How Can I Set the Right Boundaries in a New Job?

MURIEL WILKINS: I am Muriel Wilkins, and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR podcast network. I’m a long-time executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who’ve hit a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them, so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease. I typically work with clients over the course of several months, but on this show we have a one-time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they’re facing. Today’s guest is someone we’ll call Sarah to protect her confidentiality. Early on, she chose a career path that would allow her to help people and she’s highly mission-driven.

SARAH: When I was managing my own teams, it was really supporting my direct reports into achieving whatever was next for them professionally and supporting them to be able to be the best that they could be for our organization. That was what brought me so much satisfaction. And around that same time, I experienced my first run-in with burnout and left a role that had just completely consumed me. I had one little one at the time, and there were plenty of days where I would be gone for meetings hours before she was awake. I’d be home hours after she went to bed. That was a big moment, career wise, for me of this kind of reckoning of, Your job can take over your life if you let it.

MURIEL WILKINS: After that experience, Sarah pivoted. Finding a role in a new industry with some of the same qualities around helping and guiding others. Once again, she ended up experiencing burnout and decided to take some time off from work. Now as she begins another position, she’s hoping to avoid the same burnout pattern.

SARAH: I love work. I love working. I love the satisfaction of working. I love working with leaders. I was very intentional about, I want my next job to be smaller. I intentionally took an individual contributor role in a capacity that I think I can bring a lot of value. I start my new job in a few days, and as I look ahead, I am asking myself the question, how do you stay out of burnout this time?

MURIEL WILKINS: Sarah’s looking for guidance to make sure she’s starting off her new job in the right mindset and to find ways to not repeat old patterns. I kicked off the coaching session by digging deeper into her decision to intentionally take a step back from leadership and to move into an individual contributor role.

SARAH: It felt like the right fit in my career at this moment for a few reasons. Number one, because I was intentionally making a pivot into a much more focused job content area, and I need to learn the ropes before I am going to be ready for management. For me, it felt like, Let’s start in an individual contributor role and see how that goes. Also, because I worry that maybe having beyond an individual contributor role was part of what was contributing to these experiences of burnout in the past.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. I’m curious, how do you define burnout? Because how you define burnout might be very different than how I define it, right? Just like my kids say when I make toast, they consider my toast burned and I consider it very appropriate.

SARAH: Delicious toast. My definition of burnout is when work comes first above everything else, and that is not only my practice of the work, but that is the expectation of the work. In the experiences I’ve had leading till now that have left me so burned out, people worked like they didn’t have families. People worked like nothing else mattered in their lives. I think it’s really that there’s just no room for anything but work. Work is all consuming.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right, help me understand. I know you said one of the examples you shared was that you were getting home… There were days where you just wouldn’t see your child because you were at work. Right? Help me understand what other indicators you had. That’s a big one. I’m not dismissing it, that’s a big one. What other indicators did you have that work was basically consuming everything for you?

SARAH: When you ask it that way, Muriel, it not only makes me think of work being all consuming, but it not being possible to accomplish everything that was on my plate to be accomplished, which was part of what was making work be so all consuming. Certainly, a huge indicator for me is I have more work on my plate than anyone could ever possibly dig out from underneath. And the stress and anxiety that comes with, “Oh Lord, there’s no way…” There’s just no way to ever dig out from under it. That the kind of weight and pressure is certainly an indicator that burnout is coming. Another big piece for me has been that I really struggle with not only that I am suffering under this mountain of work that… We’re understaffed, there’s no way to get it done. Then also watching all of my peers that I care about and want to help them be successful or my direct reports that I care about and want to help them be successful, that they are also struggling with realizing that we’re just never going to out from underneath this.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Clearly what I’m hearing from you is a lot of it was around what was happening around you, the expectations that were being placed in terms of the level of work and quantity of work that you had to do. How were those expectations being expressed? How did you know that those were the expectations?

SARAH: Very directly. I think in both circumstances I had bosses all over the place. There wasn’t just one clear line or one clear funnel for how work was coming. I’ve had the experience of bosses dropping a dozen new projects for me and my team to manage without having any understanding of scope and that everything was urgent, everything was communicated as an urgent priority. Those expectations were pretty explicit.

