How to Set Boundaries

(This post is the third (final) post in a three-part series on Work and Play.)

If you haven’t read the first two posts, I suggest you do that first. They cover what Work and Play are, and why it’s important to create boundaries between the two.

Now that we’ve established why it’s in our best interests to effectively create and maintain boundaries between Work and Play to sustain ourselves in the long run, here’s how to create those boundaries for yourself.

How do you set boundaries between Work and Play?

  • Define the hours you’re going to Work and Play, and schedule everything into those areas.
  • Don’t violate the first step.

Following this may sound simple in theory, but is hard to practice, especially if you’ve never worked this way before. It might also not work for you if you work in a corporate environment and are expected to work long hours. But, that goes back to being proactive and teaching others how to work with you, and also being willing to pay the price for it.

After you figure out the times you’re going to Work and Play, then schedule it in your calendar so you don’t have to think about it again. This is not to say that you’re scheduling every minute of your day in your calendar — that would be crazy-making. At the least, have some broad idea for your work hours, followed by the time designated for Play. Then, you can schedule specific activities within those chunks.

When your goal is, “I don’t want to work past 5”, then everything changes. It requires being ruthless with your time and attention.

There will always be more work than you can possibly do, but at some point, you have to put a stake in the ground and decide when you’re done for the day. Then, you do everything to make it work.

There are a few things you have to keep in mind when setting boundaries between Work and Play.

  • You must ruthlessly manage your time and attention.

  • You’re free to do both Work and Play during the respective times; you don’t have to worry about not having the time to Play because you’ve scheduled it. Likewise, you don’t have to worry about not having time to Work because you’ve already scheduled it. When you’re practicing Work and Play during their respective times, it eliminates the need for thinking about your schedule. It also frees you to do one thing at a time, and helps you stay present, engaged, and focused.

  • When you set clear boundaries, you’ll find that you end up working a lot less and accomplish a lot more in that limited time.

  • You’ll also stop procrastinating because you know you only have so many hours you can work in a given workday. In effect, you’ll end up getting more done while wasting less time.

  • You must also be driven by values instead of your feelings. This means showing up to work even when you don’t feel like it, which is part of being a pro.

When you’re working a fixed number of hours, you want to create habits for things you do every day, such as processing email, performing a daily review, etc. That way, you don’t have to think about doing those things — they just happen because they are a habit. I wrote more about that in Getting Work Done.

When you have the time for Work and Play defined, you’ll have your priorities sorted out. You’ll know when to say “yes” versus “no”. You’ll know what’s essential and what’s not.

When you say “no” to others, you’ll inevitably face some resistance from them, especially if you’ve never declined their requests in the past. That is to be expected. You’ll inevitably upset some people as a result, and you have to be okay with that. That’s the price you must be willing to pay in order to do the things the way you want.

Remember: if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

This might all seem hard to put in practice initially, but when you have decided that you won’t work past a certain time in a given workday, you’d be surprised how much easier it is to make this strategy work.

Here are a few ways to create those boundaries for yourself between Work and Play:

When you know the few things that matter to you, you have clarity, which makes it easy to create those boundaries for yourself. You inherently know what to accept or decline.

For some, that could mean spending as much time as possible doing the essential things. For others, it could be doing something else. This is not to say that those things will always remain the same for you. Your priority can certainly change with time (and it most likely will), and that’s okay.

One way to set those boundaries for yourself is to find an activity that allows you to make a transition into your Work. I wrote about why that is important in Morning Pages.

Another way to set those boundaries for yourself is to find an activity that allows you to make a transition from Work to Play. For example, you could transition out of your work by doing a review and/or computer shutdown ritual. That would require you to set up appropriate triggers when it’s time to leave work.

Take a few minutes to stop at a park, listen to music, or make a call on your way home to connect with someone you love. The key is that by the time you get home, you’re not still mentally at work.

Other examples include ending the day with a daily review to get closure on the day’s work and to review what’s coming up the next day so you can start working on it first thing in the morning.

Here’re some ways that can help you be more efficient when it comes to using your workday better:

  • Read Getting Work Done to manage your time and attention well, which allows you to get the most out of your workday/week.
  • Use the Think, Review, Do model to get work done, for which you’ll also need a trusted system to manage the work.
  • Plan to work in 3–4 increments of 90 minutes to get the most out of your workday.
  • Focus intensely on doing one thing at a time with no distractions.
  • Perform a daily review to stay on top of change.

When all you do is work, it undermines both your capacity to do Work and your ability to renew yourself at Play. In some ways, we’re like rechargeable batteries. When we Work, we use up that charge. It’s only when we renew ourselves during Play that we charge our batteries, so to speak.

Both Work and Play are important to a healthier lifestyle/well-being. Both complement each other. The more you enjoy your Work, the better the Play becomes, and vice versa. They feed off of each other. Neither should be at the mercy of the other. If all you do is work, then that actually makes you less effective in the grand scheme of things. And if all you do is play, then there is no meaning in your life. As humans, we’re wired to feel useful to others by providing value in some way. In my experience, people are happiest when they give something to the world through their work.

That said, we need to make time for both Work and Play because we need both. We need to define and honor those boundaries. We need that time away from Work to renew/restore ourselves.

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