How to Make Setting Boundaries Second Nature

We promise: you don’t have to do it all. Even though the world around you values achievements over sanity, it’s always more beneficial to you and those you work and live with to set up clear boundaries you can live by. Elizabeth Knox, founder of MatchPace, author, and Certified Professional Diversity Coach, shares must-haves for setting up healthy boundaries you’ll actually be able to maintain.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I’m an ‘organizational effectiveness’ consultant – my company, MatchPace, helps organizations work better by coming alongside them to clarify their mission, and values and identify workplace structures that hinder them from achieving their goals. We help organizations focus on what matters most and overcome burnout, and give people back their time!

I live in Washington, DC with my husband and four little kids (aged 4-7) in a house that has a great view of a park and is four blocks from the Red Line Metro. We have some nature and super-easy access to downtown (back when going downtown was a thing, and for when it is again!). 

I love working, when I’m working within my strengths. I found that there weren’t a lot of organizations where I could work well and parent in line with my values. It seemed like most organizations expected your constant availability and attention; or ‘part-time’ communicated partial effort, when I knew that professional effort is not directly correlated to the number of hours someone spends working.

When you look at a workday and at the way an organization operates, so much of it is wasted. Statistics show that just-less-than three hours of a given workday is spent on actual value-added work; the rest is spent organizing your work, working on things that don’t really matter, and doing things that don’t actually contribute to the goals you’re trying to accomplish. 

I figured if I could help individuals and organizations learn how to really know what their priorities are, and actually focus on their priorities, I could help organizations recruit and retain the best people to achieve their mission and help people who were like me: who love working in their strengths AND have other priorities. 

Why are boundaries such an integral part of good work/life integration?

I want to be clear from the start: I am still/always will be learning in this area. 

I think one of the not-often-mentioned reasons I started MatchPace was that I wasn’t great at boundaries – either at work or at home. It impacted me personally and when I look beyond myself, I see the damage it does to individuals and organizations when people don’t know what is theirs to focus on, and what isn’t theirs to focus on. When there’s a lack of clarity, an inability to focus, and lots of distraction, ultimately it waters down the impact of the person and the organization. 

I think boundaries are really important if we want to succeed—according to our own measures of success—both professionally and personally. 

It’s up to each of us to know what’s important to us, to know how to prioritize those things, to know how to stop doing what isn’t important to us, to know how to say no to things that other people think are important but don’t really fit in our job description or plan for your life. 

At MatchPace, we do that on an organizational level; we help clients get underneath all the stuff that they’re doing to see which things are really critical, which ones actually contribute to the mission and which are just window dressing. We do it because work is such a big part of most people’s lives – and if they’re working on things that aren’t important, or that don’t contribute to the mission, or are just doing reactionary busywork, then they aren’t accomplishing their mission and they’re burning out. That impacts their ability to do the important work they need to do, as well as their ability to tend to their personal priorities. 

What does utilizing healthy boundaries look like?

To me, it looks like focus, and unfractured attention, and calm. I think the most important thing about utilizing boundaries is enforcing boundaries. 

We warn clients of the perils of being constantly available (or expecting it of others), but I sometimes end up scheduling meetings during time I had blocked out for deep work or I answer emails late at night that can easily wait until morning. All in the name of responsiveness, or trying to stave off overwhelm in the next day. Suddenly, we find ourselves constantly available to our clients, even when it doesn’t serve us or them well. 

Enforcing boundaries takes discipline, and it takes time to strengthen those discipline muscles. Just like it gets easier to hit the gym the more consistently you show up, enforcing boundaries becomes second nature the longer you’re at it. So don’t give up, and keep setting, communicating, enforcing and reevaluating until your boundaries become so ingrained in your workday you don’t even have to think about them!

How have you personally had to work on setting up and maintaining healthy boundaries? 

As I said at the start of this interview, I see a lot of growth in myself in regards to boundaries and know that I have so much more growing to do. 

