Do you ever wrap up your workday feeling dissatisfied with your productivity and progress? Are you frustrated because your day is often hijacked by fires and other people’s priorities instead of focused on your own to-do list and goals? When you finally carve out focus time, is that time unproductive due to a slew of client or staff interruptions? Are you making an inch of progress in multiple directions, rather than a mile of progress in one direction? Are you overly busy and overextended with an endless volume of work, projects, running your firm and responsibilities at home and your personal life? Do you find yourself saying “yes” more often than you say, “no?” Do you “should” on yourself and feel guilty for never getting to your stated priorities and projects? Are you pulled in multiple directions and distracted when you finally do have time? Are you burnt-out?
Welcome to the time-starved era we all live in. Our daily world operates with a high volume of non-essential busyness and it is very difficult for us to function at our best, to make the difference we’re committed to making, and to be fulfilled by our work and contributions. We lose our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t. As Greg McKeown discusses in his book Essentialism, our focus becomes the “trivial many” instead of the “vital few.” At some point, to make our highest contribution to what really matters most to us, we must give ourselves permission to stop trying to do it all, stop saying “yes” to everyone and everything.
Many of these challenges show up when we lack clear boundaries in business. It doesn’t matter how many time management tips, tricks and tools we try, they won’t make a difference without clear boundaries. Setting boundaries can be challenging, but it doesn’t need to be. Consider, it is not about offending or pleasing others. It’s about managing your priorities and your personal and business goals. This blog will walk you through the boundaries that will allow you to leverage your time and talents so that you can find peace and freedom, including having the work/life balance you desire.
What are Business Boundaries?
Boundaries are clear definitions and guidelines which place limits and borders around you, your work, and your relationships. They clarify what is you and what is not you; what is yours and what is not yours to own. They allow you to do your best work, serve your clients powerfully and feel energized.
Being proactive about setting these boundaries is key. It doesn’t matter how big or small your firm is or how many employees you have. It’s even more critical if you are solo because it’s so easy to end up overloaded, overwhelmed and overworked since there is always something or someone that needs your attention, and you have no one to delegate it to.
Set Boundaries with Yourself
Estate Planning is a service-based business that often includes helping clients in times of grief and high emotional stress. As a result, it’s even more important that you put your own oxygen mask on first, before you can help others. The better you take care of yourself, the better you can serve others.
The first thing is to get present to what your real needs are both at work and personally. For example, do you need 7 hours of sleep to function at your best instead of 5? Do you need to carve out time to exercise or take a walk instead of eating lunch at your desk each day?
It’s amazing what a break and a breath of fresh air can do for our productivity. Rest and rejuvenation time is critical. This includes taking time off and vacations. You need to take time away from your business to keep functioning at your best. This means unplugging completely, rather than answering emails while you’re on summer vacation with your family.
Here are some other examples of personal boundaries at work:
- Prioritize quality over quantity. You don’t take on more work when you’re already at max capacity. This includes new pet projects or chasing shiny objects.
- Stop “shoulding” all over yourself. Meaning, you disregard that internal voice that tells you what you are “supposed” to be doing but are not. You stop comparing yourself to other attorneys and firms as a filter for what you “should” be doing. It only leads to guilt and overwhelm. Plus, the more we feel like we “should” do something, the less likely we are to do it in the long run.
- Overcome FoMO or the fear of missing out. This allows you to focus on your priorities and filter out distractions from opportunities.
- Do more by doing less. You do not overschedule yourself with calls and meetings. You save your energy for what’s going to move your business forward.
Finally, communicating our needs is critical for any boundaries to work.
Set Office & Work Hours
Set and keep consistent office and work hours. This is the most valuable step you can take towards creating work/life balance. Your set office hours are for creating client communication boundaries, but your work hours are how you protect your personal time.
How often are you working late either at the office or from home? What time do you finally unplug? Is afterhours when you finally get your focus time? Do you desire to take Friday afternoons off during the summer, but never manage to leave on time?
When you know your cutoff time and are committed to keeping it, you’ll be more inclined to make the most use of your working hours. You’ll naturally grow in your ability to say “no” to anything that is not a priority and doesn’t fit on your timetable.
