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Setting Boundaries: Start Small

It can take three months to feel settled at a job. Before then, most of us just act like we know what we’re doing (and like we haven’t forgotten a coworker’s name). #KarenOrCarol

There’s a reason that HR implements a three-month probation period — it takes time to get our head around processes. But as we do, managing pressure and setting boundaries is key to starting a job off well.

As David Gee writes about his time starting as CUA’s CIO, “I learnt very quickly that events and meetings would consume me unless I was clear where I wanted to focus my time and energy”. Being able to say “no” when your workload is at capacity is so important. But this can be easier said than done! So here are three tips to help set boundaries. 


Start your job with an eye on what matters. This might be your dream company, but it’s not more important than your health or family.  

If you always cancel your personal plans, you’ll end up burning out. Even though you’re saying yes to your coworker, you’re helping less if you’re tired, emotionally exhausted and distracted. If you want to be known as reliable, self-care is number one!

Don’t just add meetings to your calendar. Block out free time, like walks with your dog. When you start a job, set the precedent: work is important, but so is everything else. If your calendar reflects your actual life, necessary boundaries will be much clearer.

To avoid overbooking yourself, you can also make daily to-do lists: once they’re set, stick to them! 

If that to-do list is too long, focus on what’s critical, and make sure that you are setting SMART deadlines. Be realistic about timelines, and buffer for coffee breaks and the occasional scroll down social media. You’re not going to work 100% of the day, so don’t plan your time like you will be! 

When you’re realistic about your schedule, and remember to leave time for what really matters, you can avoid overcommitting yourself. (For help with this, try evidence-based buffering.)

Think long-term

When you say no, you’re turning someone and something down.

But instead of focusing on missing out, consider what you’re leaving yourself open to. As Dr Amantha Imber writes, “…think of saying ‘no’ as your way of being able to free up time to say ‘yes’ to the things that will truly help progress your career and make a difference.”

A new job is a chance to shape the role to suit your goals. You’ll need to hit your set KPIs, but beyond that, you have the opportunity to learn, grow your network and shape your career’s path.

When you set boundaries, you set yourself up to grow in a direction you choose. If you join a team with a set of goals, stick to those. It’s easy to say yes, but turning others down will give you the energy to get the most out of your new job.

Communicate clearly

When you turn someone down, own your answer! 

Are you busy with other projects? Let them know that you’re happy to help later, when you’re available. Offer alternative solutions, whether that’s helping out in another capacity or delegating. Think ahead and offer helpful solutions to produce results, not more problems. 

This is when blocking out your calendar can be helpful. Explain that taking on a new project would delay others. If it’s your Manager asking, explain how their request will affect your schedule. “I wouldn’t be able to deliver the work to you by the time you’re asking. A realistic timeframe would be ______. Does that work?”

If you’re realistic about the time things will take, it will save you from double booking deadlines. (Hint: most of us fall into the planning fallacy trap!)

Offer alternative times if a coworker wants to schedule a meeting during your lunch break (take your breaks!). If you can’t help today, let them know you can do it tomorrow.

But you don’t have to figure out everything on your own, as Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, says. Have the person asking explain what’s involved and how long it will take, to determine “‘how much your saying no is going to cost the other person’ and for your counterpart to grasp the ‘repercussions of what he’s asking.’”

The more engaged you are in what they’re asking and why, the better response you can give if you decide to turn them down. 

Starting a job is stressful, but boundaries can help. It’s easy to be hard on  yourself, and hard to say no, but it’s worth it in the long run for your health and your happiness at your job!


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