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Overwhelmed and Under-Delivering? It's Time to Set Some Boundaries

Throughout my tenure at Wharton, I have had many students. They take my class to learn how to negotiate, but few of them realize how much I glean from their powerful stories.

Julia, one of the students I write about in my book, was a management consultant. Like many of us, she leaned toward people-pleasing and had difficulty saying no in negotiations. This was a struggle for Julia, and pleasers in general, because they believe that by saying yes, they are making their counterpart happy and avoiding any potential conflict.

While that’s sometimes true, what I’m talking about is much bigger than that. I’m talking about boundaries. In Julia’s case, she had a demanding client who asked for more work than what her team could reasonably produce. She established a limit on the amount she believed her team could deliver by the deadline. But would she be able to maintain that boundary?

Julia had to decide. She could cross her boundary, overpromise, and underperform. Or, she could stick to her limit—what she knew her team could do—and give her client more reasonable expectations about the final product.

Blurred boundaries and burnout

Let’s go back in time. I’m thinking about the world of spring 2020. Quiet streets, shuttered stores, empty offices. Humanity abandoned all of the places and spaces it once occupied daily. Instead, people were using their homes in ways they never had before.

Dining rooms quickly became office/workout/homeschool rooms, and the boundaries people had once built to silo all the roles they played (employee/workout junkie/student/parent) were suddenly quite blurry.

What began as a novelty—literally trading in briefcases for bedclothes—quickly eroded into a strange, unhealthy living pattern. Deciphering when work stopped and life began became difficult.

The result: people who work from home now work about 2.5 hours more per day. Three out of four people also say they routinely work on weekends, a time of restoration once reserved for doing things that fulfill you. The harmful effects of working from home have disproportionately affected women, parents, and millennials. These groups are working even longer than other demographic groups.

Despite numerous studies’ attesting to the increased productivity of working from home, there are limits. Research shows that the more people work from home, the less productive they are.

So, where are we now? Studies suggest that 74% of all employees have suffered fatigue, stress, or burnout during the pandemic. Why? Because the longer employees work from home, the fewer boundaries they have between their work life and their home life.

In the absence of healthy barriers between your personal and professional life, burnout isn’t a possibility. It’s a guarantee.

Burnout breakdown

In a literal sense, to burnout is to burn until fuel is exhausted. This isn’t routine stress. Instead, burnout is prolonged overwork, fatigue, and frustration.

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first introduced burnout in the 1970s. He described it as, “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.” In May 2019, the World Health Organization officially accepted burnout as a mental health diagnosis.

Since then, we’ve seen burnout skyrocket, robbing its victims of living lives of fulfillment and purpose, preventing them from embracing their whole selves. Because the true consequences of burnout aren’t just physical and mental exhaustion, it's compromised decision-making and missed opportunities.

Burnout prevents you from performing your best. And when you can't perform the best, you won’t negotiate the best.

Negotiating your way out of burnout

Burnout and boundaries are interrelated. The more boundaries you have, the less likely you’ll fall victim to burnout. But this is far easier said than done. For many, setting boundaries means having the courage to say no when negotiating.

Defying your boundaries and saying yes too much is a common cause of burnout. But it doesn’t have to be.

It’s hard to permit yourself to say no, but this simple, small act of kindness toward yourself has a big payoff. Saying no is your best defense against burnout, and the yield on that negotiation with yourself is well worth it.

Society conditions us to believe no is negative. It can be. But it’s also an exercise in self-care. It’s you saying that your needs and feelings are so important, you’ll put them first by saying what is sometimes uncomfortable: no.

I’ve had many students with similar stories since, because maintaining boundaries with clients isn’t easy. Of course, you want to say yes to everything they ask, but that just isn’t realistic. Julia learned this when she had to decide whether she would stick to her boundaries or bend (and possibly break) to make her client temporarily happy.

Doing so would have compromised her boundaries and potentially led to burnout. Nobody wants that. When you use your inner power to stick to your boundaries, you avoid burnout, make better decisions, and are a more effective negotiator.

These days, you hear a lot about self-care. And these conversations usually focus on spa days, leisurely lunches, and vacations. I agree these are all wonderful exercises in self-care. But taking care of yourself to avoid burnout doesn’t have to be so shallow.

Here's my alternative: accept that you are worthy of boundaries, create reasonable limits in your life, and ward off burnout. That’s the ultimate exercise of self-care.


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