"Boundary" is not a dirty word.

This is a jointly written post by Emily Kerr and Hilary King. We both work in social enterprise in different ways. Hilary is an applied anthropologist focused on alternative food systems in Mexico and the US and Emily is working with a place-based community organization in Philadelphia. As part of that, we are engaged in answering the question, “How do you build resilient, inclusive sustainable communities?” The posts in this series are related to this theme.

We write posts in response to prompts or questions that have arisen for us in our work lives. After a discussion, we try to distill our insights about those questions into these blog posts. The prompt for this week’s post was: “In what ways are 'boundaries' in and around our work alienating and in what ways are they supportive? What are the boundaries and supports that you've found helpful?"

A boundary is a division. Unlike in nature, where rivers, mountains, or roads already exist to divide up our landscapes, boundaries between our work and personal lives can be hard to make. We have to create and define them for ourselves.

This is particularly true when we undertake work that we want to bring our “whole” selves to, a conviction that seems increasingly common. Some of us have the benefit of making our schedules or organizations for work. Often, our friends are people we work with, and we imagine work people should be our friends. Given this, how do we make boundaries that help up be not only productive at work, but also energized outside of it?

Some patterns we've noticed:

  • Our needs around boundaries change. This isn’t a “set it and forget it" thing. Strategies for creating boundaries, and what we need as boundaries, are very fluid and shift according to what else is going on in your life.

  • For us, a good rule of thumb is to let work intrude personal time and personal time intrude work about the same percentage. Hard divisions between work and off-time tasks can be really tough to maintain.

  • Not creating boundaries can cause an atrophy of other skills passions that actually make us better at our work. No work can be everything, even though we demand and get a lot from our work.  

  • No need to create separations or boundaries that don’t actually work for you…. and be thoughtful about ways combining spheres of your life can be really dynamic, creative, and energizing. Particularly if you want to bring your “whole self” to the work you’re doing.

Strategies that we’ve found helpful:

  • Do a little more of things you find rejuvenating, even when you don’t want to. For Hilary, making time for ten minutes of yoga often helps me feel more rejuvenated than watching Scandal even if it feels like more work.

  • Schedule in your priorities. Em makes a week work plan and a daily plan for work but also for exercise and personal time. This helps her say yes or no to things according to her priorities.

  • Share your preferences with the people around you so that they can be supportive of you getting what you need. If you prefer emails to calls, let people know.

  • If you work with your friends, schedule work and friend time separately. Personal connections can be really rewarding within our work lives. Em and I ran Liga Masiva together, and found it helpful to know which of our selves were coming to meetings.

  • Think about how/when we will fret about work stuff outside work. For instance, writing down a list of to-dos at work tomorrow helps us not spend our “off” hours fretting about not doing those things right now.

Like everything, this is an evolving process. Hilary is more okay with a mish-mash between her work and personal life, but works hard to knit or do yoga to create non-work spaces. Emily makes harder lines between work and personal time, and this division helps her feel energized outside of work by things that help her at work, like taking a class on adaptive leadership. The idea is to figure out what boundaries best help you recharge in order to be most present both at work AND in the other areas that you love to focus your attention.