MURIEL WILKINS: Ultimately you decided to leave those circumstances? And you left, why?

SARAH: I left because I knew the work environment that I was in was taking a toll on my health, my ability to show up in the world the way that I want to show up in the world. I knew that it was not the right place for me to be able to thrive, much less survive.

MURIEL WILKINS: First of all, kudos to you for recognizing that it ain’t working. Most people just keep grinding it out, and making a choice and trying again. And now you’ve taken on a new role, and you’re trying one more time. Kudos to you. Thank you. And I’d be a fool to sit here and say that some of this is not circumstantial situational, and due to, as you said, expectations, environment, culture of what’s seen as how people need to behave in that particular workplace. And I think the fact that you were seeing it in others as well, tells me that there’s something cultural going on there. It’s not just Sarah, right? That said, I don’t have the culture in front of me. I have Sarah in front of me. I am curious about… because it seems like you’ve reflected on this a lot, I’m curious about how you think you’ve contributed to your experience of burnout?

SARAH: Muriel, this for me is the question because I know that there are cultural components and factors to burning out. I also am doing some exploration about what is it in me that has wound up in this place twice now. There’s something very satisfying about a job well done, and that has been something historically that has really motivated me. I like the gold stars that come with doing a good job at work. There is a people component to this. I have really enjoyed the camaraderie of good work friends. You forge some tight bonds when you’re in the fire together, and I think I sacrificed a lot for those relationships thinking that I could make the circumstances better when really we were fighting a big culture battle that me as one individual person was not going to put all but much of a dent in.

And I think I shouldered way too much responsibility in that capacity. I think it’s a little bit of, I’m not afraid of running toward fires. I’ve stepped into a leadership role voluntarily when the pandemic hit. I willingly took on a leadership role that was way beyond my capacity or abilities just for the sake of trying to be helpful and wanting to try to smooth the path for my team who had already been through a lot. Yeah, some of this I definitely do to myself.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. I’m hearing two things. One is the satisfaction you get from job well done, right? And the star. The other is the relational aspect and helping people out and shouldering the responsibility that really is a collective responsibility, but you’re taking it on your own. Help me understand what that looks like. I’m a concrete girl. Help me understand what that looks like in day-to-day life. As a result of those two things what are you more prone to do? If I was following you around for a day, and you are like, I love getting a job well done. I love the camaraderie. We’re all in it together. How does that drive how you act? What would I see if I followed you around, if I shadowed you for a day?

SARAH: If you followed me around for a day when I was investing deeply into both of those activities, you would see me engaging with other people a lot. I would spend a lot of time with the people around me, and some of that was… I had a lot of really smart colleagues that I got to work with and that we were doing awesome work together, and that brought me a lot of joy. And I would pursue those opportunities to work with really smart people, because I liked being in the room with them. And then you would probably also see me like, Oh man, I was supposed to leave the office half an hour to go because it was my day to do pickup. I got caught up and did not leave when I was supposed to leave. Now I’m feeling frantic and guilty and panicked, rushing to the pickup line, or rushing to dinner or whatever is next on where I cross over from my professional agenda to my personal agenda and obligations.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. All right. What makes you feel guilty about it? Because you made a choice, right? You just said, “Hey, I stayed here instead of going there, and yet I feel guilty.” Where’s the guilt from?

SARAH: I think the guilt is from… I would rather make the choice not to stay, but I keep making the choice to stay and sometimes that feels like a good choice and there are good things that come out of it, and sometimes that feels like a default choice that I’m not even consciously making. It’s more of a habit.

MURIEL WILKINS: And the habit serves you in what way?

SARAH: Investing heavily in those work relationships and then whatever work product comes out of those relationships.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. What I’m hearing from you, SARAH, is that work makes you feel good. You enjoy the relationships with your work people. You enjoy being around them, and you enjoy getting stuff done. It gives you a sense of satisfaction. How long-lasting is that satisfaction?

