7 Guidelines for Creating Clear Boundaries

How can you set boundaries that will protect and enhance your job performance, family time, and personal life? Consider these seven suggested guidelines:

  1. Redefine your concept of success.
  2. Beware of the tyranny of the urgent.
  3. Take better care of yourself.
  4. Commit to taking better care of your family.
  5. Identify passive or aggressive areas of conflict.
  6. Write down your clear, measurable boundaries and share them with friends.
  7. Revise, drop, or add boundaries as needed.

Guideline 1: Redefine your concept of success.

Do you measure your success in terms of salary, personal achievements, the reputation of your company or organization, the size of its membership, or its budget? Is your self-worth measured by your position or by what others say about you?

When these are your primary yardsticks, most of your time and efforts will be devoted to achieving these goals. You will probably have very little life outside of your career. If the success of your work is your main objective, then your marriage and parenting roles will take second place to your work tasks. The line between your work and family will blur, and compromises will happen.

You can choose to let your job consume your life. Or, maybe you can broaden your definition of success to include things other than just your work accomplishments. Maybe success can also include how well you perform as a spouse, parent, friend, bicyclist, jogger, fisherman, stamp collector, or neighbor. And if your view of success already includes these and other non-work categories, are you allotting sufficient blocks of time to them?

Guideline 2: Beware of the tyranny of the urgent.

Satan uses various methods to derail us from fulfilling God’s plans. Writer Richard Foster noted that “in contemporary society our Adversary [Satan] majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied.”

More than twenty-five years ago, Dr. Charles Hummel, President of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, wrote a popular booklet titled Tyranny of the Urgent! 2 He explained that daily living will always be jammed with dozens of “urgent” demands on your time and energy: to-do lists, phone interruptions, paperwork, and other time-robbers. These smaller, less-important things eat up time, waste energy, and prevent us from focusing on our key priorities.

Oh, how I agree with Hummel. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve wrestled with “urgent” matters constantly pecking at my heels throughout my career.

The fact is that most of us don’t actually need more time—we need to reprioritize the time we have. The majority of time management experts agree that the key to maximizing time use is to do what is important first, and then move on to other tasks.

Several years ago, in the midst of fighting my way through an overwhelming list of “urgent” to-dos, I wrote a prayer to help me keep a healthy sense of perspective. I’ve had to read it out loud to myself countless times since then. I share it here so you can gain a revitalized perspective that might reduce your stress and increase your efficiency.

Here’s a brief prayer for serenity in the midst of a busy, overloaded week:

God, I just can’t get it all done. I’m sick and tired of playing catch-up day after day, of scrambling at triple speed, and of working so many overtime hours. I quit! I need your help to survive emotionally. Only you can keep me from being overwhelmed by sheer panic, guilt, and resentment. Only you can guide and protect me. Please grant me your peace as I now surrender myself, my workload, and my self-destructive thoughts to your care and protection.

Guideline 3: Take better care of yourself.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus taught that one of the greatest commandments was, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 3 But how can we love others if we don’t first love ourselves? Good self care will keep us healthy and prevent us from inadvertently harming others.

Sometimes You Have to Put Yourself First

Recall the last flight you took. Just before your plane took off, a flight attendant probably said, “If we encounter turbulence or oxygen-deprivation problems, the overhead oxygen masks above your seat will drop. Those of you with young children, please put the mask on yourself first, and then put one on your child.” In other words, adults responsible for children must make sure their own oxygen supply is cared for first, in order to then help their child with oxygen. This reminds passengers that if they pass out due to a lack of oxygen, they cannot help their child, and both will suffer.

The same idea holds true for busy people—we frequently put the needs of others before our own. We do a good job of taking care of business tasks and people at work, but we only get average grades, at best, in nurturing our loved ones and ourselves. And we and our families often exist on the leftovers of our time and energy.

Have you ever heard the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? After years of merely paying lip service to this saying, I now understand how absolutely necessary it is to have balance between work and play.

