The Thought Experiment That Helped Me Set Boundaries at Work

Think of your life as a house, with a specific purpose for each room

Photo: Niels Schubert/Getty Images

SSix years ago, I sat in my doctor’s office as he rattled off an alarming list of facts. My lack of vitamin D bordered on vampiric. I’d gained 30 pounds in a year. I had a chronic, searing stomach pain that had once made me collapse in my boss’s office. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’d bolt out of bed and write an email I had composed while asleep. My hands quaked.

My doctor’s concern was Chernobyl-level. I was probably on the verge of diabetes, he said, and at risk of even more serious health problems.

“When was the last time you saw daylight?” my doctor asked.

To say I was suffering from burnout would be an understatement. Working 14- to 16-hour days at my marketing job wasn’t uncommon. Even when I was technically off the clock, I’d still always be on my laptop, forgetting to eat or socialize. Fresh air came in the form of racing down to the food carts outside my office, or waiting for a cab to rush to a client meeting. I missed loved ones’ life-altering moments — weddings, birthdays, births, breakups, losses. I was in a toxic, codependent relationship with my job.

In a 2018 study out of Virginia Tech, researchers examined the toxic effects of the always-on-call mentality. “‘Flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’” one of the study authors explained, “compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

No kidding.

TThis year, I read three books that helped me get my house in order: James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. The common thread between them was this: You can’t run away from technology and distraction — you have to prioritize and compartmentalize it. They’re very different books, but they all invite you to think about balancing the tangible and tactile with the demands of the omnipresent, frenetically-paced digital world in which we live.

It’s a universal problem: how to manage and scale our personal and professional velocity. When do we need to move fast and furious, and when do we need to slow the fuck down? It all comes down to boundaries. Boundaries are about building imaginary fences around real things.

Let’s go back to that “getting my house in order” idea. I find the image of a house useful. Imagine, for a moment, that your life is a house, with rooms for work, play, family, friends, and health, as well as private passions tucked away in attics or basements. Everyone’s house is different in its design, construction, and interior.

Then imagine a mob of people in the house, crowding it and wrecking it. Emptying your fridge. Making off with your possessions. Your front door is revolving, and the influx of people is constant. That’s how my life felt that day in the doctor’s office.

What if you erected an electric, invisible fence around your property? This fence protects you from intruders, the people and things that threaten your space. This fence is your boundary. It allows you to choose who, and what, to let in — and, just as importantly, what to keep out.

This is the thought experiment that allowed me to finally get a handle on my own boundaries. After so many years of running myself ragged, I needed a way to force myself to organize and prioritize my time, and my house provided the perfect mental framework: All of my work has centered around the idea of “home,” so this metaphor felt natural and apt.

Just as I can’t knock down the house I live in and replace it with a McMansion, I also can’t clone myself or add more hours to a day. Instead, I need to find freedom in constraint, and to work with what I realistically have — one body, with all its needs and limitations, and 24 hours in a given day.

Too often, we start establishing boundaries long after they’re needed, when we already feel drained or taken advantage of. It’s easier to know where your boundaries are once they’ve been crossed. To proactively define them, it’s important to reflect on and understand how you spend your time, where you place your energy, and what’s preventing you from getting the bigger things done.

Think of your own home, and how you spend your time in each of its spaces, and then reflect on how that room can represent an aspect of your life.

Here’s how I’ve applied this thinking to my five-room home:

  • Bedroom/home office: I don’t have a separate room in my apartment to work in, so my bedroom serves double duty as my workspace. This is where I take client calls, craft pitch decks, and write proposals. It’s where I define how I work, when I work, and how long I work for.
  • Living room: When I entertain, this is the space where people assemble to eat, drink, laugh, and chat. Here, I create space for the people I let into my life. What characteristics and values do we share? How do we spend our time together?
  • Kitchen: This represents my place of nourishment. What do I put in my body? How much thought, effort, and money goes into that?
  • Bathroom: I define my bathroom as the room that represents my physical and mental health. This is the place where the routines that mark the start and end of my day take place. It’s where I take my meds, focus on hygiene, change and recover from walks or workouts, care for my body and mind, and get ready for bed and sound sleep.
  • Parking spot: I don’t have an attic or basement, but I have an allocated parking spot in an underground garage. This is where I play. My parking spot is just for me. It’s selfish and delicious. It’s the place where I create. Here, I read, think, and create in a calm, private, and uninterrupted space. This is the place where I define my writing goals and dreams, how to get there, and the roadblocks I encounter along the way.

In my life, these are the things I want to prioritize: my work, my relationships with the people I love, and my mental and physical health.

Visualizing my life as a house leads me to ask important questions: Who have I let in, and why? What are the obstacles keeping me from using this space the way I want to? And how do I eliminate or minimize these threats before they do damage?

For example, in my bedroom, an ever-present threat is clients who disrespect my work time, constantly calling and expecting an immediate response. To address that threat, I now schedule all calls using an online conferencing service, and make it clear with new clients that while I’m available via email, there’s no reason to phone or text me directly — I’m a marketer, not a trauma surgeon. I require 24-hour advance notice to set up a meeting. This sets up clear expectations of availability and how and when we communicate.

Once I’ve maintained all the rooms in my house, then I can make time for everything else: reading for pleasure and intellectual curiosity, the emails and Skype dates I set up with friends, and smaller projects I want to take on. I won’t feel stressed over an endless to-do list because I don’t take on the things and people I can’t manage.

This has been life-changing. I’ve learned to say no with grace — politely, firmly, and without apology. And I’ve learned that if something or someone threatens the house I worked so hard to make a home, it’s okay to not invite them in.

Establish a maximum occupancy in your house. Don’t wait for the roof to cave in, spring breakers to trash it, or a doctor who tells you that your job is making you sick. Take care of your house every day: Clean it, mind it, improve it, and protect it.

Marketing Exec/Author. I build brands & tell stories. Work in Human Parts, OneZero, Forge, Index & Marker. Hire me: t.ly/bEnd7 Brand & Content eBooks: t.ly/ZP5v

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