SARAH: Not long-lasting enough.

MURIEL WILKINS: Tell me more about that.

SARAH: I think the satisfaction feels temporary because there’s always another mountain to climb. There’s always something huge hanging out there that has been tossed onto my plate. I am not one to stop and celebrate the successes. I’m never one to sit in that satisfaction and think like, Yeah, that was fun. We did a really good job on that. Man, look at the amazing things we just accomplished. The satisfaction, I have memories of driving home in the car and being like, that was super cool. And then go to bed and wake up the next morning and the crushing weight of whatever comes next has replaced that feeling of satisfaction.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. When is it enough for you?

SARAH: I don’t know that there is a point of enough, and maybe that’s what I’ve been chasing all of this time.

MURIEL WILKINS: Look, you have two choices, right? You can either say, this is when something is enough, and I know I’ve met the goal and this is what brings me satisfaction and I stop. Or nothing is ever enough, which we know what that leads to.

SARAH: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right? You’re constantly chasing.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m not here to say one or the other. I’m just saying you’ve been operating from a place of like, Yes, I get huge sense of satisfaction from getting things done and being able to cross that finish line. But I’ve operated in a way where there is no finish line and that’s what then, in terms of the parts that you can own, leads you to continuously go, go, go, go. What would it look like for you to actually have some finish lines? What would those finish lines look like?

SARAH: What a really good question. I don’t know. I think I’ve run right through them in the past and never stopped to notice what they could possibly look like. What could a finish line look like? I have a hard time envisioning what a finish line could look like. I have an easier time when you say the word finish line, just envisioning there’s some space around me. I think in the past I have felt like things were just crushing down on me. What feels like a finish line is like, I have some breathing room.

MURIEL WILKINS: Where does that breathing room need to come from? I’m just going to share what I’m observing just through some of the words that you’re using. For example, you said, “Things are tossed at me.” Okay. Anything can be tossed at me. The difference is do I pick it up? Do I catch it? You could toss all the things you want as long as you don’t hit me with it, and even then you could hit me. If it’s snowball, you could hit me. It’ll melt right off. It might temporarily sting. But if you toss a ball at me, the difference is do I catch it? Do I pick it up when it’s fallen on the floor or do I see it fall as my old dog used to do. I’d throw the stick at my dog and she would just stare at it and then stare back at me, and wait for me to go pick it up, unless I had a treat.

Then she would actually pick it up. Not to compare us, you and I to dogs, although they’re lovely animals, sentient beings, but you get what I’m saying, right? Yes, things are being tossed at you, but what are you doing when things are being tossed at you? Yes. Expectations are coming down from this matrix. You have four different leaders who are all sending mandates of what needs to be done, and it’s super urgent and as you said, with no recognition of what’s happening in the other areas. What are you doing in those situations?

SARAH: At some point, I just accepted that it was the way it was and that you say, “Do you pick the stick up or not?” Man, I never even stopped to think that there was an option not to pick up the sticks.

MURIEL WILKINS: In order to help Sarah work through strategies for preventing burnout at her new job, I had to more deeply understand what led her into these situations in the past. The initial reasons she gave for burnout were organizational, which are valid and important context for me to understand. But ultimately, one person can’t change the entire culture of an organization. What they can do is uncover some of their thoughts or behaviors that might be contributing to their experiences, because that we can work to change.

For Sarah, we quickly uncovered that the culture contributed, but so did her deep connection to her coworkers and her desire to go above and beyond for them. Another factor was her own drive to do a good job and accomplish things. So, as she starts to gear up for this new role, one thing that I think might be helpful for her is to reframe how she thinks about her work and her colleagues, just to see there is more than one way of approaching the situation. The first step is to start talking through some alternate paths she could take to approach her career challenges. One option is definitely, it just is the way it is, and I’m just going to let them keep doing what they’re doing and I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. And we already know what that looks.

