'Career doctor' Liz Bentley: How to set healthy boundaries with your family during quarantine

Executive career coach Liz Bentley shares tactical solutions to implement during this stressful time.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Miller Hawkins

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By Liz Bentley

Setting boundaries with your family is hard in the best of times, let alone during a worldwide pandemic with people and pets surrounding you 24/7.

In many ways, the coronavirus crisis is forcing us to address this issue, especially when it comes to allotting time for ourselves, work, children and our partners.

But where to begin?

First, recognize that boundaries are about self-preservation. As an executive career coach, I’ve realized people are their happiest when their lives feel full. That typically means they have enough time to nurture their mind, body, and soul through a balance of meaningful work, play, rest and most importantly, human connection. Even if you are an introvert and enjoy alone time, the happiest people have meaningful relationships. But those relationships sour pretty quickly when you don’t allow them to have boundaries.

It’s most important to note that keeping boundaries is your responsibility. People who struggle the most with relationship boundaries typically have trouble saying “no” and are afraid of being the “bad gal/guy.” But, by not setting those boundaries, they end up resenting those relationships and often become passive aggressive. The key to success is to always look at yourself and where you need to shift, not at others in the hope that they will shift for you.

Here are some tactical solutions to implement during sheltering:

Institute a morning huddle.

Get together with your spouse/partner to discuss the strategy of the day. How are you going to work and get everything done? This way, you can have a plan and be organized in advance. Once you segment out your work hours for the day let the rest of your family know the schedule.

Clarify work time. If you have children, make sure they understand when it’s time for you to work and what that means. Be clear on the rules and create a system that you can work on together so that you can stay focused and productive during your work hours. For example, you can utilize visual cues with colored index cards, e.g. red for no interruption, yellow for “I am working but can answer a question,” and green for “I am taking a break and available to talk/play/help you with something.” By using the card system, if your child walks into the room when you're working and sees you on the phone you can seamlessly let them know your availability.

Of course, if you have very young kids, they may not understand such boundaries. If you have a partner or spouse, block time for you both to have uninterrupted work. If you don’t, there are still a number of practices you can implement. Schedule important calls or projects that need the most concentration during naps. When that’s not possible, carve out 15 minutes beforehand to spend with your child so they can enter work time with their need for interaction met.

Next, prepare as much as you can ahead of time! Set up snacks the night before so they’re ready to grab when needed. Also have a stash of activities you can pull from when interruptions inevitably take place. This could be a small new toy, some printouts of coloring pages or even saving their favorite show to put on when you really need the time.

Focus on YOU.

Know when you need to stop working. When working from home, it can be difficult to know when to stop. Days and nights can flow together. Setting boundaries isn’t just about other people, it’s about yourself too. If you clarify the work time, you should be able to get ample work done and stop to have some time for yourself and your relationships. And even if the work is still not all completed, you still need a break and connection with the people you love.

To give yourself clear boundaries, organize your week in advance as much as possible and put breaks and blocked out time into your calendar.

Also have a clear start time and end time to your work day, just like you did when you were going to an office. This way you can do some personal things in the morning before you get started, have some breaks in the day to recover and end at a reasonable time. If you need to check back in after dinner that's fine, at least you will have had another break.

Recognizing that breaks are as important as work for your brain growth, your mood and overall happiness is critical to understand. By having breaks you will actually become more productive and certainly more happy.

Here are some additional guidelines:

Know yourself.

Only you know what your needs are, and it’s your responsibility to get them met. You need to know how to balance “yes” and “no” and how to check in with yourself (on how you really feel and what you really need).

Let go of your misplaced guilt.

Some people don’t create boundaries because they mistakenly think that if they do, they are selfish. Make sure you are able to identify any guilt you may feel about your boundaries and remember that you need them in order to protect and nurture your relationships.

Give whole-heartedly.

When you are not setting boundaries, it impacts your ability to give your time because you always feel like you’re being pulled in a million directions. When you set boundaries, you enjoy your time with people more and can give more of yourself.

For the extroverts:

Remember, you do not need to be around people 24/7 (your family, Zooming with friends, etc.) At a certain point, it’s wearing you out.

For the introverts:

Make sure you get enough alone time so you don’t implode, but don’t take so much time to yourself that you start to get depressed.

Rest.

Know how much you need and get enough of it so that your mood is light and your mind is fresh. Everyone needs rest and recovery; make it a priority in your life.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries