6 ways to set effective boundaries during COVID-19

Everyone has a different definition of what balance looks like between work and life. But we are all united by a global pandemic, everything we thought we knew about boundary-setting becomes murky. Especially when our homes serve as our office, our gym, our restaurant, our bar and so on, it sometimes feels impossible to do anything except ‘work’ in some capacity.

For busy professionals who feel the heat to keep a company afloat or reassure their boss how essential they are as an employee, it’s tempting to work 24/7, day and night, and repeat. However, licensed psychologist Dr. Julie Kolzet, Ph.D., stresses the value and importance of reversing this fearful mindset. “Maintaining personal boundaries requires that we are honest about our needs and that we take responsibility for ourselves,” she continues. “By being able to set effective boundaries, you are showing yourself and others that you are taking responsibility for yourself and your experience.”

In an age where everything feels heavy, let these tips lighten the load as they teach you ways to set—and maintain—effective boundaries in every aspect of your life:

Speak kindly to yourself.

Though the pandemic does require us to be respectful of government guidelines. And it does require us to be patient and nimble. However, Dr. Kolzet says it’s not necessary to ignore your emotions. That’s why step one of creating boundaries is being mindful of how you speak to yourself. More than anyone else on the planet, it’s vital to be kind with our internal self-talk. Sometimes we put intense pressure on our performance—as employees, friends, partners, and parents—that is unrealistic. “Do you need to lower or raise your expectations? Are you too hard on yourself in this difficult time?” she continues. “Try to keep in mind that we are living in a unique and specific socio-cultural context. You may be experiencing difficult emotions due to the pandemic, and this could be influencing your productivity or your ability to engage with your loved ones.”

Create and demand structure.

Days blend into weeks and then into months during the lockdown. In fact, you may be wondering if it’s Friday, Monday, or Thursday right now. Though it may not seem necessary when you aren’t going places, psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, MD says creating structure will result in stronger productivity and a happier outlook. Though you don’t have to guilt yourself if you hit ‘snooze’ sometimes, you should generally get up early-ish, go through the same morning and workday rituals you usually do, and try to tuck yourself in around the same time. Even if you’re not heading into the office or commuting, you should still design your day in professional and personal blocks. “It is great to have this extra time, but it will be better to think about how we are investing in, and not just to blend it with more work,” he adds.

Schedule time to do what you ‘want’ to do.

Ask yourself: do you want to answer emails, complete projects, schedule meetings, and repeat until the quarantine is over? Everyone needs some part of their day that has zero to do with their employment. But to actually reserve these precious minutes, Dr. Kolzet says most people need to block it in their calendar. She suggests setting up a meeting that serves as a reminder to do something out of desire—and no obligation. Whether it’s reading a book, listening to a podcast, going for a (socially-distant) walk, or even napping, the purpose is to give your working bones a break. “We can be productive during this time while simultaneously prioritizing rest, relaxation, and fun,” she shares. “Try not to beat yourself up for being more or less productive or restful. You are doing the best you can in a difficult situation.”

Create physical representations of boundaries.

It’s one thing to say ‘I need more balance between work and life,’ and it’s another to put it into practice. What can be helpful for some people, according to licensed psychologist Dr. Sharon Asher, Psy.D., is to create a physical representation to end your day. This could be a song you play, a workout you sign-up to do daily at 6 p.m. or even the mere act of shutting down your computer. “Closing and putting away your work materials when you are not using them is a way to signal the boundary between work and rest concretely,” she adds.

Limit your social media consumption.

These days, we’re spending more time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and news websites than ever before. Some of this is due to boredom and the need to distract ourselves. But it’s also a way to manage our fears surrounding the uncertain future of the world.

Typically though, Dr. Kolzet says it has the opposite effect and leaves us more anxious than before we caught up on the news. Since it is still vital to stay informed when health recommendations change frequently, she suggests setting a specific amount of time per day to consume these channels. “By doing this, you are telling yourself that you respect your mental and emotional health. It is not necessary to constantly consume media coverage. Be honest with yourself about how you feel after engaging with social media. How long do you need to spend engaging to feel good about it?” she advises.

Speak up with loved ones.

After you’ve figured out what your boundaries are, it’s time to share them with your professional and personal circles. By saying them out loud, Dr. Kozet says you help to hold yourself accountable as well. This may mean asking your boss not to schedule meetings past 6 p.m., so you can have dinner with your family and enjoy time outside. Or, it could be asking those who are nearest-and-dearest to you to limit their COVID-19 discussions. “Tell your friends and family that when you Zoom/text/call them, you are willing to discuss the pandemic but not for the entire time and explain why,” she shares. “And set up specific blocks of time to talk with your friends and family in advance. This will ensure that you can engage with your loved ones and reap the positive benefits of interpersonal connection without feeling overloaded and indebted to others. Remember: It is okay not to be in constant contact.”

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