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Here’s What the Pandemic Taught Me About Setting Personal and Professional Boundaries

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The COVID-19 pandemic caused a rapid shift to remote work, and many mothers discovered that they preferred the flexibility of working from home. But working remotely comes with its own challenges: Mothers (and other child caregivers) have struggled to set boundaries at work with their teams and at home with their families.

I can always tell when my boundaries are slipping when I start to lose things. Many years ago, during a particularly intense season, I lost my wallet three times in one month — a glaring red flag that something had to change. It was less about absentmindedness and more about how I got there, which involved getting too little sleep, having too little time, and handling too many things at once.

Setting boundaries (and sticking to them) is tough. It requires a deep commitment to your family, workplace, and, most of all, yourself. And as careers shift and kids grow, it’s an always-evolving process of evaluating needs, bandwidth, and what’s most important.

The Challenges Women Face

Here’s the truth: I’ve had a kid throw up on camera during a Zoom meeting, attended to a screaming child during a call with my boss, and, of course, managed the on-and-off interruptions of online school. If there’s one thing remote work has revealed, it’s that everyone is human with lives outside of their professional selves. And this isn’t a bad thing — sometimes life and work collide. However, it’s more likely you’ll experience burnout if you don’t establish personal and professional boundaries.

For many women, there’s a desire to say “yes” as much as possible. Women are culturally conditioned to do it all from an early age. According to one study, 54% of women exhibited people-pleasing tendencies compared with 40% of men. This is amplified in the workplace. Women face gender stereotypes, discrimination (particularly as working mothers), and organizations built on patriarchal systems. These things likely fuel your drive to work harder, take on more, and never complain — often at the cost of your own mental and physical health.

But when a woman prioritizes her own health and well-being, it positively impacts her, her workplace, and her family. Working more hours isn’t productive. Successful remote work requires focused time, and family members also deserve your undivided attention. And most of all, you need separation between work and family for your own sanity. Without boundaries, it’s easy to burn out in a hurry.

Personal and Professional Expectations

Boundaries are a necessary part of any relationship, empowering you to communicate what you need. It’s easy to forget to prioritize yourself, especially when you’re focused on work. One study found that 75% of women believe their employers expect them always to be available. This feeling is likely affected by remote work. I’ve telecommuted for more than 10 years, and because my office is home, it can be tempting to respond to one more email, check a late-night Slack message, or answer an unscheduled call.

At the same time, interruptions on the home front are difficult to avoid. When mom is suddenly around all the time, your kids can have a hard time understanding that your presence doesn’t equal availability. And with a running to-do list in your face — laundry, meals, cleaning, etc. — it can be challenging to stay focused on the right things at the right times. This is why it’s critical to establish a clear structure and regularly communicate your needs.

You need to be clear about your schedule and specific about what you need from others and when. At work, it’s important to model these boundaries for the people you manage while encouraging them to do the same. Depending on your kids’ ages and abilities, personal boundaries at home will look slightly different as they grow and change. But with the support of a partner or another trusted adult, you can more easily navigate personal boundaries.

How to Set Achievable Boundaries

Understanding what you want and need is the first step to setting healthy boundaries. When you have a firm grasp of your priorities, you’ll be better able to honor the boundaries you create, communicate them to others, and advocate for yourself.

1. Stay the course.

Do what you say you will, and do it consistently. If you communicate to your team that you’ll be available via Slack from 2-5 p.m. every day but turning off all distractions the rest of the day, stick to it. If you let your employees know that you’ll respond to emails within 24 hours, resist the urge to check your inbox at night. Taking the time to unplug at the end of each day will help you recharge.

When it comes to your home life, be clear about your work expectations and schedule. Establish when you can and cannot be interrupted, and make sure you have a plan for kids at home. This consistency will be a gift to yourself as well as to anyone who works for you or sees you as a mentor. When you model boundaries well, you’re teaching others the value of doing the same. There will be days when you fall short, but be gracious with yourself and keep trying.

2. Don’t assume, and don’t go it alone.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that your boss is unhappy with you or that they would never agree to a certain boundary. But before you assume anything, ask. Communication is one of the most critical components of a remote workforce. And if your company is healthy, leadership will want the best for employees. If you clearly articulate what you need and explain how you think a boundary will help, your boss might surprise you with their willingness to be part of the solution.

The same holds true at home. You might assume your partner or kids know what you need without telling them. Often, family members are willing to take on new things or share the weight of responsibilities — you just have to start the conversation.

Think carefully about what you can delegate and outsource. Is there another team member you can pull in for a particular project? Are there some administrative tasks you can hand off? At home, how can your partner support you better? What can you outsource? Cleaning? Childcare support? Free up your time to focus on what matters most.

3. Don’t fall into the nonstop productivity trap.

Boundaries also apply to taking care of yourself. This means you need to schedule free time in your life to work out, meditate, or read, for example. With the rise of hustle culture, it’s easy to fall for the lie that you need to be productive at all times. When your to-do list never ends, there can be tremendous guilt for doing something just for fun.

But there’s no prize for martyrdom. Things like play, rest, exercise, and hobbies are critical to your overall well-being. And in our hyperpaced world, it’s vital to model this for your children and employees. Stop with the “shoulds” and start scheduling some leisure time.

Just remember that boundaries must shift throughout your lifetime. Careers and families change and grow, and so do you. Ask yourself: How are things going? How am I doing with my top priorities? What habits do I need to change? Check in with yourself, take time for yourself, and adjust as you go. Setting and sticking with boundaries takes effort, but it’s well worth the positive impact on your life.

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