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How to Set Boundaries With Your Colleagues so You Can Be More Productive at Work

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Meet Wellness Collective, our immersive curriculum with Athleta that hooks you up with actionable advice from the smartest experts and brand founders in wellness right now. Get the goods at our monthly event series in New York City plus our online one-month wellness plans. Here, Molly Sonsteng, co-founder of Caveday, shares her insight on how to be productive at work.

We’ve all had days at work when you’re trying to burn through your to-do list, but emails, impromptu meetings, and co-workers’ too-detailed stories about their weekends keep stealing your time and attention. And before you know it, your list hasn’t decreased at all—in fact, it’s probably grown.

So, when we asked for your questions on what you want to know about how to be productive at work, the majority of you were interested in learning how to set boundaries—so you can autonomously crush your task list while remaining an integral part of the team.

To help you address this all-too-common conundrum, we asked Molly Sonsteng, co-founder of Caveday, to share insight on how to professionally establish those boundaries, so all those pings with “urgent” requests stop getting in the way of you actually accomplishing your daily responsibilities.

“Creating limits shows that you take ownership over your work and have a realistic understanding of what you are capable of producing,” Sonsteng says—and that makes you a good worker, not a failure because you’re admitting you can’t handle a superhuman workload (because, newsflash: no one can).

And if you thought dedicating your lunch break to making up for lost time was the answer, Sonsteng disagrees. “The mind cannot actually focus for eight straight hours, so powering through only diminishes the quality of your work,” she says. “Studies show that the longest you can stay dedicated to one task is 52 minutes, at which point you (and your work) deserve an intentional break.” This is your official permission to stop working through lunch.

Keep reading to find out how to be productive at work by setting healthy boundaries with your colleagues.

1. Define your boundaries

Before you can expect other people at the office to respect your limits, you need a firm grasp on what your personal work scope looks like. Sonsteng categorizes these boundaries into three different buckets: job description, capacity, and time management.

Your job description is set by your manager when you start your job. Capacity is how much work you’re expected to complete within a specific amount of time. “This is an agreement established between you and your manager and should be understood and respected,” she says. And time management is how you personally go about staying on track with your work and hitting deadlines.

By identifying which boundary is being pushed, you’ll be better equipped to respond appropriately. “If something isn’t your job, be helpful in redirecting—forward an email to the appropriate person or suggest who can be more helpful,” Sonsteng says. “If it is your job, be realistic on timelines if you’re overloaded.” Because pushing yourself past your capacity isn’t helpful to anyone, especially not you. 

2. Use your calendar to your advantage

Make use of your calendar by blocking off time slots throughout your day dedicated to focusing on your work (sorry, co-workers aren’t invited). “Take 15 minutes on Sunday evening to take stock of the week ahead and schedule a few periods when your own work will be protected,” Sonsteng says. Once your co-workers catch onto your blocking game, they’ll get the not-so-subtle hint.

Your calendar is also a helpful tool in managing your stress levels. During your Sunday block sesh, go ahead and schedule daily walks or phone calls with a friend to clear your head. “Giving your mind a rest will allow you to approach your work with a fresh perspective,” Sonsteng says. Yes, self care at work is necessary.

3. Be direct, always

“It’s easy for boundaries to be disrespected if not established using crystal clear and direct language,” says Sonsteng, so if you’re being wishy-washy about your limits, your co-workers are less likely to respect them. “People appreciate clarity, so help your colleagues understand just how seriously you take boundaries.”

But, what if your colleagues still aren’t abiding by your boundary requests (even if you’ve efficiently verbalized them)? Sonsteng recommends inviting them to have a conversation about why those limits aren’t being respected. “Explain how the quality of your work relies on the boundaries you’ve set, and ask if there are ways in which you could collaboratively establish boundaries,” Sonsteng says.

The best thing you can do is be honest with your co-workers (even when it’s hard), because TBH they’re likely in a similar boat and could probably take a few pointers from your actions. Boosting office productivity culture, one boundary at a time.

Want more Wellness Collective? Click here for more wellness intel.

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Top photo: Stocksy/Javier Díez

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