How to Create Healthy and Strategic Boundaries

Strategic boundaries“Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.” –Greg McKeown
Those that know me, recognize that I’m obsessed with “to-do lists” and am good at getting things done. At the same time, I’m a firm believer in looking at work with a strategic lens – prioritizing high-impact activities and letting non-essentials go. The first part of this equation is how to strategically prioritize your time and efforts. The second piece is a question that keeps coming up with my clients: How do you enforce these strategic boundaries to honor your priorities in a way that is considerate and supportive to others when you are a leader?

Step 1: Determine Your Strategic Priorities and Schedule

We all have the same 24 hours in each day. Just because you are a leader, in charge of a team, or running a business, does not afford you more time (unfortunately). So you must use your time and resources wisely – in a way that meets your strategic initiatives at work and meets your personal goals simultaneously.

Priorities Outside of Work

Consider: What commitments and activities do you have outside of work that are important to you – and that fuel you?

  • Family
  • Personal: Self-care, health and fitness, hobbies, social, etc.

Star any that are non-negotiables – you have to get them into your schedule first. How much of your time and energy do these non-work priorities require of you? How much time would you like to dedicate to them daily, weekly, or monthly? Put a number indicating hours per week beside each item above that you listed.

What are the hours you do NOT want to work?
I begin with this question intentionally, rather than the more common, “what do you want your work hours to be?” It might seem odd to begin an article that caters to high-achieving leaders with non-work priorities, but this is intentional because for most of my clients, work often bleeds into non-work priorities, yet it doesn’t happen the other way around. This is why we start by putting some guardrails in place to protect that time. If your work consistently runs over other meaningful aspects of your life, it won’t be sustainable in the long run, and certainly does not lead you to a happy, meaningful life. Prioritizing areas of life that fuel you tend to make you more productive at work as well.

  • Do you want to work out each morning from 7-8am and not sign into work until 9am?
  • Do you want to pick your kid up from school each day and therefore need to block out from 2:30-3:30pm each afternoon?
  • Do you want to keep the 4-7pm hours free to spend with family, and perhaps you do not mind working nights or going in early?
  • Do you need to close your work by 6pm each night? Or by 7, 8, or 9pm?

Decide which hours you want to protect for family and personal time. Make this both practical and (close to) ideal.

Block them on your calendar
Once you decide which hours you want to protect from work, mark them on your calendar with specific titles, i.e.: “Go for a run,” “Dinnertime with kids,” or “Date night.” It’s important to be specific on your calendar. If you simply put “personal time,” there is a greater risk of that time getting filled with work-related tasks.

Work Priorities

Now that you’ve blocked off your non-work priorities, you likely have a good idea of what kind of work schedule will work for you, and what kind of boundaries you need to create.

Based on this, what hours do you have for work and what boundaries do you need to draw?
Identify your work schedule. Because it likely includes less time than you are currently working, you are going to need to refine your focus at work and optimize for impact. Let’s begin.

Step 2: Use Your Strategic Business Objectives to Create Strategic Boundaries

What are your business goals, KPIs, or OKRs?
List and rank in order of importance. Give each one a number based on priority.

List all of your work efforts
Outline all of the activities, tasks, meetings, divisions, teams, initiatives, clients, and/or verticals that require your attention. Give each one a number (or two) that corresponds to the KPI(s) or goal(s) the effort is contributing to (based on your response to the previous question.)

Which business efforts drive the most impact toward your business goals?
By impact, give each effort a number on a scale of 1-10, 1 meaning low impact and 10 meaning high impact. Circle anything that is an 8 or above.

What efforts drive little impact for the business?
Identify which tasks and efforts are not paying off. My recommendation is to underline anything that is a 7 or below.

In a world where you have too much to do, too much you want to do, too much on your to-do list, and simply not enough time for everything … you cannot afford to spend your time on anything that isn’t high impact. Therefore, it is time to set some strategic boundaries to stop or minimize working on efforts that don’t prove to be fruitful.

Delegate, Simplify, or Let Go

Of course, it isn’t that easy. For many of you, you can’t just stop doing certain responsibilities even if they are not producing impact. I invite you to take a look at a few ways to consider how to minimize the time you are spending on these low-impact areas. Consider each of your efforts for each of these questions:

  • What people or resources (on your team, cross-functional team, or external consultants) do you have available and which tasks can you delegate and entrust to them (particularly, but not limited to those that are 7 and under)?
  • What meetings must you attend and which can you renegotiate your attendance (so that you can spend your time on the 8 and above efforts and your family/personal priorities)?
  • Which efforts can you systemize, optimize, or automate?

