How to Set Boundaries to Keep Yourself from Being Overworked

An overhead view of a desk with a laptop showing a full inbox and a hand holding a phone with live data updates, and a cup of coffee.

When we’re overworked, we burn out.

But there’s a way to set up your life to break the cycle of being overworked. It involves setting boundaries -- which always sounds good in theory, but is hard to do in practice.

If you’re feeling overworked and underappreciated, here are some realistic steps you can take to rearrange your calendar and set more effective boundaries on your time.

Understanding the nature of burnout

In the modern workplace, productivity and accomplishment are the currency we’re all working hard to earn. We want to be known as a hard worker, a great team member, a competent expert, a valuable employee. Yet, this tends to push us to work harder than we ever have - and for much longer than we can healthily manage. 

Enter: burnout. That feeling like you’d rather do just about anything than go into work or work on your project. Things you once loved become a chore. The quality of your work diminishes. You’re tired, stressed, and possibly irritable with your coworkers. 

Getting burned out happens to the best of us from time to time, especially when you’re a hard worker or high achiever. Try not to see it as a sign of failure. You can’t help but push things! It is part of what makes you so successful.

But what isn’t natural or healthy is getting caught in a burnout cycle where you are perpetually drained, exhausted, and frustrated. If you feel like this describes you, then read on to find out how to break the cycle.

Quiz: How to identify the cycle of overwork

When we get into a cycle (of anything), we stop noticing the triggers that set up each new stage. We don’t notice when we say ‘yes’ to more than we have time to accomplish, or when we stack our calendars beyond what we can physically and emotionally manage. We aren’t conscious of why we feel tired or despondent or irritable. 

We’re just going through the motions.

The way to break the cycle of overwork starts with acknowledging what sets the cycle in motion.

Take this mini-quiz to discover your over triggers. Answer YES or NO to the following questions: 

  1. I take pride in my work and will keep tweaking the end product until it is due.
  2. Even if I already have a full schedule, I will offer to help my boss in order to gain favor or improve our professional connection.
  3. When my family or friends need something, I am often the person to help no matter how busy I already am.
  4. New projects excite me, so even if I’m already working hard at my normal work, I’ll usually say yes to a collaboration or a new opportunity. 
  5. I always say I’ll make time for myself but I rarely do.
  6. My planner is always scheduled to a T but I rarely complete everything I plan to.
  7. I love to be known as someone who is accommodating to others without letting them “see me sweat.”
  8. No one knows my job or business like I do, so I don’t often delegate tasks. 
  9. I’m going through something pretty big in my daily life, like moving to a new house, raising a new pet, starting/growing a family, building a new business, or renovating my house. 
  10. I keep what seems like a never-ending to-do list that, no matter how many items I check off, is never complete.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re likely either experiencing burnout or gearing up for another cycle of overwork. 

Remember: being in an overwork cycle, or experiencing burnout every now and then is not bad. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re a hard worker and an ambitious person, two great traits! Being a hard worker does not necessarily mean that you are caught in a burnout cycle.

It simply means you’re at risk if you’re not budgeting your most precious, finite resources: time and attention. 

The difference between time and attention

We each have a finite amount of time we can spend on certain activities in a day. We can work, play, care for ourselves, interact with others, complete tasks, run errands, build things, demolish things, and ultimately go-go-go until it’s time to rest.

Attention, however, is a much more fickle creature. Our attention is the barometer for the “quality” of the time we’re spending each day. 

If you’ve ever completed a task - or even a series of tasks - and then looked up wondering, how did I get here? Have I been on autopilot, not even paying attention? 

It’s likely that you were not paying attention at all. 

Some, but not all, of what takes up our time also requires our attention. When we are burned out, our baseline attention that we wake up with each day is much lower than when we are operating at our peak intellectual performance. 

If we want to break the cycle of burnout for good, we must balance these essential elements: 

  • Time: How much do we have and when is it available?
  • Attention: What requires the most, the least, and what fits in between?
  • Responsibilities: What is required of us and what does it cost (of the above two)?
  • Boundaries: When are we not willing or able to spend our two most valuable resources, and what are we using our “protected time” for?

Being busy, hardworking, and accommodating are great strengths when complemented by boundaries

No matter your employment or position, setting boundaries is important.

Easily identifiable boundaries look like non-negotiables, though what is defined as “negotiable” is vastly variable from person-to-person. For some, non-negotiable may be: picking your child up from school, going to each of your classes, showing up for a medical appointment, mowing your lawn every two weeks in the summer. 

