How to Master the Delicate Art of Boundary-Setting

Saying no may not come easily when you’re the resident problem solver. Yet setting and enforcing limits can make you happier, more productive and more effective in your role.

When you’re the go-to problem solver, question answerer and general keeper of order at the office, saying “not now” or “I can’t help with this” may feel unnatural. But to do your best work — and maintain your sanity — you need to set limits. It may take some getting used to, but with practice, you’ll free up time and reset the expectations others have of you.

Try these six tactics.

Know Your Limits — and Respect Them

There may be periods at work that call for putting in extra time or helping with tasks you’re not normally responsible for. But, be sure that you’re not habitually overextending yourself to the point that you feel stressed out or resentful. Set your personal limits, and work in a way that reflects them. For example, if you don’t want to be expected to respond to work emails after hours, resist the urge to check email after work hours. Being overly accommodating can set a precedent that’s difficult to undo. Ask your boss or colleagues to text you in the case of an emergency.

Clarify Expectations

If you’re unclear about what’s expected of you — or, if you feel you’ve let your boundaries slip and need to reset them — have a conversation with your boss. Be specific about what you’re seeking clarity around. If you’ve gotten in the habit of responding to your boss’s emails on the weekends and now regret it, explain that you need your weekends free and check that it’s OK to wait until Monday morning. If you’re being asked to take on tasks that may be better suited for a colleague’s role, talk with your boss about the delineation of responsibilities. Summarize what you’ve agreed upon to help avoid confusion later.

Think Before You Respond

Saying, “Sure!” may feel instinctive the moment you’re asked to do something — even when your day is already jam-packed. Over half (56 percent) of administrative professionals in a recent Staples InsidersNetwork poll said that’s how they typically respond to these sorts of requests. Before you say anything, though, it may be worth taking a step back. Asking whether there’s flexibility in the deadline, for instance, could help you deliver a solution that works for you and meets the requester’s needs.

It also can help to explain what’s already on your to-do list. The person making the request may not know — even if it’s your boss. Some of the administrative professionals polled said that once they list their current to-dos, their boss will reprioritize them or find another way to get the new task done. Initiating this discussion shows your willingness to pitch in to reach a solution that makes everyone happy.

Know When to Delegate

Perhaps someone else on your team is capable of handling certain tasks on your plate, and delegating them could make room for requests that you’re better suited for. Nearly one-quarter of administrative professionals who responded to a recent InsidersNetwork poll said they use this strategy to help them accommodate last-minute or unexpected asks. Take note of your colleagues’ strengths and interests — you may notice that someone is particularly good at meeting-logistics planning, for instance, or at pulling numbers needed for reports. Knowing what your colleagues excel at can help you easily recommend someone else when you can’t fulfill the request yourself.

Try to Plan for the Unexpected

Think about what you can do to prevent certain types of requests from throwing your workload off balance. For instance, if your boss frequently has one-off, last-minute requests that divert you from your core tasks, consider suggesting a short weekly or semi-weekly meeting to discuss what your he or she is working on and anticipates needing your help with. If you’re involved with a project that you suspect may fall more heavily on you because others are missing their deadlines, request regular check-ins to keep your colleagues on target. These extra meetings take time but may ultimately give you more control over your workload.

Prepare to Defend Your Boundaries

That your boundaries will be tested is all but inevitable. Have strategies prepared for when it happens. For example, if your boss asks you to pull a list of attendees for a big upcoming meeting while you’re running out to a personal commitment, resolve to ask if it can wait until the morning or even later that night when you can get back online. If a colleague asks if you can squeeze something in that he or she is capable of handling, resolve to ask why you are better suited to do it. Of course, there will be times when you need to be flexible. But, the more skilled you are at knowing and defending your boundaries, the more comfortable you’ll be extending them when needed.