We are slowly building your “To Don’t List,” which will empower and fuel the efforts that remain on your priorities list (the 8 and ups). For me, getting my “to don’t” list in order has a greater impact than focusing on my “to do list.”

Step 3: Communicate Your Strategic Boundaries

It will be much easier for everyone who works for and with you if you are clear about what the most important strategic initiatives are, what you will be working on and when, as well as what you won’t be working on and when you will not be working. Setting clear expectations to everyone affected by your strategic boundaries makes it easier to maintain them in the long run.

Don’t be afraid to be explicit, setting clear expectations and ensuring everyone impacted understands what your new strategic boundaries are. Talk to your colleagues, boss, and clients and clue them in on your new parameters. If everyone knows your boundaries ahead of time, it makes it less confusing for people and easier for them to follow.

Send a quick email letting your team know that you won’t be working on certain projects anymore because they are not tied to the most important strategic initiatives. Notify anyone affected that you will be blocking out the 2:30 to 3:30pm hour on your calendar to pick your kids up from school. Announce at your team meeting that you won’t be sending emails after 7pm anymore. Then block the times out on your calendar so everyone can clearly see that you are busy at this time. You might also consider putting up an auto-responder when you are unavailable. If you already have standing meetings scheduled at this time, shift them to a new time slot.

Then, the key for you is to actually follow through on them. If you communicate your shiny new boundaries, but then fail to follow them, it is confusing for people – and they won’t take you seriously. How do you uphold your strategic boundaries?

Step 4: Manage and Uphold Your Strategic Boundaries

You will continue to get bombarded with requests that fall outside of your new schedule and strategic initiatives. Just because you are creating boundaries and communicating them, it doesn’t mean everyone will remember and comply. It will take some time for all to adjust to your new boundaries and let’s face it, some people never will. Given this, it is your responsibility to uphold them. And there are many things that could get in your way.

What are the biggest obstacles that might get in your way? List them and strategize in advance how to preempt the obstacles. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to maintaining your boundaries is yourself. How will you hold yourself accountable to upholding your new parameters when you encounter a roadblock? If you are a high-achiever, this may be particularly difficult for you, especially to self-enforce at the beginning. Here are some tools that will help you be deliberate in managing your strategic boundaries.

Assessing and Responding Thoughtfully to Requests

Just because someone else has a need they want you to fill, does not mean you should fill it. Creating strategic boundaries for yourself means that generally you are placing your priorities ahead of the priorities of others.

When someone requests your help on something, what is your tendency? Some people default to “Yes,” which can cause them to overextend. Others default to “No,” which can cause frustration in others and the perception that they are not a team player. What kind of default can you create so you avoid a promise you can’t (or shouldn’t) fulfill and avoid coming across as a rigid nay-sayer? Here are six steps you can follow:

1. Defer Your Response a Little
I propose in cases that are not a clear “Yes” or “No”, your default response should be to buy yourself a bit of time so that you can thoughtfully decide how the new request stacks up against your priorities, and to figure out how to respond considerately. This might only 10 minutes.

When you get a request of your time or energy, and are not sure if you have the capacity or desire to fulfill the request, the best response is, “I’m not sure if I have the capacity, let me check,” or “Let me see what I can do. I’ll get back to you by X time.” The important note here is that you must follow up by the time you promise – and as soon as possible – so you don’t erode trust. It would not work to take a week to figure out whether or not you can do something, leaving the person with less time to create alternate plans.

2. Filter the Request: How important Is This on a Scale of 1 to 10?
If below a 7, determine how you will politely decline the request (see more on this below). If it is an 8 or above and you don’t have room for it, is there anything that is currently on your plate that is a lower priority than this new thing that you can negotiate out of? Do you have enough information to decide on its importance? If not, what else do you need to ask/know?

3. Negotiate or Counter-Offer
If you want to help AND the request is an 8 or above in terms of importance, but don’t have the bandwidth or can’t meet the timeline or conditions requested, see if you can respond with a conditional “Yes.”

If related to timeline, ask yourself – When can I realistically and reasonably dedicate time to this without compromising another priority? If a week from Thursday, negotiate that as the deliverable time. If next February, offer that.

