The Essentials: Setting and Maintaining Boundaries


AMY GALLO: You are listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Gallo. In this series, The Essentials, Amy B and I cover key career skills by bringing together experts on those skills and audience members of ours who are looking to get better at them. The thing we like about grounding these episodes in the specifics of individual women’s experiences is how it makes management principles less theoretical and practical advice more realistic, not only for that one woman participating in the conversation but also for listeners in all sorts of industries.

Ashley Chaifetz works as a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture leading large research projects mainly focused on school meals. The job is both flexible and structured: flexible in ways that she’ll explain in a bit, structured in that she has to set and stick to a schedule. She signs on and off the same times nearly every day, and because it’s a federal job, she’s not allowed to have government email or any other work messages or materials on her personal devices.

Ashley’s life is so different from mine, where the distinctions between my work and my personal time are very fluid. Because I run my own business, I don’t have a boss who’s telling me what I can and can’t do, when I need to be at work or in a meeting, and when I can take care of personal stuff.

I’m looking at my calendar right now for last Thursday, and I attended two meetings in the morning after going to the gym. Then I went actually for a physical therapy appointment and left from that straight to have coffee with a former colleague. Then I came back to my desk and finished up an article that I was writing and had one other meeting before I signed off for the day. To be fair, when I say I signed off for the day, it meant I closed my laptop, but I probably came back to it later that night. Having this flexibility means that I end up trying to check things off my to-do list sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday. I never liked it when I had to be somewhere at a certain time for an extended period of time. I was always someone who wanted to mix things up during the day, even if it means I have to set boundaries, and I know I would rebel against sort of rigid structure.

How I prefer to approach my work differs from how Ashley does, which likely differs from how you do. Boundaries help us achieve those preferences and ultimately be engaged and productive and feel less stressed. Boundaries themselves actually exist on a spectrum as our guest expert, executive coach Melody Wilding, explains.

MELODY WILDING: You, on one end, have very porous boundaries, which is you allow anything to happen to you. You are a total pushover. On the other end of the spectrum, you have very rigid boundaries, which is where it’s like having a brick wall: You don’t allow anyone in, but nothing gets out either. So, you want to land in that healthy middle, something that lets the right things in but keeps the things you don’t want out.

AMY GALLO: Ashley’s already set several boundaries that we can learn from, but she wants to draw even clearer lines. Melody’s here to think up some additional actions that Ashley and you and me can take when it comes to communicating new limits with people and holding the line when they test them.

Ashley, I want to start with you. What is a boundary you’re struggling with right now?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Okay. So, I need to say first off that any views and opinions that I express herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the USDA, the Food and Nutrition Service, or the United States.

AMY GALLO: Fair enough. Appropriate disclaimer for a federal employee. Go ahead.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I would say the biggest boundary that I’m coming up against lately is my family. They’re wonderful humans; but in an attempt to reclaim my time, I have longer days four days a week and then a short day on Fridays. So, that means that I start at 7:00 AM.

AMY GALLO: Oh wow.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: My toddler and my partner and my two dogs are all at home and all very awake and moving while I am starting my workday, and that’s a real challenge. I think that the start of the workday can be kind of soft in that you’re going through your emails while you’re drinking your coffee and all of that, but I have a lot of deep-thinking work that I’m doing right now.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Well, and it’s not like, Ashley, you leave at 6:45 and go to an office, right?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Correct. I am not going anywhere. I just go into a different room in my house. In the pre-pandemic era, I did have an early schedule, but I also left, and I also didn’t have a toddler yet. I didn’t have any children yet. So, the schedule has offered me a lot of freedom, but also having everybody around can be a real challenge. That said, starting later offers up its own challenges.

AMY GALLO: Say more. What do you mean?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Well, for a while I was starting at 8:00 AM. My toddler usually leaves the house with my partner, who does the commute with him. They usually leave around 8, so I was still around for that morning part, but I still had to physically move my body away from everybody else to get started. Then I ended up working later, which meant that it was harder to do things like get dinner started.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Well, and what’s interesting about that is that in setting a boundary, like trying to do a four-and-a-half-day work week, you’re also coming up against other boundaries that you need to negotiate and set. I personally find that to be the case most often. I’m curious, Melody, do you see that with your clients and in your work that boundaries just create more need for more boundaries?