SARAH: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. It leads to what you’ve already said, burnout. Option number two is I’m going to wait until they stop setting all these crazy expectations, throwing all these balls at me, expecting me to work around the clock. I’m going to wait until they change the way they lead in that capacity. Until then I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, but I’m just going to wait. That’s certainly an option. Good luck.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Option number three is, okay, I see what’s happening. They just keep throwing things at me, right? They’re not communicating with each other. Everything’s always urgent. They keep throwing tasks at me. I see it’s not stopping no matter what I do. The list keeps going and going and going. Is there a way that I could change my response to this that will both give me work satisfaction and allow me to have camaraderie with my work colleagues and give me the breathing room and space that I believe I need? That option number three is the one you said, “Huh, I never knew that I even had that option.” Let’s explore that a little bit. Not saying it’s what you’re going to do, but I just want to explore it. What would it look like for you to change the way that you respond under the same circumstances?

SARAH: I think it would feel less like, This is happening to me. And more like, I have some agency in the way I work. I think culturally that would not have been an acceptable practice. I think that would’ve led to alienation and there was a lot of favoritism. Regardless of the specifics, I think ultimately that would’ve tanked my opportunities in the places where I’ve been in the past. Culturally, I think that the awareness I have and where I’m looking now, the job that I’m about to start, I have looked for somebody to work with who I can talk to easily. I think that those channels of communication being open are important. I have high hopes that a new environment and my eyes being open to the third way being possible, that I can find a space where I’m able to not only say, but then also be heard that, “Okay, we need to prioritize.” Or, “We need to shift some things around.” I don’t feel like I’ve had the ability to in the past.

MURIEL WILKINS: Of course. And in no way do we want to operate without any organizational awareness and understanding of what the dynamics are. What you have to be careful of is saying, “Huh, because those are the organizational dynamics and that’s the culture, I am left with…” As you said, “No agency. I have no choice.” You do have choice. We didn’t talk about option number four, but option number four is you exit, which is what you did, right? You leave the station. You exit stage, left, okay? Which you did. But, of course, given that this has happened in different types of environments for you, I think the question for you around like, Okay, what part do I play? What can I do so that if I go into another environment, even if it’s an environment where it feels like it’s more conducive to have these types of conversations around expectations and priorities, et cetera. I still am doing my part in trying to mitigate, minimize burnout as much as possible. Okay?

I want to try to get really tactical here because it’s important that we don’t just talk about this conceptually, but that you have some actions and some different ways of practicing burnout mitigation strategies, right?


MURIEL WILKINS: We’re going to call them very fancy word that we just made up. Okay. It was interesting to me because earlier in our conversation you said, “I actually do sort of run towards the fire.” That’s the word you used. And I had this image of you running towards the fire literally and then getting burned, like we’re talking about burnout. My question is, when a professional runs into the fire – a firefighter, right – they have on all this protective gear. The gear is there to protect what?

SARAH: Firefighter.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right. It’s there to not protect what? What does it not protect?

SARAH: The fire?

MURIEL WILKINS: The fire, exactly. It’s not there to protect the fire. It’s there to protect the firefighter. I want us to stick with this image, okay? Because I think you like the fire, and I’m not going to take that away from you. You like the challenge. You like the work. You took some time off from work and here you are saying, “Nope, I’m going back in.” Right? Okay.

SARAH: Being out of the fire is not the place for me. Please let me back in.

MURIEL WILKINS: I want us to think about, what’s your protective gear? I don’t think you’ve been wearing protective gear. I think you’ve just been like, I’ve got it, I’m running in, and then I’m waiting till I’m sizzling and I can’t do this, and then I’m out and then I go right back in. We don’t want that. We want you to be able to be in the fire and fight it, do your job. What’s a protective gear that you feel you need or that you think could work?

SARAH: Yeah, the first thing that comes to mind is access to and the willingness to use my own voice. I think the difference between the first work burnout experience and the second work burnout experience was that the first one, if we’re using the fire analogy, was a wildfire that blew out of nowhere. I was surprised at how fast it knocked me off my feet.

