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Setting Personal Boundaries That Work At Work: The Traffic Light System

Updated: Sep 15

Discover how to reclaim control of your time with Hodology's unique 'Traffic Light' system for setting flexible work boundaries.

Three traffic lights, each displaing a red, amber and green light.

How busy are you? Of course, you are important! It's a miracle you have time to read this article. So, if you are in a rush, you can skip to the how-to guide.

What are personal boundaries?

The speed limit on a motorway is a boundary. The age limit on an adult movie is a boundary. The amount you can eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet before they stop refilling the counter is a boundary. Boundaries are limits put in place to protect us, often (but not always) from ourselves. Deciding not to eat dairy is a boundary you might set for yourself, but it isn't a personal boundary. 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/actions of others might think, “My co-workers are idiots. I have to tell them how to do their jobs.” or "If I tell them that they are underperforming, they are going to feel terrible." Those who expect others to take responsibility for their own emotions/actions might think, "I’m always late to meetings because my co-workers are idiots." Personal boundaries recognise that we are each responsible for our own emotions/actions. A person with healthy personal boundaries can say “no” to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships.

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.

As you are an ambitious woman, you need a strategy that works for you as a woman and works with your ambition, not against it.

You need a strategy that works for women.

Claims of 'essential differences' between the sexes simply reflect — and give scientific authority to — what I suspect remains a majority opinion: that the inequality we see around us is a natural consequence rather than systemic exclusion. However, a great deal of evidence suggests that regarding what we want in life, there is as much variation between genders as there is between them. Plus, if you ask a neuroscientist to distinguish a male from a female brain, they would have difficulty doing so. So why is there not a one-size-fits-all approach to boundary behaviour?

As with many things, boundary behaviour differs for men and women because the way in which we are expected to behave is coloured by the lens through which we are viewed. As Cordelia Fine describes, when the environment makes gender salient, we can't help but think of ourselves in terms of gender. What more gender-salient environment is there than being the only woman in the room?

"But I'm not like other women." No, you're not. But unless wolves raised you, you will have, from a young age, encountered stronger external motivation (rewards and punishments) to take responsibility for the feelings of others than your male peers. From remembering birthdays to greeting everyone with a smile, life has a layer of daily responsibility that is hardly discussed – one which falls disproportionately on women. Since boundaries include disappointing people, maintaining them goes against what we've learned about being good.

Even if we have somehow resisted messages about what it means to be a 'good girl', we will work with people who haven't been as selective.

The boundary behaviour you need as a woman in leadership will differ from the boundary behaviour of a man in leadership because expectations (internal and external) are different. It's intimate. It's messy. It's frustrating. Because, at their core, boundaries are interpersonal relationships loaded with societal expectations.

This is just one of the reasons I created Hodology: to bring together strategies created specifically for women in leadership because, for women and other organisational minorities, leadership is the same game with different rules. The traffic light framework is one of the tools I created to make this knowledge more accessible and immediately applicable to those who might benefit from it.

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 women) 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 AF, and if we want to stand out, we need to 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'.

Traffic Light Boundaries: A framework designed to help you set clear yet flexible boundaries that respect your time and promote your well-being while honouring your ambition.


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 levels of satisfaction and productivity. When you finally feel like you're getting somewhere, you're more likely to give yourself a break. Hopefully.

Women in leadership with boundaries are women who love leadership.

How do you set personal boundaries?

Hello! to those of you who skipped straight here from the start. I can tell you're impatient, so let's get straight into it!

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.

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".

It will make more sense as we start to work through the examples.


What are some examples of personal boundaries?

When setting personal boundaries, I have found it useful to use these categories when working with clients. I hope that you find them useful too. In each category I've given some example of the red, amber and green boundaries you might set but these are just examples. As you work through setting your personal boundaries bare these two points in mind;

  1. Your values determine your boundaries. Don't give way to "shoulds".

  2. Be as clear as possible with yourself. Write it down and use numbers for recurrences and time.


Have you ever heard the saying, "If you want something done, give it to a busy person"? Don't be that busy person. Not being clear on your priorities is an open invitation for other people's priorities to crowd out your to-do list. Key to this is recognising that while oversight is part of your role, micromanaging or people-pleasing isn't. Trust those around you to handle their responsibilities.

Red boundaries might include;

  • I won't accept tasks from Dave (sorry/not sorry Dave, you had your chance).