MELODY WILDING: Yes. Even if it’s not a need for more boundaries, it’s communicating those to the people around us. So, yes, I see this often, especially as work and life are now so intertwined, you can’t separate them that inevitably one affects the other. And many times—Ashley, I know this is not necessarily the case for you, which is great, but for many people that I work with, boundaries are not something that talked about or that are clearly defined. So, it can be really hard and very ambiguous to know what type of limits are okay to set, what is off limits. I think that leads to a big fear of consequences because setting boundaries isn’t always risk free, whether that’s on the professional side, you may be punished or ostracized as a result, or it’s on the family side, not feeling available, missing out on those moments. So, it’s a tough balance.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. I have to say, as someone who writes and talks about conflict and difficult conversations, I think we often think setting boundaries… we perceive it as a conflict, right? I want something, that other person wants something else. I want to work within certain hours. My boss wants me to be fully committed to be available all the time, or I need a quiet space to work, and my toddler wants to sit next to me, or my dog wants to be on my lap, right? Whatever it is, I think we perceive it as a potential conflict. And because we’re hardwired to avoid conflicts because we want things to go smoothly and have harmony with people, I think we oftentimes hesitate to set those boundaries as well.

Ashley, I want to go back to your starting at 7 schedule because it sounds like that’s relatively new. What motivated the renegotiation of that schedule, and how did you go about setting that boundary?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah, so most federal employees have to declare what their schedule is, even though there is quite a bit of flexibility in terms of your start time and your end time.

AMY GALLO: Interesting.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: And also, how you organize the 80 hours within your pay period. So, there are basically three different ways that federal employees do this. One, you work an eight-hour day every single day. Two, you work nine hours a day and one eight-hour day. Three, nine hours a day and two half days. Or four, 10 hours a day, four days a week. The last one I would say is pretty rare because I think 10 hours of work is a really long day, especially because we have to build in another half hour as a lunch period.

So, I was finding last fall that my schedule is creeping all over the place, especially in the evening, and that was actually really hard for me and I’m not as good of a thinker in the afternoon as I am in the morning. And so I chatted with my partner about my desire to start earlier, because he also has to be on board with that because he takes on more of making sure my kid gets fed and making sure our kid has his shoes on. So, he also had to be on [board] with taking on more of the morning stuff.

So, right now I am basically in a trial period for it, which means I’m in my fourth week of this, and I’m really enjoying it. It also gives me a bit of extra time on my case on Fridays to have for myself that does not involve the rest of my family. Because I could have also changed the time to be 7:00 AM and get off at 3:30.

AMY GALLO: Sure.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: But I chose it to be 7:00 AM and get off at 4:30 with the half days on Fridays, so that that way I can also reclaim some of my own time, which is a different challenge.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, that’s another boundary.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Totally.

AMY GALLO: How do we set boundaries with work? How do we set boundaries between work and family? But then how do we set boundaries with all of that so that we have time for ourselves?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah, and I would say that my supervisor is really supportive of all the different schedules and different conflicts that each of us have.

AMY GALLO: That’s fantastic.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: So, that also makes trying something new really possible because she’s not going to push back on that either.

AMY GALLO: Was there any negotiation with her at all around the new schedule?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: No. I mean, basically all those different types that I described previously are available to most government employees. And so, changing to having a longer day and having a half day off is—it’s written as an option when we have to declare our schedule. So, when I told her what I was going to try out, she was very supportive.

AMY GALLO: So, yeah. How had she sort of shown you previously that she would be supportive of those different schedule options?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I mean, we are in meetings a lot together with me and other people that she supervises, and then there’s some people that she supervises who also supervise other people, though I don’t. And so, you also get to absorb people’s reactions to different changes. And so, you kind of know if your supervisor will be supportive of things that you’re presenting, especially when they’re within reason. I wasn’t asking for anything too wild there.

AMY GALLO: Melody, is that a big concern for people you work with that their supervisor’s not going to be supportive or there’s a boundary they need to set and they just know they’re going to get pushback?