I think in the most recent work experience, I could see it coming. But I, for lots of reasons, my own reasons and cultural reasons, just did not feel like I could use my voice to say, “We got trouble. This is not working. There are lots of conflicting priorities happening here. This ship is going down.” I didn’t have the words to say it. It didn’t feel safe enough to say it. Didn’t use my voice. That makes me think that I need to stop and do some reflection on a more regular basis of like, “Is the ship going down?” What are the signs that I’m seeing that the ship might be taking on water? Or that the fire is spreading faster than we can manage it. Faster than I can manage it so that it doesn’t sneak up on me the way that it has felt sometimes like it’s snuck up on me before. That maybe more granular awareness feels important.

MURIEL WILKINS: And if you had that awareness, then what?

SARAH: I think if I had that awareness coupled with an environment where I feel like I can use my voice, I can advocate for myself. I think I do get better at that as I grow in my career. I think if I have the awareness and now have some more confidence in using my voice, I’m much better prepared to have a conversation with my leadership to say, “I’m seeing some things. I’m noticing that things aren’t going the way that we’re expecting. How can we work together to help shift and to help respond to what’s happening around us?”

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. That’s having conversations about how can we change the tide? What’s the conversation that Sarah needs to have with herself around what Sarah needs to do today to be able to deal with this storm, this fire that’s coming, and that’s spreading wildly?

SARAH: Again, this vision of clear space around me. I think that busyness and connection and people around me has always felt like success and has movement and felt like we were accomplishing things. I actually think that what would be more helpful is I need to create some space for myself in order to either be able to be responsive or be able to slow down and move through whatever the changing winds are a little more methodically so that I’m not caught so off guard.

MURIEL WILKINS: When we think about space, and I’m seeing you as you’re talking about, you’re using hand gestures. When things are coming in at you, we have less space, we feel constricted. When we have more space, things are pushed out away from us. What are the things that you would need to create space from, and how would you do that? Because things are coming into your space and you’re letting them and you’re letting them by doing what?

SARAH: I think I’m not communicating that what may be coming into my space with a label of urgent is not urgent like some of the other things that are already in my space.

MURIEL WILKINS: Either it’s not urgent or it’s not welcome. When somebody comes to your house, how do they come to your house? Do they just barge the door open and walk in? And if they do do that… I’m curious, do you have people do that?

SARAH: Well, we’ve got neighborhood kids that are constantly barging in, but I’m thinking…

MURIEL WILKINS: And what do you do?

SARAH: Most of the time I greet them with a hug because I’m really glad to see them, but sometimes I’m like, “Man, I really wish they had knocked first.”

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, awesome. When that happens, what do you say? I’m the kid. I barge in and you’re like, “I really wish they had knocked first.” Right? That’s what went inside your… Then what do you say to the kid?

SARAH: “Hey bud, we’re getting ready to leave. You can’t stay. We got to go. Move it out.”

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, what did you not say to that kid? “Hey, ring the doorbell next time.” Or, “You know what? I love that you’re here and we actually can’t hang out because we’re about to go out. You know what? When you come over, I’d really appreciate it if you would ring the doorbell before you came in.” But I love the fact that 95% of the time – I’m putting a percentage on it – you’re like, “I just give them a big hug and laugh.” Okay, let’s think about this in the workplace. I think this is what’s happening at work.


MURIEL WILKINS: The stuff’s coming in your office and you’re not saying, “Knock first.” You’re not saying, “Yeah, nope, not now, later.” Or you’re not saying, “Actually you’re not invited here.” Right? Who are you?

SARAH: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: I don’t know this kid. I’ve never seen you around. You’re just saying, “Oh, come on in. Let me give you a big fat hug and make you comfortable.” And guess what happens when you do that?

SARAH: They just keep coming. They just keep, keep coming.

MURIEL WILKINS: They just keep coming, which is amazing if that’s what you want. But what I’m hearing from you is that’s not what you want. You want some, but you don’t want it all the time, every time.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s put that in the workplace, really tactical. Tasks are coming your way. People are wanting to engage with you.


MURIEL WILKINS: And you love it. They give you the warm and fuzzies. You love crossing tasks off your list, and you love being collegial and having the relationships, and you also want some space. What are some of the things that you could be saying or doing to create space?

