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Protect your time at work by setting better boundaries

Your late-afternoon meeting scheduled for an hour has crept over the 75-minute mark with no clear end in sight. You know you still have a time-sensitive email to send off, and now you’re going to have to make the choice between leaving late or pulling out your laptop after dinner. On the outside, you’re polite, participating in discussion and responding thoughtfully to your coworker who is running the meeting. But on the inside, you’re annoyed. This person just took a giant step over your time boundaries.

Situations like this can be frustrating. Unexpected requests from coworkers on your time can prevent you from getting an important task done, make you leave work late, or even disrupt family time at home. What can you do in these situations to set and communicate boundaries so you don’t feel like your time is disrespected in the future?

As a time management coach, I’ve seen a variety of ways in which people have successfully set boundaries with their colleagues. What is possible will vary depending on your job, work culture, and coworkers, but here are some examples of boundaries you can set and strategies for communicating them to others.

What can you do to set and communicate boundaries so you don’t feel like your time is disrespected?

Meeting availability

Simply blocking out parts of your calendar as busy is a good first step. Look for times that you can’t meet or don’t want meetings, such as before or after a certain time. You could block your calendar because of your commuting schedule, because you’re taking your kids to school, or because you just like to have the first part of your day to get focused. The goal here is to set space on your schedule, so others will see you as busy and unavailable to them.

If you get a meeting request within that time frame, suggest an alternate time. If you don’t have authority to reschedule the meeting or it involves a larger group, you’ll need to decide whether it’s essential for you to attend or if you could potentially call in. In some instances, you may not have as much ability to set boundaries around meeting times, such as when you’re coordinating across international time zones or mid-week on a consulting project. In these cases, you’ll need to use discretion based on your situation. If possible, avoid meetings that would keep you up past your preferred bedtime or require waking up in the middle of the night. Most likely, the incremental benefit of the meeting is not worth the toll on your productivity the next day due to sleep deprivation.

Length of meetings

Meetings that run over time can have a significant impact on your schedule. Just three meetings going 15 to 20 minutes longer than anticipated can cut an hour out of your day. A few strategies can help with maintaining boundaries around the length of meetings.

First, set the meetings you lead for how long you want them to last. For example, send out an invite for a 30-minute meeting with a clear, focused agenda, instead of planning a 60-minute meeting by default. Second, book meetings close together so that you’re forced to end the current meeting at the correct time, or a few minutes before, to prevent arriving late for your next meeting. (Keep in mind, this can help other attendees, too, since they may also have back-to-back commitments.) Finally, state your intention at the beginning. For instance, “I’ve got a hard stop at 2:30, so let’s make sure we get the most essential items covered by that time.” Then when you’re five to 10 minutes from the end of the meeting, state, “We’ve got about 10 minutes left, what’s most important to cover before we wrap up?” Pacing the meeting throughout is critical to ending on time.

Focused work time

Having uninterrupted time to get tasks done poses a major issue for many people, so you have to work especially hard at setting boundaries in these instances. A first line of attack is to block time as busy in your calendar. Some individuals do this at a set time each week, such as 9-11 AM two mornings a week. Other people choose to block the time each week as needed to get projects done. Use a method that’s most helpful for you.

If your coworkers try to schedule meetings over your focused time—or drop by your desk to chat unannounced—suggest another time. In fact, to help you to follow through on your focused time, create a kind of physical barrier. If you have a door, close it. A few hours of focused work are worth more to your team than your constant availability. If you don’t have a door (or if your colleagues come in even when your door is shut), go hide somewhere—a conference room, another office, or even a coffee shop. Being out of sight is one of the most effective strategies for setting boundaries.

While the tips above can control your time, another common distraction at work is the constant incoming communication from colleagues, whether it’s by phone, online chat, email, or in person. How your coworkers communicate with you can have an impact on how disruptive the communication feels, but by controlling how these messages reach you, you can lessen their impact.

For example, in my business, I encourage my coaching clients to communicate with me primarily through email. That way they can communicate with me any time of the day or night, any day of the week, but I’m not seeing the communication until I’m ready to respond—usually in my office, Monday through Friday. If someone reaches out to me through another method, I will generally respond to their message using email and, when appropriate, emphasize that my preferred method of communication is email. Not seeing messages until the next business day keeps me from being tempted to answer them on nights and weekends. It also helps me to not have unanswered communication on my mind, so I can fully unplug from work.

Even if you can’t always dictate how people communicate with you, many times you can set expectations around when you respond. For example, you may get a work-related text message at 10 PM at night, but you can reply to it the next morning. Or you may be able to wait to respond to messages from the weekend until Monday. Of course, there are some instances in which these boundaries truly aren’t possible, such as if you’re in charge of en route issues with an international shipment. But in many cases, messages can wait, and by simply responding within the time frames that feel appropriate to you, you can signal to the other person your personal time boundary. In some cases, you may even want to be explicit, saying, “I’m replying to this message now. But I wanted you to be aware that I typically don’t respond to messages from over the weekend until Monday.”

What boundaries you need and what boundaries you can set will depend on your individual preferences, as well as your job. But with these strategies, you can likely start to set more boundaries with your coworkers so you not only sound polite on the outside but also feel calm on the inside.

In many cases, messages can wait, and by simply responding within the time frames that feel appropriate to you, you can signal to the other person your personal time boundary.

This article originally appeared on HBR and is reprinted here with permission.


Organizational Change
Portrait of Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management coach and the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Speaking. She is author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money and Divine Time Management. Find out more at