MELODY WILDING: Absolutely, Amy. I would say that’s the number one concern people have is, what is my boss going to think? How do I handle it if they push back?

AMY GALLO: And what do you tell them when they express that concern?

MELODY WILDING: Well, I think what Ashley did is really smart, is that she read the room, she read the environment first. And again, what you have going for you, Ashley, is that there is more structure and rules around this, whereas in most workplaces, unfortunately, there is not. But first you have to understand the cultural environment that you’re operating in. How do people respond when others set limits? What example is your boss modeling when it comes to their own work-life balance and their own boundaries? And I would say that when I am coaching people around this, if you can present your boundary as an experiment or a test, let’s try this for 30 days and see how it goes, and we can evaluate at that point, that can mitigate some of the apprehension your boss may have.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, I love that [advice]. We’ve talked about that before on different episodes, is just if you sort of put out there, let’s just try it for four weeks, six weeks, and oftentimes once you’re sort of doing it, then it becomes much more acceptable even if it’s not part of the norm already.

Melody, I’m thinking about, it’s been a while since I’ve had a traditional full-time job with a boss who I had to ask for things, but my approach when I did was always to, first of all, knock it out of the park in the first six months of the job, give it my all, and then just ask. If I wanted something, just ask. And the worst they could say was no. But I’m thinking about folks, especially when they’re new to a job and they haven’t yet laid the foundation that they’re a valuable critical employee, and they don’t know what the norms are, or they haven’t had the opportunity to read the room. I know you wrote an article for HBR, How to Set Healthy Boundaries When Starting a New Job. Any advice for folks who don’t have that opportunity to read the room?

MELODY WILDING: And I wrote this article because what I see is so many people are eager when they get a new job that they overcommit, and they overextend themselves, and then they’ve set a precedent that that’s the level that they’re going to perform always. And that’s really hard to sustain. So, that’s exactly why I wrote this article. And one of the key pieces of insight that I would say is most critical when you are starting a new role is to upfront have those conversations with your manager about how you work with one another. And that includes understanding your boss’s preferences around things like response times to messages—even things like, how do they like to receive feedback? If conflict comes up, how are we going to handle that? Because those are all different types of boundaries that we often don’t think of as limits we have to discuss. But even things like, what’s the standard around here around blocking time off my calendar if I want to do focused work?

Ask your boss these questions, and then you can negotiate from there, but at least you’re not coming in aggressively saying, “This is how it has to be.” It’s more of a dialogue.

AMY GALLO: What I like about that especially is that you sort of catching your boss at a great time because they want you to have a really good onboarding experience. They want to set you up for success, they want to keep you. So, asking them these questions early on, you might get the best possible answer in that moment. It’s like catching someone in a good mood.

MELODY WILDING: That and I really want to encourage everyone to reframe boundaries that they help you be at your best and your boundaries can also serve other people around you.

AMY GALLO: Right. Yeah. And can you just say a little bit more about how your boundaries benefit others? I think that’s an important point we don’t think about.

MELODY WILDING: And so, I have a lot of clients that get frustrated when either their boss or a peer sends them things very last minute and they need to discuss it on a meeting at 12:00, and they’re getting a document at 11:55, and how am I supposed to review this in that timeframe? If you can approach that person and say, “Hey, I would like to make a kind request that going forward, if you could send this to me 24 hours in advance, that will mean that our live conversation time can be much more efficient and useful because I’ll be able to be informed.” So, if you can articulate how your boundary is actually in service of the other person reaching their goals, that can give you a chance of it being better received.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Oh, I love that. I feel like providing the reason for the boundary is something I don’t think so much about because you’re like, Well, it’s not interesting to someone else to say that I need to take my kid to swim class, or whatever it might be. But also, that’s a real thing.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Well, and I think the swim class example, so we often think, Well, they don’t need to know or they’re not interested. But when I think about when I’m asked to do things or when someone’s like, “Can we reschedule that meeting?” Even something as simple as that. If they tell me, “My kid’s home sick,” and I’m like, “Oh, of course.” I just sort of… this sort of instinct.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Totally.

