Balancing Boundaries With Ambition
How busy are you? Of course you are! You're an important person. It's a miracle you have time to read this article. How did it get this way, and what can you do to reclaim your calendar?
Perhaps friends and family have suggested just saying no to more things. While it comes from a place of compassion, it also comes from someone who does not understand the pressures of working at your level.
So, what is the answer to balancing boundaries with ambition?
What are boundaries?
The speed limit on a motorway is a boundary. The age limit on an adult movie is a boundary. A boundary is the amount you can eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet before they stop refilling the counter.
Boundaries are limits put in place to protect us, often (but not always) from ourselves.
Personal boundaries are the limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. Personal boundaries prevent us from taking responsibility for actions/emotions that are not ours or demanding that someone else take responsibility for their actions/emotions.
Those who take too much responsibility for the emotions of others might think, “My co-workers are idiots. I have to tell them how to do their jobs, or they'll suffer the consequences.” or "I can't tell them that they are underperforming, they are going to feel terrible."
Those who give others responsibility for their emotions might feel anxious about somebody else's missed deadline.
Personal boundaries recognise that we are each responsible for our emotions/actions.
People with healthy personal boundaries can say “no” to others when they want to without taking responsibility for how that answer makes others feel.
Your ability to establish and maintain healthy boundaries will profoundly impact how you lead, your relationships inside and outside of work, and your overall well-being.
You know this! You may even have a strategically placed Post-It note to remind you.
Yet, I expect you often experience conflicting internal motivations about your boundary behaviours: deciding, setting, communicating, and maintaining boundaries. This ambiguity isn't your failing. I'm not here to tell you to toughen up, lean in or knuckle down. You don't need to be or become a different person in order to hold a work-free space for yourself. There is nothing about you that you need to fix. However, if what you've been trying hasn't been working, you need a strategy that does.
This article describes a boundary-setting strategy that works in real life.
You need a strategy that works with your ambition, not against it.
I have seen time and again the struggles that my clients face: unending work responsibilities, challenging relationships with colleagues, and an inbox that competes with your calendar for the "Most Full of Other People's Problems" award. All too often, the consequence is late-night work sessions, squeezed personal time, and a never-ending feeling of reacting.
One of the reasons saying no just isn't that easy is because we (ambitious, high-achieving professionals) LOVE to say Yes!
We want to say Yes! to opportunities, challenges, stretch goals, over-delivering, and being the one who gets shit done. Why? Because we are ambitious, and if we want to stand out, we must step forward. Having a reputation as someone others can rely on is both satisfying and smart for those who want to get ahead.
Here's the challenge: How do you show ambition while maintaining boundaries?
"Pffff... easier said than done!" I imagine you are thinking.
Well, yes and no. To make it easier, I created a unique, adaptable approach to help my clients regain control of their time and work-life balance.
I call it the 'Traffic Light Boundary System'.
Why Use Traffic Light Boundaries?
Your career is a marathon, not a sprint, and so you need a strategy that works in the long term. You need a strategy that offers;
Flexibility without compromise
"If you're going to bend the rules, why have them at all?!" Because not all personal boundaries are equal. Some areas require an absolute stop, others benefit from a degree of personal judgment, and some can be adapted as needed. Why see the world in black and white when we can see it as red, amber and green?
Exceptional contributions without burnout
Being exceptional means doing things others won't or can't. You are exceptional, so when the opportunity presents itself to prove it, you will grab it! Flexible boundaries allow for periods of intensive work when it's genuinely beneficial while ensuring these short bursts of extra effort don't become an unsustainable norm. Being clear about when something is an exception manages expectations.
Protection without perfectionism
All-or-nothing boundaries may sound stronger, but in reality, they are much less resilient — consider a branch that bends in the wind versus the one that snaps or the detox plan that remains in place until the first slip (or sip) and is immediately replaced with a binge. In fact, if all-or-nothing boundaries were working for you, would you even be reading this article?
Self-Care without sacrifice
Self-care is essential for both your personal well-being and productivity, yet when it feels like it comes at the cost of getting shit done, we will immediately de-prioritise ourselves (how many full lunch hours have you taken this week?). By gaining control over your schedule and responsibilities, you'll feel higher satisfaction and productivity. When you finally feel like you're getting somewhere, you're more likely to give yourself a break. Hopefully.
How do you set ambitious personal boundaries?
The framework consists of three types of boundaries: Red, Amber, and Green. Each boundary category represents a different level of flexibility and negotiation.
Red Boundaries: Non-negotiable limits
Actions or tasks that you are committed to honouring. These gifts to your future self are clear-headed decisions about what is important to you. Red boundaries include absolute no-nos such as sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise unacceptable behaviours or attitudes.
Amber Boundaries: Judgment calls
It has been brought to my attention that this says something about my driving. In my defence, I live in London (is that a defence?). An amber light means I choose whether it is safer to stop or go. Amber boundaries can be ignored within certain limits — 'limits' is the keyword here.
The important thing to recognise is that amber boundaries have the potential to turn red.
When does an open-door policy blur the lines between accessibility and constant availability?
When does this flexibility turn into an expectation?
When does the use of informal channels like messaging apps for quick decisions or feedback become intrusive?
Green Boundaries: Go Go Go
We all know that green means Go! Green also means only some people go. Imagine a junction where everyone had a green light! These boundaries are not about saying "no" but rather saying "yes" when others say "no".
For example, say yes to projects that span different time zones because you're cool with taking calls or attending meetings outside of standard working hours.