Set Scheduling Boundaries
We often have these conversations with Members in the context of creating their ideal calendar. Are you available for client appointments any time you don’t have another meeting on the calendar or are you specific about set days and times that you’re open for client meetings? Do you have set meetings and 1×1 time with your team to ensure they have the tools and resources to do their jobs or do you allow them to interrupt you throughout the day? Do you have time scheduled to work on your business or is 95% of your time devoted to working in the business?
These boundaries can be as easy as only taking client appointments Tuesday thru Thursday, devoting Friday to working on the business and Mondays to client legal work. You can have pre-scheduled time to returning client calls each day rather than taking calls when they come in.
The key here is that you want to schedule EVERYTHING so you know exactly what you have time for and what you don’t have time for. This means blocking out time for answering emails, returning client calls, reviewing your monthly financials, learning new legal concepts or attending CLE, reviewing documents, mentoring your team, creating video blogs, etc. You must protect your schedule – these are non-negotiable.
If your operating model has been to sacrifice your own projects, values, plans, fun or rest, then of course this is going to be uncomfortable. However, our highest levels of growth can only happen when we step outside of our comfort zone. I invite you to consider that creating your schedule and focus time for what is truly essential is a choice. Options may be things, but choice is an action and only when we have a heightened awareness of our ability to choose, can we truly achieve freedom from the tyranny of the urgent.
Set Boundaries & Clear Expectations with Clients
How many times do we set guidelines and expectations with clients only after something has gone wrong? We’re reactive instead of proactive. We find ourselves in a position where we need to apologize to a client because their erroneous expectations weren’t met. For example, they expected a return phone call the day they called in with their question and are upset they didn’t hear back even though it was going to take you some time to research. You could have prevented this by communicating that you would get back to them within 48 hours. As you can see, the key is to set expectations ahead of time, clearly communicate them, and enforce them.
We call these Engagement Standards and recommend including these as part of your legal services agreement. This helps you create a great working relationship and a WOW client experience. Some examples are:
- When client calls are returned and by when they will hear back from you
- How rescheduling of appointments works and the impact of last-minute scheduling changes
- Client control in the consultation and legal process. Meaning not allowing clients to dictate your systems and processes, including special and often unnecessary drafting
- Not taking on more clients than you have the capacity to serve
- Communicating when a client request is outside of your standard service offerings and saying “no” if it’s something you can’t or don’t want to do
- A mutual understanding of what true emergencies are – they are rare!
Set Boundaries on Digital & Phone Communications
This is so critical! We live in a world that is full of constant distraction. Without boundaries texts, phone calls and emails can easily rob our focus and shift our daily priorities to what others need instead of what we’ve committed to ourselves.
There are 3 components to this:
- Don’t answer your work texts, calls and emails outside of work hours. You may even consider removing your work email from your cell phone. When you are responsive at all hours, people will come to expect near immediate responses from you. You don’t need to be available 24/7.
- Don’t answer personal calls, texts, emails during work hours. Every time our phones ring with a notification, it’s a distraction. This will kill your productivity. It’s estimated that it takes 20 minutes to refocus after an interruption or distraction. If this is regularly occurring, then it’s going to take you a lot longer to get your work done than necessary.
- Schedule time for both of the above and let others know. For example, not checking email first thing in the morning so others’ priorities don’t hijack your day. You may check email only once a day in the afternoon and you get others accustomed to when they will hear back from you.
Boundaries benefit you, your team, and your clients because they allow you to show up as your best self. When you communicate clear boundaries with your clients and your team, it allows you to manage expectations and focus on your biggest priorities, while also creating trust and building stronger relationships.
Setting and sticking to your boundaries will be a process and it won’t happen overnight. So be patient with yourself and with others. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and, remember that “no” is a complete sentence.
Encourage others on your team to also build their own boundaries. However, consider that it’s critical to respect other people’s boundaries if you want your own honored as well.
What are the new boundaries you’re excited to create for your own business? How will they make a difference in the quality of your work, relationships, satisfaction and fulfillment?
Practice Leadership Coach
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128
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