AMY GALLO: It helps me make the mental leap of like, Okay, yeah, no, rescheduling is fine as opposed to I just want to reschedule. It’s a point of connection, I think, with the other person.

MELODY WILDING: And I have a somewhat provocative viewpoint that no is not a complete sentence in the workplace. Because to your point, just imagine if you asked a colleague for a favor, and you get in response to a nice email you wrote, you just get the words, “No,” how are you going to feel about that? It’s not going to be great for the relationship. And so, there’s a delicate balance, especially for women, of providing enough context and explanation to say, “I have to cancel this meeting because…” And there’s good influence research to show that just adding that word “because” makes someone much more amenable to whatever you’re asking, but not overexplaining because that’s a slippery slope when you start to say, “Well, my kid is sick, and I have a lot of work, and it’s a full moon.” And you open yourself up to objection handling, where someone can say, “Oh, well, we’ll just move that task,” and then all of a sudden you’ve backed yourself into a corner. So, provide some explanation, but be mindful not to overexplain.

AMY GALLO: How do you know that difference? If I’m sitting there thinking, Well, do I need to tell them that I’m taking my kid to swim class and that it starts at 4:30 and it’s a 30-minute commute, how do you make that decision about what to share and what not to?

MELODY WILDING: I think many of us, we can emotionally start to tell when we’re over explaining. We can get that feeling inside that I feel like I have to justify this because I feel bad for setting this boundary. And I think that’s the biggest clue is when am I just stating the facts about the situation? I have a 4:30 cut off today and I have commitments after these hours that I have to attend to. Versus once you start explaining those commitments are that you need to see your therapist or pick up your kid, you may start to feel icky about that. So, I think it’s also having the self-awareness to know in the moment when you feel like you’re justifying your actions.

AMY GALLO: And I think it’s helpful to remember you don’t owe someone an explanation necessarily for the boundary, but if you need them to approve the boundary or be on board with it or you want to have a continuing relationship, you probably do want to explain why.

We’ve been talking a lot about time boundaries, and I’m curious, Ashley, are there other boundaries that you’re either struggling with or that you’ve actually had to renegotiate or set that are not specifically about your schedule?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah, I mean, I think the other boundary challenge is the emotional boundary. So, I’m pretty lucky in that when I sign off of my computer at the end of the day, it’s off. I don’t look at it, I don’t turn it back on. I have a work iPhone, but I also don’t look at that. At the end of the day, there’s no possibility for me to get my work email into my personal phone, which is also great.

AMY GALLO: Yep, that’s a good boundary.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: But that doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about work or it’s not creeping into my life in some other capacity of having too many things to review, and I really need to get that heads-down time. And I’m just trying to think about, how can I get out of this meeting so I can get more time to review? So, I think there’s an emotional boundary that I’m always kind of pushing. At nighttime I’m definitely still thinking about work.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Melody, what do you think?

MELODY WILDING: Yeah, I’m so happy we’re talking about this because this has become so much more common since the pandemic, where we don’t have that natural separation where we leave the office at the end of the day, and we have a commute that helps us decompress and then we transition into personal time. A lot of us have lost that.

And so, one key thing you can do is recreate that transition ritual for yourself. What is sort of your shutdown routine? I have some clients who put a timer on their phone for a certain point in the evening or in their calendar so that it prompts them to start wrapping up for the day instead of getting into this, well, just one more thing, one more email. So, you actually nudge yourself to do that.

And then you have some sort of ritual that signals this is the end of the workday and I am processing what is coming out of the workday and I am moving into personal time. So, that could be writing down three things you’re proud of from the day, three top priorities for the next day. So, those things aren’t jumbling around in your brain because your mind is a meaning-making and problem-solving machine. And if there are open loops, it’s going to want to close those loops. So, you’ll just keep thinking about the thing, trying to get to a resolution, and you can’t. But if you can assure your mind and yourself that, okay, I’ve written down those key priorities, I have an outline of what I need to talk to so-and-so about the next day, that can help provide some of that closure. So, that’s one thing, I would say.