The key here that many miss, is that your response does not need to be a simple “Yes,” or “No.” If it is something important that you truly want to help with, make them a counter-offer and see if it works for them, too. Try “Yes, but not right now,” and then discuss the timeline options with whoever is asking. Or, “I can’t deliver by X time as you requested, but I can deliver by X time.” If your yes is related to the scope or deliverable, try, “I can’t generate the entire report, but I can pitch in with this piece.” OR “In order for me to do that, I would need extra resources with X,” Or, “I can’t give you a 60-minute phone call, but I can offer you 15 minutes. Will that work?” You get the idea.

4. Say No, Share Why
A common request is of time, which is a tricky currency. Many people will want your help and attention, where you might not be willing to spend that currency on a particular project or cause. Next time you feel yourself wanting to say no but at risk for saying yes, stop, pause (or defer – see #1!), and articulate your thoughts.

Try this: “I really want to help, finding the ______ (insert limitation here,) will be a big challenge. Therefore I have to say no on this one.” For example, “Finding the time will be a big challenge,” or “Finding the right resource will be my biggest challenge.”

Most of the time, people just need to understand why you’re saying no. Allow them to exercise their muscle of empathy for how much you have on your plate and explain that it’s not for lack of interest, just lack of _____. (Time, money, expertise…)

5. Say No, with Guidance
If someone is asking you to teach them something, tell them how you learned. Instead of an outright “no” or spending a big chunk of your time in teaching mode, demonstrate your desire to help them by giving them book recommendations, websites, and other tools that helped you grow in that particular area.

You can also try connecting them with someone in your network that may be better qualified, more willing, and/or have more time to assist. This could make for a win-win if you have someone in mind that not only has the expertise and time, but also more interest in helping. Who knows? Their goal could be to mentor more rookies starting out in the field.

Saying no doesn’t need to be a negative exchange. If communicated well, it can be an authentic and direct way to convey when you have a limitation on a request that’s come your way.

6. Renegotiate Along the Way
Even after implementing strategic boundaries, many will continue to live their previous “Yes’s,” every day. If you find yourself spending time on something you previously committed to and is no longer a priority for you, renegotiate your involvement or the terms of your involvement. When context changes, priorities must change.

I had a client, Julio, who was fiercely responsible to his commitments, which I admire. However, when he got a big promotion at work to a new leadership role, he found himself under water. I helped him prioritize his team’s initiatives and set up his strategic boundaries, and he firmly told me there was no way to gracefully step down from of a committee he had joined 1.5 years prior. He didn’t want to be perceived as a quitter or lose the respect of the others on the committee. I helped him see that saying no to the committee would free him up more for his team’s strategic initiatives, but he was still hesitate to resign.

When he realized that there was no way he could fulfill his committee role and his priorities, he delicately renegotiated his involvement in the committee, which to his surprise, landed him more respect from the committee head and colleagues, not less. They respected him for reevaluating his team’s priorities with a strategic lens and replaced him with someone who had more time and space to add value to the committee. They understood that by him leaving the committee, he would be able to accomplish much more for his new team, which was the organization’s priority. Julio was both surprised and relieved, and learned the valuable lesson to question his assumptions about what he was beholden to and what was flexible. When context changes, priorities must change.

Step 5: Set an Example By Living Your Strategic Boundaries

When you practice setting and enforcing boundaries as a leader, you are encouraging others on your team and in your organization to do the same. If you want an organizational culture that is distinguished by engaged, productive, and creative workers, you want your people to set boundaries. If you want the people in your organization to be loyal and to care about the organization’s success, you want them to set boundaries. If you want to run a company that is sustainable and focused on long-term goals, success, and employment tenure, you don’t just want your people to set healthy and strategic boundaries, you need them to.

There are many companies who say they offer a dynamic company culture and work-life balance, but if their leaders are not leading this by example, words fall flat, the organization seems inauthentic, and generally the intention won’t ever come to life. The words that describe the type of culture you want to create are meaningless without the action and precedent to follow it at the highest levels. In other words, you can’t just publish a page on your website talking about what a great culture you have, yet have your leaders setting themselves and everyone else up for burnout.

The bottom line is: You can’t do it all, and do it all well. Given this, which are the areas you want and need to focus on and knock out of the park? And in order to do that, what lines do you need to draw?

“Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”
–Greg McKeown, Author of

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.