My boundaries largely revolve around the following things:

I want to pause for a minute and acknowledge that the ability to outsource is not something everyone has. Whenever anyone has asked me ‘How do you do it?’ (in reference to having four children in three years), my answer is:

I know that I am fortunate that we’ve had the resources for childcare. So often advice about productivity or achieving your dreams comes down to a man saying, ‘It’s easy: all you need is a stay-at-home wife plus an assistant so they can block and tackle any distractions (or, you know, your children’s needs) for you.’ 

How I’ve used boundaries in my own life really starts with knowing my own values and my own definition of success. Prioritizing according to them. And minimizing: really taking things off the list. Outsourcing is the final step. But I’d be dishonest if I were to say that I have been able to set and enforce boundaries, and pursue my priorities, without outsourcing. 

I think outsourcing makes boundaries easier but isn’t necessary. If we didn’t have resources to outsource, I would minimize more. There’s some stuff you can’t minimize (laundry!) but a lot more things are optional than you think. 

For example: for date nights, my husband and I often take leftovers out of the fridge and go to a park and listen to a fun podcast (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me is my favorite!). Childcare is expensive enough; instead of spending another $50-$100 on dinner (DC prices), plus some other random entertainment, I’d rather spend that money on someone else doing our laundry. Some people might think money spent on date night is totally reasonable or non-negotiable. Or they wouldn’t think twice about a man dropping off his clothes at the dry-cleaner. But we go outside the norm in U.S. culture and spend money on household laundry. Part of boundaries is being okay that you have different values and definitions of success than other people, and that you need to prioritize according to your boundaries, not someone else’s. 

We take things off the list, so we have more resources (emotional, time, and financial) for the things that are important (or unavoidable, like laundry). 

I’m veering a bit off the topic of boundaries, but I don’t want it to sound like I’m subconsciously sending the message that the only way to be successful is to have a lot of money. The only way to be successful is to know how you define success (at work, in different relationships, etc), and then prioritize and protect those things. Those are boundaries. And that is how I have used boundaries, and enforced them, in my own life. 

What are some key things to keep in mind regarding boundaries? 

That they’re really there to keep you healthy. People think of boundaries as keeping others out: it’s a wall, a fence. But really, it’s to make sure that you’re nourished, that you’re ‘putting on your own oxygen mask first.’ 

And that sometimes people may set boundaries that you don’t like, or don’t include you. That’s hard. I’m an Enneagram 2 (it’s taken me some time to be willing to admit that out loud, by the way! I liked it better when I thought I was a 3!), and part of the way I show people I love them is by breaking my own boundaries (why???), and I am hurt when they create boundaries that don’t include me (also why???).

So instead, I’m working on serving people to the point that is reasonable, then taking the extra energy I’d spend also on serving them, that goes beyond my boundaries, and using that to meet my own needs. 

All of a sudden, I’m less hurt by their boundaries because my needs are getting met. They aren’t getting met by me overextending myself to serve someone else hoping they’ll serve me back. I still love to serve people, but now I don’t overdo it (as often). I also take care of myself. There’s a lot less frustration that way!

Elizabeth Knox started MatchPace in 2016 because of her love for working. She knows how much companies, government agencies, and non-profits contribute to the good that the world needs, and Elizabeth helps organizations use the right team, to focus on the right priorities, to drive to the right outcomes and give people back their time. 

You can find Elizabeth squarely in the “messy middle” of her life: running a young company, while raising 4 small children, being a spouse, and a community member. She speaks from a place of honesty, not as someone who has all the answers, but as someone who, like most of us, is still trying to figure it out, and knows that figuring-it-out is a life-long process. 

Elizabeth is the host of the podcast “You Need to Stop Doing That,” offering refreshing ideas that challenge the thought that, more often than not, our answer is to add more to our lives – more tech solutions, more activities, more stuff; but in reality, if we want to live a life in line with our priorities, we often need to prune things away. 

Elizabeth is a Certified Professional Diversity Coach, providing individuals a non-judgmental space to consider and take action related to diversity and equity. 

Elizabeth’s writing has been featured in HuffPost, Thrive Global, Today’s Parents, and Today’s Christian Women. Her first book, Faith Powered Profession – a Woman’s Guide to Living with Faith and Values in the Workplace was published in 2013 (and you can find it on the 4word website!) and helps women grasp the importance and power of their professional work.