Learning to say “No”: a busy lawyers’ guide to setting boundaries at home and at work

Boundaries: The secret to achieving more

Boundaries are the rules for how others learn to behave around you, how you want to be treated, what you will accept and what you will not. They are based on your own needs and wants and are a crucial part of protecting our mental wellbeing. Rather than being seen as selfish, rude or self-centered – boundaries are about understanding your value, knowing your priorities and ensuring others do as well. Boundaries are about you creating the space and time for you to flourish and achieve your career goals and your life dreams.

In researching their book “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-end Work”, Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh and her three friends, found that women take on a disproportionate amount of work that is valued less by potential bosses and can lead to their careers being stymied, either through overwhelm or lack of progression opportunities.

On top of that, numerous researchers have found that women still tend to do more unpaid labour outside the workplace than men, with UK government research in 2021 finding that there is no country in the world where this work is shared equally between the sexes.

As the academic year starts again, for many working parents, especially women, extra work is headed our way in the shape of volunteering, school runs, supervising homework and supporting activities. So, in a world that benefits from women saying “yes”, how do you say “no”?

#1 Start with defining your boundaries

Analyse where you spend your time every week, and what the return is. If there are activities that you enjoy and can sustain without either burning out or neglecting more valuable work, you may decide to keep these on. For example, organising a team meeting or volunteering at school might feed your extrovert preference and energise you.

Where you identify time being spent on activities that are neither enjoyable nor profitable, work out what you can get rid of. At home, this might mean either delegating, outsourcing or deciding to neglect/cut back certain tasks. With work or school activities, this may mean finding a way to curtail certain tasks. Aim to do this with grace and honesty. You stopping doing something could well be a good opportunity for someone else, so don’t feel guilty.

Once you have worked out what you will and won’t take on, ask yourself, “Can I stick with this?”. It’s important to be consistent with your boundaries, otherwise new tasks will creep back in.

#2 Communicate your boundaries to others

Once you know what you are, and are not, prepared to take on, be open with others and explain why. Practise some of these phrases until you feel confident:

“I enjoyed helping with Y last time, but I need to prioritise X right now.”

“I have a deadline for X, so I can’t pick that up this month.”

“I’m up to my limit right now, it sounds like a good opportunity for X to get involved though.”

“Client X is depending on me getting this done, I’ll take a turn at Y later in the year.”

“This isn’t something we can fit in as a family right now. If there’s something else that you’d like to drop, we could swap activities?”

Resist the temptation to volunteer in meetings, instead learn to feel confident hearing silence rather than rushing to fill a gap in a meeting or conversation by taking on a new task.

Boundaries create trust and build healthy relationships. Even when some people don’t like what you do, they will likely still respect you for standing up for what you believe in. 

#3 Enlist the support of colleagues – and support them in turn

Spot that someone in the team never picks up extra tasks like organising meetings or taking notes?  Call them out on it and suggest it’s their turn. Or, if that feels too personal, raise the issue at a meeting or in a 1:1 with your manager. Propose that you look together at how much administration and organising needs to be done, and how you can share it out equally.

If you’re managing people, make sure that you check that someone who is volunteering for these types of activities really enjoys them and has capacity – and make it clear you’ll support reallocating tasks if they don’t.

#4 Plan ahead at home

Feeling as though you’ve let people down isn’t good, and can lead to you backtracking on your boundaries. Avoid this by planning ahead, especially at home. Try some of these tips to make sure that everyone knows what’s happening when, and their part to play:

  • Start the Sunday night lookahead…check calendars and make sure appointments, activities etc are all covered for the week ahead
  • Schedule shared jobs on a shared calendar – either online or on paper
  • Teach young children to start checking their bag in the morning and basic organisation
  • Make sure older children feel responsible for their own homework and have tools to help them get organised

Divide up any school or home admin across the household in a way that plays to your family members’ preferences and strengths.

#5 See saying “no” as an investment

If you struggle with saying “no”, reframe it as investing in yourself. Freeing up time from chores that you don’t enjoy and that don’t help you move forward means you have more time to put into either work that is more rewarding or other things in life. Avoiding overwhelm also means you’ll do a better job at the tasks you do take on – whether that’s at work, at home or in your volunteering or social life.

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