How to Set Time Boundaries at Work (& Life)

Sheena McGinley, June 14, 2024

How to set time boundaries

Striking a healthy work-life balance has always been tricky, but the pandemic threw a major spanner in the works. Long commutes were swapped for indefinite "remote working” hours, with increasingly blurred boundaries between work and personal time.

Despite the return to offices over the last two years and further adoption of hybrid models, there's a lingering expectation of "just hopping online" whenever needed. Even sick days are ill-defined, with the assumption that you’ll “work from home” while attempting to recuperate. This constant availability has made it harder than ever to properly disconnect and recharge.

In this blog post, we’ll outline how to set healthy boundaries around your time – at work and home.

What are time boundaries?

Boundaries are the limits you set around how you spend your time. They’re a way of protecting your energy and ensuring you have enough time for the things that are important to you.

Time boundaries apply to all facets of life, so feel free to set them across your work, personal life, hobbies, and self-care.

As for what time boundaries might look like? Here are a few examples:

  • “I won’t take work calls after 7pm – unless it's an emergency.”
  • “I’m going to set a 20-minute timer to respond to emails."
  • “One weekend day will be devoted to relaxation/hobbies."
  • “I will keep my social media scrolling to 30 minutes per day."
  • “I’ll set a time limit for phone calls with friends and family.”

Benefits of healthy time boundaries

Healthy time boundaries

Simply put; by setting healthy time boundaries, you’re investing in your well-being. By taking control of your time, you can access a more balanced, productive, and fulfilling day-to-day.

Here are four key ways in which healthy time boundaries can benefit your work/life.

Defines your relationships

Setting boundaries lets others know your expectations and when you are available. This fosters respect and understanding across your personal and professional life. In turn, it leads to a stronger sense of self-worth; by valuing your time and energy, you're sending the message that others should do the same.

Aids prioritization

In the broader sense; setting boundaries, ensures you're giving your time and attention to the things that matter most.

Reduces your stress

By setting clear boundaries, you reclaim control over your time, which reduces that icky, agitated “stretched” feeling. Being rid of this allows you to focus on single tasks, approaching them with a calmer mindset. It also leads to the creation of more time for hobbies/pursuits you find fulfilling which – in turn (yes, you guessed it) – mitigates stress and anxiety, thus reducing burnout.

Improves your focus and productivity

When you're constantly bombarded with distractions, it's difficult to focus on getting your work done efficiently. By establishing clear boundaries, you create dedicated time blocks for specific tasks, minimizing distractions and allowing you to be more focused and – by extension – more productive.

Five effective ways to set time boundaries at work

Whether you’re working in an office environment or working from home, setting boundaries around your working day is imperative. So, how do you get started? Let us count the ways!

1. Be transparent about your working hours

The easiest way to do this? Set an out-of-office communicating the times at which you’ll be at your desk answering emails. Sure, some colleagues might get irked by all the automated responses, but you’re setting clear boundaries about your availability. You’re setting an example for others in your working circle to do the same.

2. Stick to those hours

You’ve taken the necessary step to setting a key boundary around your time. You’re giving yourself the required permission to switch off. So, do yourself a favor – do not check your emails when your OOO is active. That’s entirely counterproductive. The same goes for your technology use. Something as simple as deleting certain work-related apps at the weekend, or moving them off your device’s homepage can make all the difference.

3. Prioritize your time accordingly

When you are working, make sure you employ tried and tested time management strategies. For instance, have you tried time chunking? If that’s not your bag, there are plenty of other options available to help you prioritize your tasks based on importance and deadline requirements.

4. Practice the art of saying ‘No’

Practice of saying no

Saying "no" is often mistaken for a lack of capacity for teamwork, but the opposite is true. When you say no, you’re setting a boundary to prevent potential burnout while honoring your existing commitments. Saying “No” allows you to deliver high-quality work, which benefits everyone. It also promotes clear communication and mitigates overpromising – which is never a good look long-term.

5. Set a physical boundary where necessary

To those working from home; it might sound obvious, and a lot of you reading might be doing it already, but you need to create a physical boundary between you and your workspace.

For instance, I was recently visiting a friend who lives in an apartment. Where was her WFH desk? In her bedroom. I get it, space is at a premium and sometimes you just go where it’s most quiet but still. Boundaries. The bedroom is off-limits unless your workspace can be cleared away. If not, consider getting a foldable room divider to block off the area when not in use.

Time boundaries in relationships and everyday life

I used to be one of those people who had zero boundaries in terms of work. I’d be in the office at 8am and still getting DMs at 10pm. Well, that’s just the life of a journalist, isn’t it? You’re always “on”. And then, I had children. My time literally wasn’t mine anymore.

