goals of your manager and organization). For example, you might look at your workday and realize that you typically spend six hours fielding requests from co-workers and two hours on your own work. If your top priority is building better relationships with your colleagues — and that aligns with your manager’s goals — that might be a good balance. If your top priority is getting a promotion that requires you to spend more time on your individual work, you may need to establish a boundary that allows you more uninterrupted time.

3. Consider which boundaries could help meet your needs.

Here are three types of boundaries that offer different ways to help you allocate your time and energy. You might set:

  • Time boundaries — to define when you do things and how much time you spend on them. For example, you might devote the first two hours of your workday to working on your own without interruption and one hour per day to having open office hours when colleagues are welcome to come to you with questions or issues to discuss.
  • Physical boundaries — to define where you do things and how others treat your personal space. For example, you might go into a private office or conference room with the door closed to avoid interruption and work next to your colleagues in an open area when you’re available.
  • Interaction boundaries — to influence how you work with and relate to others. For example, you might ask co-workers to check your company messaging status and then set your status to “Do Not Disturb” when you’re concentrating on your own work and to a green light or similar signal when you can be interrupted.

Once you’ve identified where you need to set a boundary and the type of boundary you need, the next step is to talk to your manager and colleagues about it. Be prepared to adjust, to make exceptions, and to maintain your boundary when others — and maybe even you — have trouble respecting it.