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Personal vs. professional life: setting boundaries

“Boundary setting is really a huge part of time management,” says world-renowned performance psychologist and author Jim Loehr.

And, arguably, everyone needs to manage time, that precious commodity, in order to experience and enjoy life to the fullest.

Yet, how do you set boundaries between your personal and professional life? In today’s world of constant connectivity, is it even possible?

Technology is indeed a major obstacle. The most recent Vacation Deprivation study conducted by travel site Expedia finds that even during a week’s vacation, 30 percent of North American workers check work email/voicemail one or more times each day.

For many people, the compulsion to remain in contact is the result of expectations set by their boss or the organization for which they work. Nevertheless, most jobs do not require that you be on call during your off hours, including, and especially, while on vacation.

Managing your time

Be that as it may, it’s up to you to set limits.

“If you wait for your boss to help you separate work and play, you’re out of luck. Your boss’s only goal is to get you to devote your entire life to slaving for the company without being paid extra,” says executive coach and professional speaker Stever Robbins, who is known as the Get It Done Guy.

Accordingly, Robbins recommends that you choose your rules. He gives examples as to how to do this: “Will you take any work-related calls or interruptions in the evenings? How late? On weekends?”

He then recommends that you consider your rules in the context of your office and your career. Will the rules work, or will they kill your career?

It could be that your rules are too rigid. For example, instead of not taking work-related calls in the evenings, you might agree to take any emergency work-related calls in the evenings. Similarly, instead of not checking email in the evening, you might establish a cutoff time, such as 8:00 p.m.

But—and here’s the important part—your rules are set by you.

Sharing information about availability

Once you’re comfortable with the rules you’ve established, you have to convey them to your boss. This will require having a conversation with the physician or physicians to whom you report.

Robbins recommends that you state your boundaries in terms of your needs, and spell out the action you want your boss to take. For example, tell your boss you need to keep your home and work lives separate, so you can do a better job at both.

Then, you can take one of two approaches:

  • Ask your boss if s/he can save calls, texts, and emails for work hours; or,
  • Tell your boss that you will respond to calls, texts, and emails when you get into the office.

Admittedly, option two is assertive, and may be viewed as aggressive. If you’re feeling any trepidation it helps to remember that your personal time is on the line.

Keep in mind that when having this conservation you want to come across as strong, but you don’t want to be rude. Pay attention to your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Assuming you have a good relationship with your boss, keep the conversation friendly, while on point. That is, be yourself. When you are genuine, it puts the other person at ease, which facilitates understanding.

Coming to an agreement

Recognize that the need for boundaries might be difficult for a physician to accommodate, because chances are s/he struggles with the same issue. But right now it’s about you and what you require.

Wait for a response to what you’ve requested or stated, and take it from there.

She or he might attempt to hedge, “I’ll try to be better. We’ve just been so busy.” This is your opportunity to ask how the office staff might help, during work hours—and emphasize work hours.

Another response from the physician might be, “I’ve come to depend on you.” Beware: This is both a compliment and a hook. Appreciate the compliment, but avoid the hook. Your answer should be something along the lines of, “I’m glad you value my contribution, and I will continue to give the job my all during work hours.”

Here again, it’s about staying on point.

Unless your boss is entirely clueless, s/he will have gotten the message. If your contribution is truly valued, your time will be respected.

Still, the physician may not be that eager to arrive at a solution that requires surrendering old habits. In this case, you might suggest a compromise. “How about you contact me after hours only when there is an emergency?”

Showing you are willing to compromise leaves the other person little choice but to do the same.

Following through

Of course, recognizing that old habits die hard, you should be aware that “emergencies” will have a tendency to multiply. What do you do if this starts to happen?

Robbins points out that you should acknowledge your part in this situation. By responding to messages during off hours, you are reinforcing your boss’s bad habit.

Rather than continue this pattern, you might want to have a follow-up conversation, where you remind him or her about the parameters you previously discussed.

What if nothing changes?

“If all else fails, just turn off your phone. It’s your phone. You have a right to turn it off,” says Robbins.

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