And then creating friction. So, if you want to encourage yourself to do something, you want to make it easier. It’s the idea of wearing your gym clothes to bed at night makes it easier to get up to go to the gym in the morning because you’ve reduced friction. But if you want to discourage yourself from doing something, make it harder. So, that may be fully logging out of your work app so you’re not just tempted to open and refresh your email or your Slack, maybe putting it in a different room. Over the weekend, I have people that will completely take work apps and programs off of their phones so that they’re not tempted to look at them. But thinking about how you can make going back to work harder for yourself can then discourage you from doing that.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Do you do any of that, Ashley? The closure or the creating friction?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I mean, maybe softly. The first thing I do when I’m done with my workday is walk my dogs because I’m basically putting them off until I finish. And the longer it takes me to finish, the louder my little dog gets. She won’t allow you to just keep going. I literally leave my desk, feed them, and walk out the door. But that’s also quite short. So, in terms of letting go of the work in my mind, I don’t know that it necessarily goes away as soon as I step outside at the end of the day.

AMY GALLO: Are you thinking about work while you walk them?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I’m not always thinking about work while I walk them. My work kind of ebbs and flows, and so in times where I have a lot of work, I will keep thinking about that work throughout the rest of the day. And that’s also kind of hard because sometimes I have so much work that it’s hard to think about how to fit it in the 80-hour pay period. And then sometimes when those deliverables go back to the person who will read them next, then my work is kind of quiet and it’s not so hard to set the boundaries.

AMY GALLO: Right. Yeah. Most people, when I think about setting boundaries, I think most people just have way too much all of the time, and it’s just about keeping it at bay. But I think your point about the work ebbs and flows is really interesting. And I know you had a question. Do you want to ask Melody your question about that?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah. The government can move fast and slow at the same time, so there’s a lot of hurry up and then wait. And so, we have slow periods. This past summer, I was awaiting a big work project to start. And I was hesitant to take on any other smaller projects because I knew the pace was going to pick up greatly. So, how might I set boundaries with my supervisor or my time so that I’m not underutilized for a stretch of time, but also then not taken by surprise?

MELODY WILDING: How much is your manager aware of the ebbs and flows that you’re going through?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I think she’s pretty aware. She was once in a position very similar to mine, and so I think she really gets what our jobs are like. And sometimes it has to do with the federal fiscal schedule, things that are so much bigger than us that we have to wait on.

MELODY WILDING: Yeah. Do you have one-on-ones with your boss?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah, we meet bi-weekly.

MELODY WILDING: Oh, okay. Great. Then this sort of capacity planning could be part of your one-on-one with your manager. Is it already?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah.

MELODY WILDING: Okay.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: We definitely talk about what’s going on in my different projects.

AMY GALLO: I think I’m also curious, Ashley, is it hard to set those boundaries because people, maybe your boss or teammates, know you don’t have a lot going on at the moment? So, it’s hard to be like, “No, no, I’ve got something coming.”

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I think that’s accurate. You don’t want to decline work when you actually have time to do it. And at the same time, you want to make sure to hold the space because you know you will soon have so much more work.

AMY GALLO: Yeah.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: And that’s a wiggly boundary, I think.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, Melody, what do you think? I mean, it’s sort of like this fluctuation between boredom, maybe irking your colleagues who are like, I see you sitting there, or I don’t see you, but I know you’re sitting there without much to do. And then also just sort of opening the floodgates and getting overwhelmed.

MELODY WILDING: Yeah. I’ll say a few things here. I think in terms of keeping yourself engaged, think about how you might use these slow times strategically. Are there processes, systems, are there areas you can streamline that are, in a way, their own boundaries that can help you down the road when work starts to pick up again?

I’ll give you a quick example. I often work with people who are product managers, project managers, and they often have people from sales, business development, marketing coming to them with every request under the sun. And it can be distracting. They don’t know what to prioritize. It can be overwhelming. So, a boundary that I often have them create is creating some sort of standardized process where, for example, they might have literally a form for a feature request that people have to fill out that then streamlines all of those requests that they get and set some boundaries, parameters, or criteria around what they can and can’t do, and protects their time from all of those other distractions.

So, I would encourage you to think about that, first of all, how you might use the slow time more strategically. Second is to think about for yourself when work starts to pick up again, where can you then draw boundaries as needed? So, for example, Ashley, I don’t think you manage people. Is that right?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I don’t.