SARAH: Oof, I think so much of it has to start with awareness. As you’re reflecting back to me what I’m saying to you, it kicks me in the fields, Muriel, because there are so many times where I’ve known that in a work capacity, my coworkers were in really awful situations and I wanted to be the most pleasant person they interacted with during the day, because everything else was just garbage. And I just wanted to be an easy, bright spot when there weren’t a lot of those. I certainly think that changing circumstances and getting out of that was maybe even more important than I realized. If I’m starting fresh, then I don’t want to start out on that foot. I don’t want to be looking for problems to step in and be somebody’s bright spot, especially going into a new job. I want to be helpful and I want to be collegial, but I don’t want to fall back into that tendency of mine of swooping into the rescue.

I think walking in with some awareness… Because I think that creates space to begin with. Instead of day one feeling like things are crushing in on me, giving myself some time to get acclimated and to get a better understanding of what the dynamics are, what the politics and the dynamics are around me, the team dynamics are around me, feels important. Then thinking about the other, what are the signs that burnout is coming? Well, it’s that I would pack my days with people and then I would come home and still have to do the work. My evenings were filled with all of the work and that it would be okay to leave some blank space in my daily itinerary to do the work.

MURIEL WILKINS: If you did that, if you put some space in your day to do the work, what would that mean you would have to do with the people?

SARAH: Be less available. Be less time available and less emotionally available.

MURIEL WILKINS: This, my friend, Sarah, is what we call “boundaries,” and it’s our ability to say, “Oh my gosh, that sounds great. No, I can’t meet with you today at ten o’clock and I might not ever be able to meet with you.” Or, “I might be able to meet with you next week.” You’ve got to figure it out, right? Oftentimes, we think boundaries are against the other person, but the boundaries are really there to protect yourself. They are your protective gear. The protective gear that firefighters wear are a boundary between them to protect them from what’s out there, from the fire.

What is interesting to me and what you’ve said is you said, “I just wanted to be a light to all these people.” But when you think about burnout, the light fizzles, the light goes away. Brené Brown says something, I can’t remember in which of her books, but she talks about how compassion, which is really about being that light for other people, being a witness to other people’s pain and suffering, I’m using the words that you’ve used, is not possible without boundaries because you fizzle out. She said it much more eloquently than what I’m saying. We can’t separate the two. One is in service of the other, but what it requires is to have some self-compassion in order to place the boundaries, which means, “Hey, as much as you’re wanting to be there for other people, what are you doing to be there for yourself?”

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what are you putting in place? I appreciate and hugely respect your starting point around awareness, and that is definitely what needs to be at the foundation. Then we need to add in the action because awareness just for the sake of awareness, is just awareness. It doesn’t necessarily lead to anything. This is why I’m pushing you around the action. I think when you say, “Hey, if I have an awareness, I think I need to have more space in my calendar in terms of time, but I also need emotional space.” Okay, what does that translate to in terms of what you say or what you don’t say or what you do or what you don’t do? How does that translate to your to-do list? Let me throw one at you, okay? What would it look like if going into this job you were like, “Non-negotiable. I leave at 6:00.” As I say that to you, how does it make you feel?

SARAH: It’s scandalous, Muriel. It sounds so good. I’m like, “Oh my God. Do people say that? Do people actually say that and have that respected?”

MURIEL WILKINS: Here’s the thing, I think you’re in this vicious cycle with yourself because even the words you just used, like when you say, “Do people say that and they’re respected?” Well, I don’t know in this new place, but do you respect that?

SARAH: Absolutely.


Okay. You said you haven’t even started this job yet, and I’m not saying this is the particular one, but you’ve got to start somewhere because I feel like what’s happening is you’re waiting for people to tell you what’s permissible.


