As we adjust our armor for this precarious, prickly COVID new year, we seem stuck in the messy middle of constant change. We need to grab hold of what we can control in our lives – the often forgotten skill of boundary building. An ever-essential ingredient to a healthy, happy life, boundaries are the invisible lines that we paint around ourselves to help us define what is and what is not OK. Sadly, however, these amazing invisible fences are frequently not constructed until long after they are needed. Our non-existent or sloppy borders gobble up our time and energy and muddy our goals, while diminishing our life stories. This affects our performance while making us ruminate about ‘what could have been.’

Boundaries protect our bodies, minds, time and emotions from the demands of our hectic lives and plurality of roles. They conserve our emotional energy and limit our choices. They secure space for us to be more vulnerable and grow. Boundaries bring an increased sense of agency and autonomy. While they may seem constricting, boundaries actually allow us more freedom to live with space and intention. As we establish our fences, we also gain respect from others, improving our relationships while quieting our anger and resentment. Brene Brown’s research explains they allow us to be compassionate and generous. 

As well-being experts, seasoned business professionals, and mothers, we led research in 2020 at the University of Pennsylvania to examine the tools required to thrive within this new world of lightning-speed changes and distractions. We heard from 50+ senior female executives that applying clear boundaries was a game changer to support their always-changing lives. They help individuals and companies alike. Boundaries help improve corporate profitability, given lasting effects on employees’ productivity, retention, job satisfaction and overall work quality. As one senior executive describes, “Setting boundaries is vital to reaching my goals … in my life, it moves the impossible to possible.” 

Boundaries can be internally focused (e.g. personal technology limits) or externally focused (establishing guidelines around others). They safeguard our physical and emotional spaces as well as our time and energy. Drawing from the intersection of positive psychology, design thinking, habits, and behavioral change, we uncovered five Boundary Building Steps. The acronym, not surprisingly, is CLEAR.  

C Clarify – We need to first clarify and understand our values and roles. We are all unique and influenced by our backgrounds and experiences. Let’s reflect on our values – what’s important in your life? Your values might include having a healthy work/life balance or creating calm in an uninterrupted workspace. Keep these in mind as you set your boundaries and define what you’re willing to accept.

Additionally, reflect on your many roles in life (e.g. partner, parent, employee, friend). Prioritizing is a useful tool here. There are only so many hours in a day. Consider linking your values to your roles. What will you accept and not accept? This could be with other people, yourself or your environment.

L – Luminate – Shine a bright light on your existing boundaries, and unearth opportunities to implement new ones. Are there pain points in your daily life that need to be better explored? How has it made you feel to implement effective boundaries in the past?  From this COVID year, what boundary lessons can you take from what you’ve missed … and from what you haven’t missed?  

E – Now that you understand what’s most important to you and where you have opportunities, it’s time to establish your boundaries and prioritize them. Make them as tangible as possible. Beware that women have a tendency to create “bendy boundaries,” prioritizing others before themselves which can impact self-awareness and self-respect

Establish boundaries for each of your core values. Ask yourself: What will I tolerate and what will I not allow, given this value? One of our interview respondents unapologetically prioritizes a daily nature walk during her work-day. 

A – Articulate – Let’s articulate and communicate our boundaries to others and to ourselves. Boundaries should feel firm but kind, without blaming or threatening others. Where possible, explain how the boundaries are related to your values. “I statements” can help: “I feel ______when _____ because ____ what I need is ____.” 

Make them brief yet informative – and be confident. Giving too many words often creates an adverse reaction in others. Focus on being compassionate and future-focused, so as not to trigger anyone’s defensiveness about the past. For example, “In the future, when I’m working on X, I will turn off my phone.” Don’t give yourself or others many (if any) options regarding boundary enforcement. Use a constructive approach when dealing with conflict.

Finally, understand that saying no is a boundary that needs practice.  Remember that saying no is actually saying yes to something more aligned with your roles and values. 

R – Regiment – Boundaries require clarity and a strong identity, or they get lost over time. We need to maintain them. As life becomes messy, keep these boundaries and values at the front of your busy brain and, if needed, with a visible reminder. Remember we are not perfect, but let’s stay focused. Start small and celebrate your wins. Let’s draw the line in 2021.