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How to Set Boundaries at Work (So You Can Have a Life)

Marcelle Yeager

It's summer. The last thing you want to do is stay at work until 8 p.m. By that time, you'll have long been dreaming of happy hour or a barbecue dinner at home. Of course, there will be times when you absolutely have to stay to meet a deadline, but that should be the exception. There will forever be more work to do tomorrow, and it doesn't all have to be done today.

New on the job ...

If you're starting a new job, set boundaries by leaving on time whenever possible. If your work is finished, don't think you have to wait for your co-workers or boss to leave. Although you want to establish yourself as a hardworking and motivated employee in the first few months on the job, begin introducing the idea that you do not want to stay late every day. Do this delicately and gradually -- there will be appropriate times in casual conversation to raise the issue.

Do you want to make it home for dinner with your family? Talk about your family. This doesn't mean you need to do it constantly, but inserting tidbits during conversations over time will tell your boss that family is important to you.

Maybe you want to make it to your 6 p.m. spinning class. There's nothing wrong with that. Exercise improves sleep, reduces anxiety and boosts work performance. While not everyone will understand or value that, you do and you shouldn't have to give it up for your job all the time. Insert the topic of classes you take in conversation. It should be casual at this point, and not a negative statement, such as, "I hate when I can't leave at 5:30 because I can't get to the gym on time."

There are many reasons people come early or stay late. Observe other colleagues and your boss. At what time do they arrive and leave? Are there specific reasons for their early arrival or late departure? Are they in meetings all day and as a result fail to get their work done? Are they talking all day with colleagues when they could be working?

You want your boss to become acquainted with your priorities, but don't come in the gate immediately demanding things. You're still in that beginning phase and want to make a good impression.

After several months on the job ...

At this point, you'll know if your boss is satisfied with your work. If you've proven yourself, you should feel comfortable talking to her about your hours. Find a time when she isn't busy and sit down to talk about your priorities. Be sure to start the conversation with how much you enjoy the job. Then explain that you're fully on board with the fact that some days you'll need to stay late, but you'd like to try and leave on time on other days. Briefly explain why it's important to you. Maintain her confidence by saying that you're sure you can get your work done during your regular hours.

If you have trouble completing work during regular hours, it's usually a result of one of these three issues: your boss is expecting too much, your company is understaffed or something is distracting you.

Many meetings are a waste of time. Look at your calendar and pinpoint which ones are necessary for you to attend and which are not. If you're a manager, can you ask others to attend in your place? If you don't think it's essential for you to be in a meeting, tell your colleagues you can't make it but ask them to inform you of anything important. It will make some co-workers upset, but it will allow you to get work done. Perhaps you could even suggest they cancel some meetings altogether, saving everyone valuable work time.

If colleagues are preventing you from getting work done by coming to your office to chat or complain all day, close your door. You may need to put a sign up, and can add humor to it if you're worried about what people will think. Remember, you're doing this to protect your time and priorities.

Dealing with a boss's radical expectations or understaffing is a much more difficult issue. However, if you're a valued employee, you should address these issues with your boss. She may look for some creative ideas on how to redistribute work or find a more efficient way to do business. Make sure you go to her with solutions instead of complaints.

After years on the job ...

The latter concerns are easier to address with your boss once you've been on the job for years. If your relationship is negative, it will be tough, if not impossible, but you should try to discuss them. Presenting solutions rather than grievances will go over better. If you have an agreeable colleague, you can construct a proposal together and go in to talk to your boss. If you include more co-workers, your boss may view it as a personal attack.

Set your hours, let people know what they are and stick to them as much as possible. Be honest and transparent if people ask why you insist on leaving at 5 p.m. If your boss questions it, remind her that you can be reached in the evening if something unexpected occurs, or you can handle it early the next day.

Too many bosses and employees believe that everything should've been done yesterday because they aren't good at prioritizing. Sometimes you may think your boss needs something today, but if you ask, it may turn out she doesn't need it till tomorrow or the following day. Perhaps you got the impression that your long-standing client needs a briefing by close of business. Ask if you can send it to the client the following day. There is no harm in asking once you've earned their respect, and if it means you will do a better job, your boss, client or colleague should oblige. If you find you can't get the right balance and are continuously having to arrive early or stay late, let the job search begin. There are companies and bosses out there who will respect work time and priorities.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Yeager holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.

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