Oftentimes when I’d logged in too many hours of work for too many weeks in a row without any time off, I found myself resenting my schedule and getting impatient with people. After many years, I’ve found that pacing myself and taking time for hobbies, exercise, and other non-church activities has made a huge difference—in my personal, family, and church life.

Personal Care Boundaries

English playwright and poet William Shakespeare pointed out this tendency to continually give, while seldom addressing personal needs, when he penned this line in The Life of King Henry V: “Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.” (emphasis added)

Maybe this is one of the reasons the Apostle Paul urged the leaders of the Ephesian church: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.

Good self care means making time for a spiritually-­nourishing inner life, reading, exercising, eating wisely, sleeping enough, practicing a hobby, and taking a full day off each week. This may also mean applying some new time boundaries, which will include disciplining your schedule to allow for things like:

  • walking three hours a week with an exercise partner;
  • taking a complete day off every week, and if something interrupts that day, making it up within a month;
  • seeing a therapist for counseling; or
  • scheduling several hours a week to enjoy a hobby.

Guideline 4: Commit to taking better care of your family.

God knows we’re vulnerable to neglecting ourselves and our families’ needs, so he warns us, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Providing a house, food, clothing, and schooling is important for taking care of your family’s physical needs. But equally important is meeting their emotional, spiritual, and mental needs—not only in quality of time but also in quantity of time. What, specifically, can you do to develop better balance between work, family, and yourself?

Marriage-Strengthening Boundaries

Perhaps showing better care for your spouse may mean saving fifteen minutes every evening after dinner so the two of you can share your highs and lows of the day. It might include making time to have weekly half-day dates with your spouse. Or, you could make it happen by arranging your schedule to take your spouse away, without the kids, for a two-day “mini-moon” a few times a year.

Parenting Boundaries

Maybe following through on having better child-nurturing boundaries could mean taking each child out for a two-hour “date” each week. It could also include scheduling time every year to take each child on a weekend adventure, such as hiking, fishing, camping, or traveling.

Guideline 5: Identify passive or aggressive areas of conflict.

Ask yourself, “What’s causing my inner discomfort?” Usually your inner wincing is caused by toxic people or situations.

People-caused “hurts” can come from coworkers, employees, family, friends, church or organization members, and other sources.

Situation-caused “hurts” can come from things like relationships at work, job assignments, church people and programs, community obligations, social events, and family happenings.

Guideline 6: Write down your clear, measurable boundaries and share them with friends.

Veteran boundary-setters offer two tips for making and communicating clear, measurable boundaries.

First, be specific in setting your boundaries. Your specifics could include measurable boundaries like:

  • I will stop attending a weekly non-priority meeting so that I can join a weight-loss group.
  • I will cut out five appointments each month, and I will use this time to take up tennis and watercolor painting.
  • I will guard my time by setting my cell phone’s alarm to ring after having met with someone for fifty minutes.
  • I will take the home phone off the hook from 5:30 to 7:30 every evening to ensure uninterrupted rest and family time.

Second, communicate your boundaries clearly, firmly, and gently by speaking or writing to those who might be affected. Explain what actions and words you will and will not permit. Additionally, share these boundaries with a few safe friends so that they can hold you accountable if you’re tempted to give in to others’ demands.

Guideline 7: Revise, drop, or add boundaries as needed.

Sports teams have timeouts and halftimes to evaluate how their strategies are doing and update their game plans. Likewise, you should periodically monitor how well your boundaries are working.

To evaluate the success of my boundaries, I ask myself a few questions:

  • Have I written down the specific, measurable boundaries I want to achieve?
  • Have I discussed my boundaries and their effectiveness with a friend who can give me balanced feedback?
  • How successful have these boundaries been? Would I grade them with an A, B, C, D, or F?
  • Have I spoken up when someone has tried to disrespect a boundary?
  • Am I willing to flex, tighten, drop, or set new boundary limits?

How about asking yourself these same questions?

Note: This is an excerpt from my book Boundary Setting: A Practical Guide. To learn more, please click here.

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Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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