In the United States and many industrialized nations, we’re drowning in activity. Most of us have more than a safe number of plates spinning in the air: reports due, projects to manage, meetings to attend, doctor visits, home/auto maintenance, school activities, family responsibilities, finances… It’s no wonder that we plop on the sofa after a late dinner and just veg out.
A recent study estimated that the typical 65-year-old will have watched almost 9 years of television during their lifetime. Nine years! There is, however, a way to stop this insanity and gain more control over our lives – especially our work life.
This article introduces a new perspective for tackling the endless list of items on our various plates. After applying these ideas, many people report a significant increase in their personal effectiveness, coupled with a greater sense of serenity and satisfaction in their lives.
Consider this scenario in a typical company. Your work plate is full with projects you’re leading, customers you’re meeting with, reports that are due, and a proposal that you’re supporting. Your boss walks into your office and asks that you submit the salary plan for your department by close of business (COB) on Friday.
If you’re like most people, you nod, add the new task to your to-do list, and sigh as you call your spouse to let him or her know that you’ll be working late that night. You feel frustrated and dumped on, a cog in a huge machinery. Overall, however, you’re excited about the projects you’re working on and the direction that you’re organization is heading in. You want to succeed personally and you also want your team to lead and innovate in its product line.
How do you get control over the activities that get placed on your plate?
Set and Enforce Clear Boundaries
Boundaries are limits that we place on the behavior of people around us. Like the moat around a castle, boundaries protect us and make us feel safe.
- People may not be disrespectful towards me.
- People may not waste my time.
- People may not interrupt me for a trivial matter when I’m working on an important task.
I invite you to pay attention, as you go about your day, and notice when boundaries get crossed. Then, keep a list of your boundaries, following the language style in the examples above.
Setting boundaries is easy. Enforcing them is trickier. There’s a simple, four-step process that works like a charm when enforcing your boundaries . Assume, for example, that you’re meeting one-on-one with a software designer and one of your boundaries is “people may not waste my time,” yet the designer keeps digressing to talk about a new video game that came out.
Here’s the four-step process for enforcing a boundary
Step 1: Inform
In a charge-neutral tone of voice (i.e., no charge or insinuations in your voice), simply say: “we’re getting off topic, let’s come back to this design task. It’s important to me that we focus here.”
In many cases, this is sufficient for the meeting to proceed smoothly to its completion. If the boundary is crossed again, however, then proceed to step 2.
Step 2: Request
In a charge-neutral tone of voice, state: “We’re digressing again. I request that we focus our attention on completing this design review within the next hour.”
Get an acknowledgement from the other person indicating their agreement to your request. As before, do not proceed to step 3 unless the boundary is crossed again.
Step 3: Demand or Insist
In this step, we insert a consequence. In a charge neutral-tone of voice, say “I insist that we focus on this task and complete the review within the next 30 minutes. If we digress again, I’m going to begin looking for another designer.”
Do not proceed to step 4 unless the boundary is crossed again.
Step 4: Leave
At this step, you apply the consequence that you inserted in step 3. In a charge-neutral tone of voice, say “Let’s stop this meeting now. I’ll set up another meeting to arrange for this task to be taken on by another designer.”
The key to the above 4-step process is to be respectful, be charge neutral (no anger or snappy remarks), and proceed to the next step only if the boundary is crossed again.
How would you apply this to your boss adding an unreasonable task to your plate? In a similar away, albeit with more finesse and a great deal of respect.
Let’s say that your boundary here is “people may not burden me with unreasonable requests.” Now, your boss asking you to submit a salary plan is certainly an important request! However it may be unreasonable if he or she does not give you adequate time to complete it in light of your other commitments, or offers you schedule relief on the other tasks on your plate.
So a step 1 interaction might look something like this:
Boss: “Please get me your salary plan by COB Friday.”
You: “I can get it to you by 5 PM Friday, but the marketing study will need to be delayed until next Wednesday at 5 PM, and I’ll also have to cancel my attendance at tomorrow’s offsite meeting.”
Boss: “Can you keep those other commitments and get me the salary plan by COB the following Friday?”
You: (assuming the request is reasonable) “Yes, I can get the salary plan to you by 5 PM next Friday, per the plan format that we’ve used in the past.” (If the request had still been unreasonable, then you would have continued negotiating.)
What would steps 2 through 4 look like for this interaction? You may have a boss that is unskilled at keeping track of what subordinates are working on, and is also not interested in becoming more skilled in this area. So you have to ask yourself: is this a behavior that you tolerate (i.e., a behavior that sucks the life right out of you), or are you OK with his or her management style and are willing to negotiate each time as above?
If this is a toleration, my invitation to you is that you tolerate nothing. Addressing this in practice, it may mean having a one-on-one conversation with your boss around what needs to be in place in your relationship with him or her so that you can function at your very best.
For example: a weekly, in-person review of your activities so that your boss can be aware of your progress, challenges you’re encountering, any help or resources that you might need, and any mentoring that he or she can provide to strengthen you as a leader.
If, however, you didn’t find a way to address the toleration in a satisfactory way, I can see how you would eventually reach step 4 and leave.
Sometimes, after a step 1 interaction with your boss like the above, it is necessary to install yet another boundary: “people may not make me feel bad.”
Such is the case when a boss uses a glance, a gesture, or a tone of voice to make you feel guilty about negotiating a request instead of accepting it as stated. When this happens, you simply begin at step 1 for that boundary.
In a respectful, charge-neutral voice you say “Excuse me, but do you realize that when you look at me that way it comes across as unprofessional and I also feel that my contributions to the organization are unappreciated?”
One last thing on boundaries: sometimes we confuse boundaries with “walls.”
Here’s an example :
Tina had a boundary around the tone of voice people used with her. When people used a harsh or condescending tone of voice, she gently explained how that affected her and requested that they speak to her more respectfully. Winona also had a concern about how people spoke to her. When someone used a loud or aggressive tone with her, she flew into a rage and criticized them for being rude to her.
This example illustrates how boundaries protect us from the things other people do that drain or diminish us.
Extensive boundaries allow us to stop the other person before their behavior has an effect on us. Healthy boundaries give us more freedom and ease in relating to other human beings. However, when we use our boundaries to judge others as wrong, insist on being right, or explain them in an aggressive or righteous way, they become walls. They remove our ability to relate rather than increase it.
In summary, setting and enforcing boundaries are a first step in gaining control of our work life. They’re important gatekeepers that keep undesirable or unreasonable tasks off our work plate.
Eddie Marmol is a LifeCoach affiliated coach and co-founder of MasterCoaches, Integral Architects, and Corporación Coaches En Español – all executive coaching and leadership development organizations. Eddie is a graduate of Coach University, The Newfield Network, and The Coach Training Alliance. He lives in Melbourne, Florida, with his wife and two daughters.