How To Give Yourself A Break: Boundaries Vs. Guardrails

Jul 8, 2021 | Operations, Productivity, Time Management

It seems like summer is the perfect time to reexamine and re-establish your boundaries as a business owner or freelancer.

And maybe, like me, you’re even exercising some additional boundaries to be able to go into full-on summer slow-down mode.

I know it’s been a hot topic of conversation around this house! We’ve been mulling over how to communicate more directly when it comes to how we work and what actions cross the line. I’ve personally been wrestling with what my capacity really is and the kind of work I really want to be doing—and the boundaries I need to uphold to keep it all balanced.

And I know I’m stating the obvious when I say:

Upholding boundaries is hard work.

It often feels much harder than bending your boundaries and accommodating someone else’s needs. And yet, the more we bend those boundaries and accommodate behavior that wears us down, the more likely we are to experience burnout, anxiety, or even depression. Speaking from loads of personal & professional experience there.

Here’s the thing: upholding personal boundaries requires willpower and discipline. And while I’m not ready to disown those concepts, they carry with them a lot of baggage. And thanks to the doctrine of personal responsibility and rugged individualism, they’ve been weaponized against us.

Many of us don’t trust our willpower. Many of us describe ourselves as undisciplined. And when those characteristics are key to upholding your boundaries, not upholding your boundaries just feels like more evidence of how you’re lacking. That just creates a cascade of self-defeat.

Now, I’m not getting down on boundaries. Boundaries are great, wonderful, and necessary.

And, boundaries shouldn’t be the only way you protect your wellbeing and capacity.

Another option is to create guardrails.

In our current framework, boundaries are the individual’s responsibility, and when they’re broken, it’s because the individual failed to protect them. But guardrails? They’re there to protect everyone, and they’re maintained by the state, aka your company.

Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study: Imagine Your Flexible Office Work Future

Anne Helen Petersen makes a smart distinction between boundaries and guardrails. Boundaries, she explains, are personal and situational. They require us to actively advocate for our own needs.

I don’t know about you, but I’m rubbish about advocating for my own needs!

Guardrails, on the other hand, are structural limitations and explicit incentives that build humaneness into work.

Here’s an example. At the risk of humble-bragging, I’ve been receiving a lot of requests for 1:1 strategy sessions or coaching lately.

I’m exercising a boundary when I say that I’m at capacity for that kind of work right now.

But I can uphold that boundary more easily because I put guardrails in place: calls only on Wednesdays & Thursdays, no more than 3 calls per day. Further, I’ve adjusted my scheduling software so that no one could book outside of that guardrail.

Guardrails are also designed to protect more than just you.

Consider vacation time. I’m all for taking time off—and I know that people are reticent to actually exercise that benefit.

So we build time-off guardrails into our yearly calendar. We take a break as a company for about a week around the 4th of July, a very long Labor Day weekend, a week at Thanksgiving, and about 10 days at the end of the year. This year, I also made all bank holidays 3-day weekends.

Any other time off notwithstanding, that’s not a bad schedule by American standards!

Having these structural guardrails in place means that we have to plan projects and events around this time. Instead of trying to remember that we should take some time off around those dates, we build the time off into the calendar so that we can’t schedule other things.

Now, I do think there’s the potential for guardrails to become paternalistic. The goal shouldn’t be to tell people what they should be doing with their time or to pretend that everyone’s needs are the same.

The goal is to build structures that allow people to take care of themselves in their own ways—including ourselves.

Here’s an exercise you can try:

First, make a list of all the personal boundaries you have that you already know about.

If this is work you’ve been doing for a while, you might have a long list. If this concept is newer to you, your list might be very short.

Some examples:

  • “I am not a big hugger. I am a handshake person.”
  • “When I share a challenge, I need emotional support and listening instead of advice.”
  • “I can manage 3 meetings per day max.”

Then, make a list of your grievances.

Seriously. Let it be fun. It’s a little (or long) list of the behaviors that make you feel taken advantage of, taken for grant, steamrolled, etc…

  • “I hate when people want me to give them free labor and promote their thing to my audience.”
  • “It really bugs me when clients use multiple social channels to communicate with me.”
  • “I feel taken for granted when clients want to ‘hop on the phone quick.'”

Once you have your list of existing boundaries and grievances, brainstorm structural changes you could make so that people can inadvertently bust through your boundaries.

Often, these structure changes involve taking advantage of the features of the software you already use:

  • Snoozing your inbox over night or on the weekends
  • Time blocking days of the week for deep work on your calendar and exclusively using your scheduler (i.e. CozyCal, Acuity, etc) to book appointments
  • Automating actions in your workflow or client systems (i.e. Clickup, Zapier, Asana) to reduce communication back & forth
  • Schedule time off at least 6 months in advance so you’re not scrambling to fit it into a hectic calendar
  • Add a clear communication policy to your client agreements that outlines your response time, method of communication, and any other needs
  • Define the number of clients you can handle at present before you hire to increase working capacity

Whether we’re talking about boundaries or guardrails, it’s important to know that the first real step toward a more peaceful work-life is to recognize that things don’t have to be the way they are now.

You get to choose to do things differently—even if that choice goes against everything you’ve been taught about business, professionalism, or “the way things are.”

You want to work from 2pm-10pm? Cool. You want to do all of your client communication via email? Right on. You want to only work with 4 clients per year? Love it. You want to keep client interaction to a bare minimum? I see you.

Over 12 years, 340+ interviews, and working with countless business owners, I’ve seen all manner of unconventional ways of doing business and working. I’d venture to say that there is no choice you can make for your mental health, physical wellbeing, or personal strengths that can’t work for how you run your business. You might just need to adapt the business to accommodate that choice.

But you know what? I’d rather adapt the business than adapt myself in a way that causes me undue stress, anxiety, and depletion. And I hope you do, too.


Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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