MELODY WILDING: Okay. But just for example, there may be meetings you have with different stakeholders that you know when things pick up, you may need to decrease those from 60 minutes to 30 minutes, or from bi-weekly to once a month. But be clear within yourself about what are those trade-offs I can make and those boundaries I’ll need to set when things get busy again?

Then the last thing around striking the balance with your boss or other people, when they come to you with other work, it’s going to be important to be upfront that you’re anticipating a busy time coming up.

AMY GALLO: How does that land, Ashley?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: To some degree, right on. I work on a project that is outside of the government. By outside, I mean it’s all non-governmental people and funded separately, but [I] was asked to participate given some subject matter expertise. And initially, this was one meeting every other week, and then it became one meeting every other week plus one meeting every week. And that’s not a small amount of my work week, plus the actual work that you do outside of the meetings. And so at some point for that project in particular, when my current large project picked up, I was like, “I need to drop one of these meetings. If you need my specific expertise in the meeting, I can join on an ad hoc basis. But joining every week is, I don’t think, necessarily helpful.” Because a lot of the topics were not necessarily using my subject matter expertise, and so, I essentially got out of one meeting per week.

MELODY WILDING: Ashley, what I love about that response is you very naturally led yourself to a great boundary technique, which is called the positive no. So, this comes from William Ury. He is at Harvard Law School, and this is his technique where you say no to the initial request, but you share what you can do. So, I can’t do X, but what I can do is Y. So, you said, “I can’t attend these two meetings. I can attend one of them.” Presenting that trade-off can be very effective.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, I want to loop back because I know, Ashley, you were talking about this work-life boundary, the 7:00 AM start is a little challenging. What would be most helpful? What can Melody and I help with in terms of resolving that?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: That’s a good question. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure because some of it is like, well, my almost four-year-old will eventually get to be a bigger person and understands that when I’m working, I’m working. But also, I mean, I only see him for so many hours per day. So, I’m also not the saddest when he comes into my office and wants to tell me about whatever he’s working on in the morning. So, I’m not really sure what the best takeaway is, just maybe thoughts on how to set that boundary, maybe also with my partner, who probably should be better at keeping him out of the room.

MELODY WILDING: Can I ask some questions?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah.

MELODY WILDING: What would your ideal situation be?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I think that I could go deeper into my work in the morning. So, I think the ideal would be maybe my child comes in, says, “Hello, good morning,” but he doesn’t need me to help get his clothes on or doesn’t only want me to come pour his cereal or whatever it is. A, he can do that, but B, also can my partner. His schedule is differently flexible than mine because he’s an academic, and so he has to be on campus when he’s teaching, but he is not literally putting in a time sheet.

MELODY WILDING: So, if you were to even be 10% more focused, what is within your control to accomplish that?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Sure. I think I could probably close the door. It seems really simple but also kind of mean. But I could definitely close the door, and I could probably be a little more forceful… “forceful” is probably not the right word, but forceful with my kid about, “Mama’s working,” and he hears that. But what’s different about being a toddler is that you just don’t necessarily care.

MELODY WILDING: Well, let’s talk about the other adult in this situation.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yes. The other adult.

MELODY WILDING: Yes. So, what might you need to reinforce or ask from your partner so that you can have, again, just 10% improvement with your focus time?

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I think also ask him to be more forceful about keeping our kid out of the room and working on his relationship in also being a person who can provide. Our child truly understand this. It’s just that in the morning, he’s—I mean, I think he only wants me because I’m not there.

AMY GALLO: Of course. Yeah. Well, and I think what you first said, Ashley, when you started asking this question about you sort of want to see him—

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: I do.

AMY GALLO: —and the interruptions are welcome in some ways and unwelcome in others. As the mom of a 17-year-old, I can say he will totally not do this in a few years. And so, some of it is about also accepting, Oh, this is a time of life where I feel really torn and that’s normal. But I will say it does add up to stress and sitting down at 7:00 AM and not knowing, Am I going to get that focus time, or am I going to get a request to pour cereal? Even if it was just three days a week or two days a week where you didn’t get interrupted, that would be an improvement.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah, I think that’s probably a feasible takeaway. And I think the last thing I want to say is that my child is also getting used to my new schedule. So, he is used to having me available to him in that time period, whereas I’m like, “Sorry, this is not the time for mama to play with you.” He’s still, I think, trying to get used to that.