MURIEL WILKINS: It’s like you’re at your house and you’re waiting for somebody to tell you, “This is what’s acceptable in terms of what to eat.” Versus saying, “Oh, I want to eat fruits and vegetables.” And that’s what I eat. Right? Then if somebody else is like, “Nope, you shouldn’t eat that.” Then I’ll pay attention to that. I’m just saying there’s a different starting point and are you willing to basically say, “Here are my standards. Here are my rules of engagement.” And then let me see how they play out.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: As Sarah pointed out, awareness is a really important step here, as well as in a lot of my coaching conversations. It’s about sorting out exactly what is causing a problem for you and what about that is truly in your control. Then we can start breaking down what your goals are and some possible options for changing your situation. As Sarah goes into this role, she’s learned that she really needs to think about boundaries that she can put up. We’ve let it sink in why this is so important for her, and now it’s time to get tangible and tactical. Let’s listen, as Sarah starts thinking about some reasonable rules of engagement she might want to try out as she begins this new career chapter.

SARAH: There are certain days that I do drop off and pick up and that I take the time either in the morning or in the afternoon to be done with work and that I’m going to transition and be fully mom.


SARAH: And that is meaningful space to me. That is something that I’ve sacrificed way too easily that I don’t want to lose again.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. One would be drop off and pick up. That’s number one. Let’s come up with three. So scandalous.

SARAH: So scandalous. Gosh, if I’m dreaming, if this is like pie in the sky, I can do whatever I want, I would love to have no meetings on Monday mornings. Let’s take Monday mornings to get ourselves organized and get focused for the week, and I’m not available on Thursdays from 12:00 to 1:00 while I go do whatever it is that fills my cup up outside of constantly chasing the sense of accomplishment and the gold stars at work.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Look, do I know if these are going to work? I don’t know, but I think they’re worth trying. And as a frame of reference, I’m just going to put it out there for you. I talk to a lot of people. I meet a lot of people. I’ve seen a lot of organizations. The things you’re listing here are not wildly exorbitant to at least try. Even this notion of no meetings on Mondays, you’re having a meeting. It’s just not with other people.

SARAH: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think it would be helpful for you to just at least pilot.

SARAH: We’re not over committing.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right. Not yet, because I sense your hesitation, so why don’t we pilot these practices, okay? And they are your protective gear, your firefighting gear. In case the fire comes, you’re ready, your armor.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: I also think it would be worthwhile to go back to this sense of satisfaction that you get from chasing the list to getting things done and being there for other people to rescue, which is a form of getting things done. You framed it as a sense of satisfaction. I get the sense that it also is how you define your success. How does that land with you when I say that?

SARAH: It definitely resonates. The year that I have spent not working has felt long and particularly aimless, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about, “Well, why has it felt so aimless?” And it’s because there’s just not the energy that I have always associated with accomplishing something and the success that comes along with that energy required to accomplish something. It definitely resonates as the definition I’ve been operating under a success in the past.


Okay. Look, if that’s how you want to define it, that’s how you want to define it. I think the question is, are you defining it in a contained way? Which goes back to like, How much do you know when you’ve accomplished enough? Because the list will never stop.

SARAH: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: What you said around like there’s this stress of work is never done. Well, the work is never done. There’s always going to be work. There’s always something to do.

SARAH: Sure.


SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: When do you know that you’re done?

SARAH: Well, I have never known that I’ve done. I’ve only known that I’ve been done when I’ve landed in a major medical crisis.

MURIEL WILKINS: When somebody else tells you, you’re done, that’s it, Sarah. Is there the possibility that you could say, “I’m done. I’m done with this.” Or at least for today. There’s a story and I’m going to mess it up. I can’t source it, but I read it in an article somewhere about a gentleman, I believe he’s a monk, and he lives in this monastery where they work from eight o’clock in the morning till noon.

Again, I’m really messing it up, but you’ll get the point. They work from eight o’clock till noon, and then after that they don’t work. He doesn’t work. Whatever it got done by noon or 12:30, they’re done and they do serious work. It’s not like because they’re monks and all that, they’re doing serious work on the land and [inaudible 00:43:39]. There’s always something to be done, but 12:30, that’s it. Work ends. And then they go into contemplative practice and all that. The writer of this story asked this monk like, “Man, how do you deal with that? Just stopping at 12:30 knowing that you didn’t finish the things on your list.” Basically what you’re saying. And he said, “You just get over it.” You just get over it, because guess what? It’s going to be there tomorrow. It’s never done. You get over the notion that it’s never done. Now that’s putting it very bluntly.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think what this story really teaches is it’s not the issue about the work not getting done that’s the problem, it’s our discomfort with us not finishing it because we identify ourselves with finishing. So, rather than chasing finishing the list, can you work on being comfortable with that list never being finished?

