Setting Boundaries

5 November 2017 by Lisa Meloncon

Setting boundaries has a lot to do with making decisions about your life (which I take to mean here both your career and your not career parts) and what you want to prioritize. While I written before about ways to say no and yes, here I want to focus more on some of the bigger—abstract even—concepts that go into making decisions about boundaries and priorities.

In published scholarship across fields, there seems to be a love/hate relationship with the word boundary. Fields and disciplines want to have them because it makes the work a little more manageable, but at the same time, boundaries impose limits and restrictions (which most academics want to constantly push back against). This same push/pull exists when trying to create boundaries for our lives.

I have talked a lot about being strategic in your career. Strategic is probably the word that I use most in trying to help faculty and grad students understand that there should be some deliberate thought and consideration put into each decision that you make. In being strategic, you stand a better chance of then instilling boundaries that are healthy.

Here are some big boundary setting concepts.

Set aside time for you

You need to set aside time for your own self care and your life outside of work.

Schedules shift in higher education based on the ebbs and flows of the academic term and the ebbs and flows of where your projects are (no matter if they are research, service or teaching). Because of this, it is always a good practice to set up a an ideal term schedule but then to be flexible enough to shift that from week to week.

One of the first things is to map out on the calendar are the times that you will not be working: exercise time, social events, events for children, time with your family, etc. To push back against the cult of overproduction, one of the first things I do every week is to mark through all of Sunday and most of Saturday. It’s a material reminder that the weekend is (or should be the majority of times) for rest, relaxation, and fun.

Recognize that you can’t do everything (nor should you)

It’s really easy to get off track and overwhelmed because there are so many cool and interesting things that you may want to do. One must remember that you truly cannot do everything that you want to do because there’s not enough time and there are other things you have to do that take up even more of that time. In other words, you have to learn to pick and choose what you’re actually going to devote your time to. Outside of the pointers in deciding how to say yes and no, you also need to consider what is best for you at this particular time of your life.

One area where lots of folks get bogged down is thinking that they have to contribute to every call for a special issue or collection or go to every conference. All of these are completely untrue. Submit when it’s something that fits with your research agenda. Attend conferences that are recognized in the field and the ones that resonate with you in particular ways. Every one ends up having a favorite conference for all sorts of reasons, and often, these are smaller events. So pick one of those to attend and then pick one of the bigger, nationally recognized conferences. You truly can get tenure and promotion and be successful without trying to attend everything and do everything.

Remain a professional at all times

Boundaries are often difficulty not because we don’t want to set them, but because of the outside influences that push on them—in both real and perceived ways. We have all had those moments of where we feel we need to do something even though we don’t want to and/or even though we feel we shouldn’t be the one being asked.

You can so no. The key to this is simply remaining professional at all times and simply saying no. For women, we are often tempted to give a long drawn out explanation as to why we’re saying no. That is not necessary. You can say no in a professional manner and end by suggesting someone else for the task or thanking the person for thinking of you. That’s it. If it’s something that you feel particularly sad/bad about saying no to, then it may be a good time to add extra context.

Remaining professional at all times is a reminder that we do have control over setting boundaries for what we do and when we do it (for the most part).

However, there is a line between protecting yourself and your time and simply being a selfish ass. Understanding this difference isn’t hard and is a key to boundary setting.

Believe in your work and believe in yourself

One of my first dial-a-mentors was Paul Heilker (Viriginia Tech). We were introduced through a mutual friend, and he was instrumental in helping me the first couple of years on the job. (Hey, Paul!! Thank you!!)) One of the most powerful things he ever said was, “Believe in your and believe in yourself.” I have repeated this phrase hundreds of times because it is so true. Now, I get that it can be much easier than done, but I encourage you to move toward this idea. It removes so much of the stress and the feelings of imposter syndrome and so many other things when you start to believe it.

And connected to the theme of this post, it helps you to remember what is important to you; thus, it helps you set reasonable and respectful boundaries.

Once you have some idea about what your boundaries are then you need to say them out loud. First, say them out loud to yourself. Then you need to say them out loud to your family and your colleagues. They’ll have no idea you have them and more importantly, what they are unless you tell people. Regularly. (Cause they can shift from term to term and year to year.) Verbalizing them often opens a dialogue about larger issues related to goals and strategic plans on how to accomplish them.

This is the time of the year when the stress mounts and because of that, we start to think of (dream about) starting fresh in the spring term. So as you’re putting off grading or procrastinating on writing or just sitting around watching TV, be thinking about these big concepts as they relate to your career goals and your institutional requirements. Good luck with the process. It’s one of the more difficult ones we face in higher education, and remember that there are lots of folks out here who can help you talk it through. You are never alone.

Wishing you health, joy, and peace.


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