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Boundaries... Get Some!

Many of us have come to learn, crave, and accept the benefits of boundaries in many situations. For example, it’s easy for us to accept that we need boundaries in society to keep us safe (equitable rules and laws). We accept that we need boundaries to operate a functional corporation, office, or school. We need boundaries for our children. In the workplace, we also readily accept that we need clear, healthy boundaries to effectively communicate the values of our organization. When it comes to these things, it just makes sense to us - boundaries are necessary. Why then do we struggle as leaders to set, effectively communicate, and remain consistent when it comes to personal boundaries that support a healthy and well lifestyle? One that supports a healthy work-life balance? One that helps us to maintain our sanity so that we can lead and serve effectively at work and at home?

Too often as educational leaders and servant leaders we struggle with not knowing when or how to set boundaries. Now more than ever, the demands have piled up and we struggle with when and how to stop or say “no”. Because when we do, we grapple with feelings of inadequacy. We struggle with the cult of overwork to the extent of living outside of our values. We struggle with superhero syndrome as we are determined to do it all. And most counterproductively, we set unrealistic expectations of ourselves and become upset with ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations. These are some of the very same struggles that lead us to overwhelm, burn out, and resentment. We get so passionate about our work that we let it consume us. We unintentionally neglect the other key parts of our life that make us whole. Whether or not we choose to admit it, we wrestle with the thought that the “powers that be” should consider our wellness. While they should, at some point we need to accept that it is ultimately our responsibility to maintain our wellness. It’s not easy, but necessary.

As a school principal I have struggled with the same thing. The pressure and struggles are real when trying to define boundaries and still “feel” like an effective leader. I had to get over that. I have come to learn that there is beauty in boundaries and liberation through limits - when we set them, embrace them, and communicate them. What if we chose to embrace the limits of the 24-hour day and learned how to use the constraints to clarify, prioritize, and be selective in what we choose to do? What if you committed to an 8 to 10 hour work day and prioritized your decisions to maximize what you can do within that time? Yes, I’m talking about a hard boundary. You might find that you are better able to focus, be more productive, and even more creative. When we choose to “limit” or “constrain” our work, we make room for the other necessary parts of our life - family, restoration, a peaceful evening, self-care. That can be liberating.

When we know better, we must do better. You can begin by setting healthy personal boundaries. This is your responsibility as a leader and human being. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Get comfortable with setting boundaries. While it might feel uncomfortable or unnatural at first, it is necessary. This means getting comfortable with the healthy reality that you might not be able to do everything. Embrace that while you cannot do everything, you can do what matters most - really well - when you have healthy boundaries.

  • Choose to stop - not because the work is finished, but because it is time to stop. The work of a school leader is never finished.

  • Let go of perfectionism. Period.

  • Give yourself permission to set, communicate, and maintain healthy work-life boundaries. You can have boundaries that support a healthy work-life balance and still be an excellent leader, employee, and person. Clearly articulating them can free you from guilt (over time). Anticipate the guilt and push back. Plan to be okay with it, knowing that YOU are a better leader and human for it. Most people will respect the boundaries you effectively communicate. This could sound like, “I am not able to take care of that this evening, but I can look at it in the morning.”

  • Consider your boundary struggles at work. Are you - Doing work for others? Not delegating? Not taking advantage of vacation days? Taking on more than you truly can handle? Working during down time? What causes you to feel burned out or overwhelmed? Identify where you need to set firm boundaries that align with your values. If you serve in a high demand, high reward role such as an educational leader, it is essential you give yourself permission to set boundaries. It can look like, choosing not to check email on the weekend or after 6:00 PM so that you can be fully engaged with your loved ones. It can also look like minimizing distractions while you are at work so that you can maximize your time. I’m not referring to the distractions that come with the job (stopping to handle student discipline or giving the personal attention required to nurture positive relationships). I’m referring to the distraction of text messages, engaging in water cooler conversations way too often, and social media scrolling that creeps in throughout the day and devours our time.

  • Schedule weekly personal boundaries and commit to them. Take the time to map out your week. Schedule your wellness habits first. Be reasonable. For example, schedule your morning or afternoon run/walk/exercise class as an appointment on your calendar. Schedule “turn off computer at 4:45” as an appointment on your calendar. Know the days you plan to work late and the days you absolutely will not, (barring extreme emergencies - remember if there are emergencies everyday… there is a deeper issue). Schedule them.

  • Leverage your life-fit. You know where you are in life. If it’s a busy season for you at work, modify your commitments outside of work. For example, If you are a school leader and it’s 2 weeks before the start of the school year, choose not to commit to a million social events on your days off. You will need the space to rest as you are putting in more hours now so that you can get school reopened. This doesn't mean neglect self-care, it means adjust what that looks like. Choose a massage on Friday evening to wind down instead of exerting more energy to entertain a group of people. If you work full-time and have other full time obligations outside of work (caring for an ill family member, children, etc.) choose wisely. This could mean connecting with other parents to carpool, or telling your children they can only do one activity per season instead of trying to shuffle them to 5 different activities during the week. Trust me, they will still be well-rounded children if they don’t do all the things. You get the point.

  • Schedule white space into your calendar at work and at home. This is your time to think. Your free space to problem solve, innovate, reflect, stare out the window. You know how you often seem to do your best thinking in the shower or the car? Yup, that’s “white space” thinking. That unprovoked space that allows your thoughts to run free. For all of you “task masters” know that white space can be a very productive space.

Work-life balance is not an urban legend. You hold the key to unlocking a more balanced and less exhausting approach to your life. It is a daily practice to let go of the myopic approach to work and embrace the fullness of your life. Be intentional and choose to live well AND lead well.

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