SARAH: I think as I take that in, I have two reactions and I am trying to examine everything from this place of what am I bringing to the table and then what is the environment the table’s in? I’m getting a lot of green flags. I’m getting a lot of good signs from the people I’m about to go work for that we do what we do for today, and then we pick it back up tomorrow. We stop at 12:30 today and we pick it back up again tomorrow. And that makes me very excited for a fresh environment because I said earlier, “Do people actually set boundaries and have those respected?”

I’m seeing nothing but green flags that where I’m about to go is a place that will respect boundaries and that it’s my job and my work to set those boundaries and not swim upstream. I don’t want to be the one rocking the boat and being like, we have to finish, I’m going to work all night to finish this one thing. If that’s not the culture of the team, and I think having some awareness for me about like, That’s not so far what I’m seeing, how this team operates at all.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right, and not just because it’s not the culture of the team, but it’s also because it’s not what you want. At least based on what you brought to our conversation today. You don’t want to get burned out, so why would you do that? You would only do it if you’re chasing this sense of, I’m only satisfied if I work at this level. You’ve got to choose which one is it, right? Warren Buffett – people say that he said this, whether he did or not, I don’t know. I was not in the room. Basically he said like, “Make a list of all the things that you want to say yes to, all the things you want to do, and then cross out everything but the top five.” And not as like, Oh, I’m going to get to the other 50 gazillion things later. He’s like, Just say bye-bye. Right?

I’m focusing on these five. That’s it. Which is very different than the bucket list, right? The bucket list is it’s like the to-do list. Let me write down everything that I want to do and then get stressed, because I realize I only have 24 hours in a day and there’s no way in hell I can get all those things done. A different approach is to say, “Yeah, I have limits. I have 24 hours.” Or, “I have eight because I’m going to go pick up my kid at 6:00. I only have eight hours.” What is possible that I can get done in eight hours? Let me be realistic. And let me communicate that to others. That’s what’s called managing expectations. Let me focus on what the four or five things I can get done. That’s what we call prioritization.

Let me have the conversations to align around that. That’s called communication. And let’s hope, as you said, that the environment that I’m in allows me to do that, but without prioritizing, without communicating and without managing expectations, you’re just sitting there hoping that it’ll all work out in your favor, regardless of the environment. Yes, environment is important, but your role is to do the three things we just talked about. You still are going to have to do that. You’re still going to have to prioritize. You’re still going to have to be realistic about what can happen. You’re still going to have to communicate. You’re still going to have to manage expectations. Does that make sense?

SARAH: Oh, it makes complete sense.


SARAH: No, there’s no and. I think back, I’ve done it before. There were other jobs and other roles and responsibilities that I didn’t burn out. And as I hear you remind me of the things that I am responsible for, I did those really well. I know I can do it. I think it’s nice to have a moment to reflect on, “I have done this before.”

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, that’s great.

SARAH: I don’t know where I strayed off the path, but I have done this before.

MURIEL WILKINS: Cut yourself some slack, right? You stray off the path because you went into environment where it was not welcomed or it was not possible. Maybe you did do those things and it didn’t lead to the sustainability that you wanted, okay? Everything that we’re talking about, it’s not going to guarantee that you’ll never get burned out again, but I do think it increases your chances that you’ll be aware that you’re on that path and then you can decide what to do at that time.

SARAH: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay? But you have to be careful as you’re going into this new job that you don’t say… Eyes wide open, you don’t want what happened before to happen again, in terms of the environment. You also don’t want what happened before in terms of the pattern that you fell into to happen again. Eyes wide open and recognize that it’s a new environment and as you’ve said, you’ve gotten a lot of green flags. