The holidays can be especially demanding. According to a new study by YouGovAmerica, 52% of people find this season stressful. And heading into the New Year, expectations are especially high. During this time, the climb for both work and personal pursuits can seem steeper than during the rest of the year.
Stress has increased in recent years and according to research published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development, it tends to be highest among younger adults, with the most significant stressors being family, spouse, finances, and work. Of course, people at every stage of life face stress. Whether it’s caring for children or elders, developing or sustaining a great job, or volunteering in the community—all of these require investments of time, energy, and coping.
Boundaries can help you manage stressors like these, and the New Year can be the perfect time to consider your boundaries and to determine how you will balance work and life responsibilities in the year ahead.
Here are some best practices (and unexpected approaches) for how to establish and manage boundaries in the New Year.
Make boundaries your own
One of the hardest parts about setting boundaries is the judgements people (including yourself) make about them. People tend to believe you should never work on weekends, or that you should never mix work and personal pursuits. But in reality, the most effective boundaries are the ones that work for you.
If you take off early on Thursday to attend your daughter’s soccer game and work Saturday morning to catch up on a few things, that is a legitimate and morally neutral choice to make. If you take a quick call during work hours to talk with the doctor about your aging dad, and you’re also meeting your work obligations, you are exercising flexibility. And if you stay a little later to finish a project and relieve the pressure on your weekend, that can be perfectly appropriate for you.
The common wisdom for how to best handle boundaries is to set rigid rules, but it’s fine to take a more relaxed aproach. When things work for you, your family, and your work, resist judging yourself harshly or comparing yourself to others’ standards. Give yourself permission to be flexible when it’s right for you and when it balances your needs with others’ needs as well.
Synchronize your schedule
Another consideration for setting boundaries is how much your schedule is in sync with that of others. Happiness is significantly greater when you have strong relationships and feel a part of your community, so it’s wise to consider how you manage your boundaries in alignment with others. Being off for an afternoon may be wonderful, but the opportunity to walk your dog with a friend that afternoon may be even better.
In addition, one of the things which is most rewarding at work is connecting with colleagues. So, if you’re making the commute and going into the office, you may find it more satisfying to coordinate your schedule with teammates who will also be in the office that day. You and colleagues can choose to give each other greater access to each other’s schedules so you can be in the office at the same time—and work from home when others are as well.
Boundaries aren’t just an individual pursuit, but can be best managed when you coordinate with others and sync up your time.
Build your credibility
You can also enhance your ability to set boundaries and make your own choices about when, where, and how you work by building your credibility. Don’t underestimate the power of your performance and reputation in the degree of autonomy you get in your work.
Sometimes it can be tricky to ask your boss for flexibility and set a boundary regarding a personal commitment. But if you give your best, take initiative, and do your work with excellence, you’ll earn the right to ask for more. When leaders and team members trust that you follow up, follow through, and get things done, they will be more likely to accept shifts in your schedule or your work location.
In addition, when you have credibility and you’re respected for performing well, you can be more transparent in what you’re doing. For example, you can be open with a colleague that you can’t make the meeting because you’re taking your child (or your mom) to the doctor. This openness contributes to people’s trust in you, and it also paves the way for a culture where others can also be open about how they balance their work and their lives as well.
With great performance, you earn greater permission for flexibility and with more transparency about the way you spend your time, you give others permission to manage their own boundaries.
In addition to managing macro boundaries—when, where and how you’re working and living—also pay attention to how you manage your micro or day-to-day boundaries. When you need to immerse yourself in a project, block time on your calendar, or set your status to “do not disturb.” When you want to focus totally on your partner, turn off notifications, pings, and dings.
Fatigue and stress are often magnified when you’re switching between tasks—not just in terms of multitasking, but also in terms of what you’re paying attention to. If you’re in the middle of a meeting and also trying to text with your daughter, it can cause you to feel conflicted. Or if you’re at a violin concert and trying to respond to an email from your boss, it can trigger frustration. Consider scheduling your time in chunks, so you can focus on work for a certain periods, and then be with your family for other dedicated times.
With so much information coming at us every day, attention is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. So, be totally present for whatever you’re doing. When you’re focused and attentive, you can get more out of your experiences and you can build stronger relationships by sending the message that you actually care, and are actually in the moment, with your colleague, friend, or family member.
Adapt and adjust
Keep in mind you will likely want to adapt your boundaries over time, so stay attuned to what’s working and what might need to change. It’s natural for demands to ebb and flow over time. When your children are younger compared to when they get older, you may want to distribute your time differently. Or when you’re hustling at work to land a promotion, you may want to manage your energy differently compared to when you’re just starting out your career .
Adapt your boundaries to the month-to-month or season-to-season rhythms of life. When you’re solving a huge problem at work, you may need to burn the midnight oil, or when your sister is going through a crisis, you may need to emphasize your time with family to a greater extent. Over the summer you may take more time to walk or garden, and in other seasons you may be happy to spend time in front of your laptop in your cozy office.
The most important thing is to reflect regularly and be conscious about how you’re managing your time and energy. Avoid over committing to a schedule or a boundary in order to give yourself the ability to reset and re-calibrate as life evolves.
Boundaries aren’t always easy to manage, but they are worth the effort. Setting and managing boundaries are ways to increase your sense of power even when things are overwhelming, challenging, or just especially stressful.