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Dear Katy: Tips & strategies on setting boundaries

So many of the questions I am asked by my clients, colleagues, and friends boil down to boundaries. And no wonder, the world continually invents more ways for us to be connected across time and space all while our professional lives demand that we write, write well, and write quickly. To discuss this issue, I’ve rounded up a few questions about boundaries I’ve received to answer here, to both fulfill my lifelong goal to be an advice columnist (?), and also to illustrate that boundaries are important for all of us, no matter our title, rank, or experience!

Q: “I am a newly appointed chair of my department, and my manuscript is due at the end of 2019. I know that campus will not be a useful writing space for me, but I’m also not the best at writing at home, or in other spaces. How can I make this work for me?”

I’d imagine that lots about your working life will change, and not just how you fit your writing in. I would identify some blocks in your schedule where you will be available for meetings, for drop in chats, etc., and then communicate those blocks clearly to the relevant parties. So when you do need to write, or better yet, when it is your appointed writing time, you can easily and quickly redirect with a sign or in person, such as: “I’m not available at this moment, but I will be responding to emails at 3 pm today, and will follow up with you then.” Having a regular time where you are inaccessible makes it easier for everyone involved—you can plan for it, and your departmental colleagues can as well. Clear communication is the key!

Q: “My best writing time, between 3 to 6 pm, also happens to be the time when my family needs the most attention. How can I balance finding the zone with my other important jobs?”

This is a tough one, as your zone is probably something that you’ve found to work well for you through trial and error. Two things that I know from personal experience: 1) for most people, there is some flexibility, but not a ton, around writing times, and 2) families need attention when they need attention! Try experimenting with one or two days a week where that block is protected – maybe you call in help from a family member, or maybe you strike a deal with your family members that they’ll have your undivided attention after 6 pm. Experiment with shifting that writing time to another, easier time of day. What about that 3-6 pm time feels so good to your brain? Is it the amount of light, or the distance past lunch, or the music you have on, or the fact that your office is quiet? Look for other times where some of those elements are at play — a writing session that is only 60% in the zone might still be a useful thing!

Q: “Every time I sit down to write, without fail, I receive email that needs to be dealt with it. How can I be better about protecting my writing time when there are legitimately important, time-sensitive things in my inbox?”

Some emails are 100% time sensitive and need to be dealt with right away. But there’s a difference between “this email needs a response before the end of business today” and “this email needs a response in the next 30 seconds.” Can you experiment with checking email every hour, or every two hours, and responding to immediate concerns in 15-minute blocks? Can you circulate a policy that you respond to emails between 1 and 5 pm each day, so that people know when to expect responses for you on time-sensitive material? Equally important is creating a triage system for yourself where you trust your gut about whether or not an email needs an immediate response, or a delayed one, and you give yourself a moment to pause and say: “Am I answering this email because it truly needs a response, or because I do not want to write?”

Q: “I work in a department that values open-door culture, but I cannot focus while people are walking around in the hallway, or stopping by to catch up. How can I still be part of our community and get my work done?”

As a person with the attention span of a goldfish, I could have written this question myself! Ultimately, I came to recognize that I needed to make two categories of activities—writing, and community building. So it might be that your office, with the door open, will never be a space of productive writing for you. Are there other spaces you can write nearby? What activities can you do with some amount of distraction? Perhaps you write in the library, but you grade and do email in your office with the door open. Learning what activities you CAN accomplish in your office will let you still be a part of that community, while also providing yourself a space that is conducive to your writing!

The key to boundaries is communication: communicating with yourself about what you need, and what you need to protect, and communicating with those impacted so they can adjust. The simple act of saying “I’ll be writing until 4 pm and will call you back then” allows the person to know they are important, and gives you the space to keep working. Just like our writing process, setting, maintaining, and communicating our boundaries are a professional (and personal!) skill that we always practice and never perfect. As our roles change, our lives change, and our needs change, our boundaries change, too—another chance to communicate what we need and start the process all over again.

Katy PeplinKaty Peplin is a coach, editor, and community builder who works with academics at all stages of the pipeline. From her community of graduate students, Thrive PhD, to her courses on mindfulness and resilience, she works to provide tools and resources to help anyone manage the demands of an intellectually rigorous life in a decidedly human, imperfect world.