Having returned to work on a part-time basis, I had to be super mindful of time. My daughter had to be picked up from nursery at 1pm, so I asked to start my work day at 7am. I framed it as mutually beneficial, stating I could report on stories breaking overnight stateside.

In terms of setting boundaries, it’s all about how to frame them and the words you use when doing so. Below are some examples of communicating boundaries around your time when you’re also juggling other stuff, like parenting.

The mid-week commitment: “I’m working late on Wednesday night as I need to attend a parent-teacher meeting on Thursday morning – so, I won’t be around between 9am - 12pm. I've already completed insert applicable tasks so let me know when you’re available to discuss.”

Routine pick-up: “I’m taking lunch between 2pm and 3pm to facilitate a school pick-up. I trust that’s OK given I’ll have everything required done, plus I can act as cover while others are on their break!”

Emergency pick-up: “Can I reschedule our meeting? I just got a call from my child’s daycare and I need to pick them up ASAP. I’ll let you know my availability ASAP.”

Sick child: “I’m tag-teaming work and a sick child today. If you see them popping up behind me during our meeting, feel free to wave!”

The Impromptu office visit: “This is Jamie. I had to pick him up early so he’s going to help me draft some emails and schedule some meetings.”

While the above scenarios are specific to parenting, this boilerplate messaging can be tailored toward all relationship boundaries spanning everyday life.

It'll also lead people – be it your boss or your bestie – to respect you and your time more.

Implementing healthy time boundaries

Implementing healthy time boundaries

Setting boundaries is not about being selfish; it's about taking care of yourself and – by extension – your work/life balance. It's okay to prioritize your well-being, especially if it makes you a better employee/human being.

Here are some steps to help you implement healthy time boundaries.

Consider your ideal schedule: What does a balanced day look like for you? Factor in your work hours, plus your personal commitments and take it from there. A time tracking system can help you to schedule your day in a viable way. Memtime captures your activities while you work, making it easy to see your day in a visualized way.

Be declarative: Just like your colleagues, let your family and friends know your preferred communication times and availability. Then use declarative statements, like "I'm not around after 6pm".

Bring alternative options: If someone needs to reach you outside a designated time, suggest alternative options like a quick text or schedule a call later.

Again, be consistent: Stick to your boundaries even when it feels challenging. The more consistent you are, the easier it will become for others to respect them.

Reflect and adjust accordingly: Needs and priorities change over time. So, it makes sense to regularly reevaluate your boundaries and adjust things as required.

Utilize tools and technology: Start by setting boundaries on your calendar. It might sound obvious, but block out time for personal commitments and avoid scheduling meetings during those times. Then, consider using productivity apps and time management tools – like Memtime – to track your time and prioritize all manner of tasks effectively.

Wrapping up

While we've been banging on about work/life balance, it's a myth worth debunking. Why? Because striving for 100% presence at work and home simultaneously is pretty much impossible.

Trying to rigidly compartmentalize work stuff and life stuff can backfire – leading to more stress. Instead, let’s reframe the concept of work/life balance to be more fluid.

Time boundaries are not about rigidity but about creating flexibility within a structured framework. By establishing boundaries, you take control of your time, allowing you to work smarter.

The more people prioritize advocating for their time over constant availability, the better off we’ll be collectively. Being mindful of how we spend our time should become the norm, with tools like Memtime providing the necessary framework to achieve this.

Memtime meticulously records every minute of your work by beavering away in the background – whether it’s Slack exchanges, emailing, Google Meet or Zoom events, or time spent in various programs. Think of it as your trusty accountability partner.

With Memtime, you can:

  • Self-analyze the chronological timeline of activities it captures for you
  • Visually assess how your day unfolded
  • Identify areas where you may have neglected to set time boundaries.

For instance, consider importing your calendar events (such as those from Google Calendar) into Memtime. By doing so, you can easily compare your planned meetings with how they actually played out – helping you to establish healthier boundaries overall! You can try Memtime for free today and see for yourself what it records for you. Heads up though! You might be surprised with how your days actually go.

Meet the author:

Sheena McGinley - post author

Sheena McGinley

Sheena McGinley is a columnist and features writer for the Irish press since 2008. She’s also a business owner that is conscious of how time tracking can foster progress. She wrote for SaaS companies and businesses that specialize in revenue optimization by implementing processes. She has the unique ability to digest complex topics and make them easy to understand. She shares this precious skill with Memtime readers.

When she's not making words work for people, Sheena can be found taking (very) brisk dips in the Irish Sea.