For others, non-negotiables may be more self-driven: getting a massage once a month to reduce stress, having time for a morning workout routine, meal prepping every Sunday at 3pm. 

Having boundaries on your time means that the “asks”, or the demands of your time and attention that exist outside of what must be done, have a structure they either fit into or must be altered in order to fit comfortably. 

Boundaries are rooted in your values and commitments 

Clarify your values first (from the top down: values and commitments). Breaking down your values is a deeper look into what you truly need and want to spend your time doing. 

Grab a spare sheet of paper and outline your values at the top of the page. These values can be phrases, affirmations, or concepts. Examples might include: 

  • Quality time with family. 
  • Building a nest egg (saving money).
  • Getting straight A’s.
  • Enough sleep each night (8 hours minimum). 
  • Eating healthy. 
  • Making progress on my weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. 
  • Training for [sport, activity, event].

Once you’ve outlined your values, break down the commitments that are associated with each of them. Commitments should have some degree of accountability - be it time-bound or with another person. 

For example, if you value getting enough sleep at night, your commitments might be:

  • I need a minimum of 8 hours of sleep to feel my best.
  • In order to get 8 hours of sleep, I need to be asleep by 10pm.
  • In order to be asleep by 10pm, I need to be winding down and getting in bed by 9:30pm.
  • I will leave my phone outside the bedroom, since I tend to stay up past 10pm if I have access to Instagram and email.

These commitments will form the structure of “protected time” on your calendar when you’re ready to schedule your boundaries.

If your commitments don’t yet have a place in your calendar, add them

One thing that causes burnout over and over again is the lack of awareness of all that takes our time. If we’re only using our calendar to schedule appointments or clock-in and clock-out hours, we’re leaving the rest of our life up to be sliced into the smallest pie servings possible. 

Draw a mock-week or even a mock-month on a sheet of paper and build out the commitments you’ve outlined. For example, in the sleep example above, you should block out 9:30pm as “winding down” time on your calendar. Then block out 10pm as “sleep time”.

It might seem silly, but taking these personal commitments as seriously as your work commitments actually makes you much more likely to achieve them.

Then install your work and/or school schedule. And, inside those work and school blocks, create smaller blocks for the specific projects and tasks you’ll work on in each time block.

Now you’re getting a much clearer overview of just how much you’re committed to before you add any spontaneous “asks” to your dance card. 

Track your natural attention cycles and how much attention your tasks require

This could be as simple as a 1 - 5 rating, with 0 - 1 being almost no attention at all and 4 - 5 requiring your nearly undivided attention. 

After you’ve done this activity, sit back and consider when you find yourself to be the most productive. When is your brain most “awake?” When are you at your best, working with the clearest mind and most creative output? 

On the contrary, what times of day are your least awake, conscious, focused, productive, distracted, and otherwise difficult to complete work within? 

Use two different colored pens or markers to draw these time blocks of “most productive” and “least productive” on your mock calendar. What do you find is sitting within them? 

Knowing when your attention’s peaks and valleys empowers you to arrange your day to suit your best working times.

For most of us, we can’t choose the time of our work shifts or our school hours. But we can work with our natural rhythm of productivity by scheduling our most attention-demanding commitments during our peak productivity hours. And, vice versa, we can schedule our non-demanding tasks during our least productive hours. 

Play around with your commitment schedule - no matter how slim or how packed it may be - until you see a rhythm that may work taking shape. 

As a practice, I refer to this activity on a quarterly/seasonal basis, as my mind is always changing and responding to my environment. 

In theory, this activity shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, so set aside a morning or afternoon - whichever feels like it might be a peak for you - and dive into creating this system for yourself. 

If you want to break the burnout cycle for good, be willing and committed to saying no to anything that doesn’t align with your boundaries

That’s a huge ask, and may ask you to change up some big parts of your life. When you know just how much you’re able to commit to, based on what is left in your time and attention schedule, you’re empowered to be choosy in what you commit to. 

Each time you’re presented with an ask (opportunity, challenge, or demand), run it through your values filter. Does it align with what you want and where you want to go? Does it propel you toward a goal or commitment? Is it for someone who is a part of your value system? 

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, it’s a simple game of tetris as to where to fit them in. But, if not, graciously declining will save that precious time for fulfillment of your values and even the implementation of something new that propels you toward your goals. 

Saying ‘no’ sometimes is just what’s required to stamp out the overwork for good.

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