  • I won't ask my team for updates outside their regular reporting cycle.

  • I won't organise team events, but I will always attend them.

Amber boundaries might include;

  • I won't work on more than one special project at a time. If two come up I can always delegate the less interesting one.

  • If someone asks for direction on a task, I will give them two clarifying meetings, but that's it.

Green boundaries might include:

  • I will always say yes to younger colleagues when they ask me for career guidance.

  • I will contribute to Employee Resource Groups, i.e. LGBT+ or Women In Engineering.

Remember, every green boundary is someone else's red or amber. So, if contributing to the ERGs is not going to contribute to you achieving your goals, then include "I will not contribute to the ERGs" as a red boundary.


Whether physical or digital, you deserve to have personal space and time. More than that, you'll be a nightmare to work with if you don't. If you're consistently working through lunch or staying late, consider if you're taking on more than necessary or if there's a deeper systemic issue at play.

Red boundaries might include:

  • I won't check my email over the weekend.

  • I won't attend meetings after 19:00

  • I won't respond to work queries I receive via my personal mobile number.

Amber boundaries might include:

  • I will work past 19:00, but only once a week.

  • If a decision is within my remit, I'll give other the opportunity to contribute but with or without their input I'll make the decision within one week.

  • I will invest at least four hours a month in my personal development.

Green boundaries might include:

  • I am an early riser and so am happy to attend meetings before 09:00

  • I will come into the office every day so that I can be co-located with my team (can you believe this used to be everyone?!)

  • I will spend every lunch time in the canteen so that members of my team can choose to join me.


While empathy is crucial in leadership, you can't be who they need. You're their boss, not their mother. When you become emotionally entangled in their personal lives, you do both them and yourself a disservice. When giving guidance steer clear of the mindset that everyone needs/deserves your opinion or that you must take on the emotional burden of how each person might react to feedback.

Red boundaries might include;

  • I will always wait 24 hours before giving feedback to ensure my opinion is measured.

  • I won't delve into personal problems or mediate conflicts between colleagues.

  • I won't tolerate derogatory or discriminatory language.

Amber boundaries might include;

  • If it's clear someone is having a particularly rough day, I will postpone our chat but only once.

  • If I notice a change in someone's mood or work patterns, I will ask them how they're doing at home but only so I can sign-post available support.

  • If someone cries during our chat, I will sit with them for five minutes before giving them space.

Green boundaries might include:

  • If a childcare challenge, directly affects a team member's work performance or schedules, I will always make accommodations.


How do you maintain personal boundaries?

There are two schools of thought here.

One is to make those around you aware of your personal boundaries from the get go — proactive boundary setting. Unfortunately, this often doesn't work as well as we might hope. It can also bring an unwanted dynamic to a new relationship if you start by outlining unacceptable behaviours. "Hi, I'm Libby and I won't be attending Waga Wednesdays," is a bold introduction even if you really can't stand a katsu.

Instead, it is more effective and politically savvy to reinforce boundaries only when they are tested gently — reactive boundary setting. To make this as simple as possible, know in advance what you will say when a boundary is tested. Partly because when a boundary is tested, it can be a triggering experience: self-doubt, fight-or-flight physical responses or people-pleasing tendencies. At times of stress, knowing how to say no is half the battle.

  • "I really appreciate you being respectful of my commitments outside work."

  • "I'd appreciate if we could stick to professional language."

  • "I don't have capacity for additional responsibilities and I wouldn't want to half-ass the work."

  • "I can tell how upsetting this is for you, do you have someone to speak to about it?"

  • "I can't commit to this right now, but please keep me in mind for future opportunities."

  • "While I'm always up for a challenge, but someone else beat you to it and I have already committed to another project."

  • "I'm trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance, so I won't be available for extra hours this week."

  • "I already have prior commitments during that time. Could we find another suitable time or perhaps delegate this to someone else?"

  • "I am willing to help out, but twice this week is my limit or I'll be no help to anyone."

Finally, I shall leave you with this final piece of advice.

However you decide to set, communicate and maintain your personal boundaries the important thing to remember is that they are yours. You can do whatever you like, which (perhaps counterintuitively) means you can choose to ignore them. But if you are tempted to change a boundary that you set while in a good place and with a clear head, you owe it to yourself to be in the same place when you decide to reset it.

Happy Boundaries!

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