Image of doors and one is open
Image of doors and one is open

Setting Boundaries

According to this research most of us have taken on more tasks than we feel confident we can reasonably achieve. Why do we do this? According to respondents, the top 5 reasons people give for their overgrown to-do lists include:

  1. Desire to be helpful, accommodating, and polite (73%)
  2. Tendency to jump in and fix problems, even when they aren't theirs (56%)
  3. Ambiguous limits and unclear rules about which tasks to accept or reject (39%)
  4. Working with those in authority who make non-negotiable demands (38%)
  5. Inability to say "no" or renegotiate commitments (32%)
A picture of the Eisenhower Matrix

Does anything on that list look familiar? I identify with all of them! In this recent webinar, featuring best-selling author David Allen, they observed that these 5 reasons could stem from FOMO—the fear of missing out on being helpful, of missing an interesting project, missing an opportunity to impress a leader, etc. So how do we make good decisions on what to take on, to accept the right tasks and opportunities?

The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool for prioritizing tasks. The name comes from the 34th President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower. One of the quotes attributed to him explains the core of the principle: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

This concept, in addition to Eisenhower’s approach to making difficult decisions, were the motivation behind creating a simple matrix that can be used by almost anyone in any situation.


What I would like to highlight from the matrix is that setting boundaries isn’t simply “yes” or “no”. It can be:
  • “Yes, at a later time”
  • “Yes, for only this long”
  • “I can offer my expertise but not effort”
  • “Let me refer you/introduce you to someone”

How do you start that conversation in a way that opens it up for discussion and solution? The first step is to share your good intent. If you read my previous blog post on boundaries, you know that setting good boundaries is a step towards delivering what you promise. It is about wanting to be the best contributor you can be by allowing you to have the time and focus to accomplish fully what you are committed to doing. If you start by stating that intent, there is less room for the other person to misunderstand why you are not giving an unequivocal “yes”. It might sound like, “It’s very important to me to be able to deliver what I commit to. I’d like to talk more about my involvement in this project.” OR “I can see the significance of this project. If I am involved, I want to ensure that my contribution is impactful and valuable.”

Once you’ve stated your intent, the framework from Crucial Conversations© is a great way to start.

State your facts, tell your story, and ask an open-ended question to understand how the other person views the situation. Those sentences may start like these:

Facts Story Ask
"I'm noticing..." "My concern is..." "Can you help me understand where you'd like me to focus?"
As I reviewed my large projects, I'm seeing..." "I'm starting to wonder if..." What is your perspective on this?"
I've received another project request and..." "If I move forward, I'm concerned that quality will..." "How do you see this?"

Starting with your good intent clarifies that you want to be a solid contributor, then lead with the facts of the situation as you understand them, state the impact of those facts on you, and ask an open-ended question to start the conversation in a positive way. Once you have heard their view of the situation, you are both in a better place to find the right outcome that respects your boundaries and gets the outcome for the work they need done.

As Mark Groves, speaker and podcaster said, “Walls keep everybody out. Boundaries teach people where the door is.”



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