AMY GALLO: Yeah, and I think the parallel for colleagues too though, when you set a new boundary, whether it’s a new schedule or you are no longer checking email after five or whatever it is, your colleagues are not going to immediately say, “Okay, great. I respect that boundary,” right? They’re going to violate it a few times. And I think that is a critical thing to remember is that it’s not just about setting the boundary, negotiating it, putting it in place. It’s about constantly reminding those around you that this is the boundary.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Right.

MELODY WILDING: That’s exactly what I was going to say, Amy, is that when you first start setting it, you’re disrupting the equilibrium of the relationship, and people want it to return back to normal, so they may push back. And yes, that’s where we have to gently stand our ground because I’m a big believer that you teach people how to treat you. And the example of people sending you emails after hours, well, if you say, “I end work at six,” but then you’re responding to emails until 11:00 PM, people don’t respect the boundary. So, it’s a great point that you do have to gently reinforce it until the new norm resets.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. Because I think when I’ve had to remind someone of a boundary, I get really resentful about it, and I think it probably comes off a little harsher. And I think reminding yourself, it’s human nature to take time to transition, it’s human nature to test the boundaries and see, Oh, was she serious about that? And so, to just sort of be a little more empathetic.

But Melody, I actually want to know because what if you’re doing something, setting a boundary that you think might come as a surprise to another person?

MELODY WILDING: Well, first of all, we used the word “resentment,” and that is a really great way to use your emotions as data to give you a signal of, where do I need to set a boundary? Because resentment is an emotional sign that you’ve let something go on for too long without addressing it. And so, even just periodically doing an audit of where you’re feeling resentment in your life can help you be better at setting boundaries.

I also think it’s important in that situation where you haven’t articulated it, you have let it go on, that you take a little bit of ownership to say, “I realize that I haven’t been clear about this in the past,” or, “I realize that I should have brought this up earlier, but it’s important to me to express this now. When you do X, it has y consequence. So, going forward, I would appreciate it if you could get those drafts to me in a timely manner. What can we do to make sure that’s possible?” So, I think it’s just acknowledging, “I realize I haven’t said this before. I want to bring it up now,” and you can also throw in, “because I care about our working relationship,” or you can tie it to a certain time of year. Maybe it’s the beginning of the year, a new quarter, a new project starting. That can also help it feel like more of a natural transition.

AMY GALLO: Yeah. And I’ve used this too. “I’ve really been reflecting on how much I work and I know it’s a concern for all of us, and one of the things that would help is I wouldn’t have to work late if that draft came in on time.” And I think the positive no too of, like, “If you get it to me on time, I promise to turn it around that afternoon, which will speed up the whole process later on.” I’m not saying you always have to give something. It’s okay to just set a boundary, but if you can acknowledge that they’re going to benefit as well, I think that can help.

Okay. So, I’m going to set a boundary that I need to leave because we’re at our time, so thank you both. Very useful conversation. I’m sure our listeners will take away a lot from it as well.

ASHLEY CHAIFETZ: Yeah. I think this has been great. Thank you both so much.

MELODY WILDING: Yeah, it’s such a unique situation. It’s very rare that I get to talk to someone who says, “My workplace has very firm boundaries,” so, it was actually a lot of fun.

AMY GALLO: Next week, Amy B closes out this season of The Essentials with a conversation about handling fierce criticism.

PATTI NEUHOLD-RAVIKUMAR: No matter how much you think you’re ready for it, no matter how much you think you’ve practiced or prepared, it’s never easy.

AMY GALLO: Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates. Robin Moore composed this theme music.

Are you subscribed to the Women at Work newsletter? Sign up by going to hbr.org/email-newsletters. Every month we send you a mix of resources, practical advice, and personal stories aimed to lift you up and move you forward.

I’m Amy Gallo. Thanks for listening.



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