What I remember about boundaries when I was growing up is that I always wanted to violate them. Today, I’m frustrated that I don’t have more boundaries. I say that even though I have consciously built numerous boundaries in recent years, specifically to make up for the fact that technology has made it so difficult to have any.
The ping on the digital devices we now carry everywhere, even to bed, exerts a Pavlovian pull on us, setting off dopamine receptors in our brains that prompt us to respond automatically, whether or not it serves us well.
Think about it: How often do you work without interruption on a challenging activity for a significant period of time — say an hour — even though absorbed focus is the most efficient way to get it done, and to do it well?
What we’ve lost is our on-off switch. Instead, we live mostly in a gray zone, neither fully on nor fully off. We keep going and going. But to make that possible, we rarely fully engage in anything.
When was the last time you left work feeling satisfied that you got everything important done that day? To the contrary, we expect to check email — most of it not urgent — even when we get home. And we’re at it again before work the next morning, often before we brush our teeth.
The greatest depth, satisfaction and productivity in life come from doing one thing at a time. Human beings are not designed to do activities simultaneously, but rather successively. In a world of relentless demands, it’s only possible to maintain a high level of intensity if you create boundaries.
Several years ago, my company, The Energy Project, worked with the top officials at the Los Angeles Police Department. William Bratton, now the New York City Police Commissioner, brought us to the department because his top brass was exhausted. It turned out that one of the department’s longstanding policies was to alert every member of Chief Bratton’s team whenever a major felony occurred in the city. The unintended consequence was that every one of them regularly got awakened several times in the night, insuring that most of them woke up badly sleep deprived in the morning.
The solution turned out to be incredibly simple: create boundaries. Chief Bratton made the decision to limit the calls to one designated person each night and to create an on-call schedule, much like a hospital’s for doctors, so the responsibility for waking up rotated among them.
Sleep may be the behavior we’re most willing to sacrifice in our lives in the name of getting more done. When I began to understand the toll anything less than a full night’s sleep was taking on my alertness the next day, I created a boundary that has remained virtually inviolable for years. Nearly all of us require seven to eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested. I need at least eight hours, and preferably more. My simple solution was to go to bed earlier.
But it turns out that solution requires other boundaries. It helps enormously, for example, to turn off all your digital devices at least an hour before you go to sleep to give yourself time to wind down. An even better boundary is not to bring your phone or laptop into your bedroom at all in the evening. Honoring any boundary is far easier if you minimize your temptation to violate it.
During the day, it turns out our bodies operate in 90-minute cycles — what’s called the ultradian rhythm — during which we move predictably toward fatigue. It’s possible to override this internal rhythm with coffee, or sugar, or even with our own adrenalin and cortisol, but that’s not optimal. Far better to create a boundary by building in a renewal break at least every 90 minutes at work, even if it’s only a minute or two of deep breathing, or a walk up and down some stairs.
My best daytime boundary is in the mornings. To insure that I have at least one period during the day to focus without interruption, I begin my days by turning off my email entirely, and spending 90 minutes on the most important activity on my plate. When I’m finished, I take a break. Often, I accomplish more valuable work during those 90 minutes than I do during the rest of the day.
Recently, I began setting aside one full day a week purely for writing, and for more creative, strategic thinking. I do it from home, where there are fewer tempting distractions. So far, I’ve only managed to protect an average of about half the day on my calendar. But every one of those hours has proved to be far more productive than my frequently interrupted time at the office.
A boundary requires two clear demarcations: a starting point and a finish line. The more of them we create, the more satisfying the time in between.