4 Truths I Learned About Setting Professional Boundaries When Saying “Yes” Went Too Far

As I was graduating college and applying to jobs, the advice I got most often was, “say yes to everything.” And I did. Once I was hired, I said yes to everything I could. I volunteered to help coworkers, stayed late, came in for overtime, and I didn’t complain. It wasn’t until I was in grad school full time and started a full-time job with abbreviated hours ( I was working 34 hours a week instead of 40)  that I realized at some point after saying yes to everything, I had to learn to say no.

The interesting thing about saying yes to everything is that it didn’t pan out for me the way those advice-givers said it would. I didn’t lead to my dream job or even another higher paying job. However, I learned so much at every turn, like how important it is to consider personal happiness and understanding when to say, “enough is enough.”

I was so keen to say yes to every opportunity that came my way that I didn’t hesitate to say yes to a full-time job this fall. Although I am in grad school full time, my program technically allows me to work full-time Monday to Friday. Classes meet every other weekend, and the rest of the work is online or done at home. So, I anxiously agreed to the job offer after it came from a previous employer out of the blue.

They were starting a new department and wanted me to join them — how could I say no? I felt so flattered and valuable! I had hoped this opportunity would provide me with job security and financial security once I graduate this summer. As a planner and a slight control freak, I thought this was the perfect solution to the unknown in my future. While I couldn’t have been more wrong, I did learn some very valuable lessons.

I worked in the spring part-time, and my classes that summer, while I wasn’t working, weren’t very stressful. Therefore, I found that I had an overabundance of free time. Self-confident and secure in my planning skill and self-discipline, I felt I could manage to work full-time Monday to Thursday and do the rest of my school work in the evenings and on weekends.

In reality, I was so exhausted from work that I could barely concentrate when I got home to write. So stressed about having time to do homework, I worked through my lunch break and would stare at a screen for eight straight hours before heading home to complete homework assignments on my computer. Suffering from work overload, I developed eye pain and an eye twitch, I struggled to sleep at night, and it took me longer to complete assignments at work and learn the new software. Plus, my homework suffered as well. I became a zombie, and I was miserable.

I talked to my manager about my position and asked if there was any possibility to work remotely part of the week. My thought was that if I were in the comfort of home I’d be more relaxed and work more efficiently. I also considered if working part-time was a possibility. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the work, neither of these options were possible, and I decided to resign from my position after only five weeks. It was hard to say goodbye and admit defeat. I truly thought I could do it all.

While terrified (seriously, I cried beforehand in the bathroom) to tell my manager I was struggling and to ask for help, my fear was unfounded. Most employers, when given a reasonable explanation, would prefer that they have happy employees rather than miserable ones.

Here are some takeaways from my experience to set your own professional boundaries:

1. Don’t underestimate your own value to the organization. 

They hired you for a reason, and if you’re a hardworking employee, most likely your team will want you to stay. In many cases, there will be a way to strike a balance. For me personally, it wasn’t a possibility in this particular example, but I learned a very valuable lesson in the process.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or speak up if you need something. 

Whether you want to ask for a shift in your job or ask for more support, find the courage to ask for what you need. As my father always says, “the answer is always ‘no’ unless you ask.” Too often younger employees stay quiet when they should speak up. We all have a voice, and we should be able to use it!

3. Negotiate within reason.

I’m not saying negotiate for a million-dollar paycheck for your very first job. But try to come up with solutions when you reach a dilemma. My manager and I discussed changing my hours from morning to later in the evening so that I’d have time to do schoolwork in the mornings. Though that ultimately did not work for me, I was grateful she was willing to help me try different things.

4. Know when to say “no.” 

We are all human. Not everyone can have the mind of Sheldon Cooper or the drive of an energizer bunny. While it is important to work hard, it is also important to be honest and realistic with yourself. We have just one life; we should be happy for as much of it as we can.

If you need to drink a cup of coffee before you can sit in on the morning meeting, do that. Schedule 10 minutes on your calendar in the afternoons if you work better after a quick lap around the building. If you like to workout before getting to work, make it known. Establish realistic, working boundaries so you are able to have a work-life balance, and don’t be afraid to politely remind others when they’re infringing upon them.

It might take some practice (okay a lot of practice) to get it right. But trust me, you’ll be far more useful with them in place.

Marina has a B.A. in French from Gettysburg College. She enjoys cooking, traveling, and reading. Her long-term career goal is to be happy at her job while making a difference in the world.

Image via Pexels

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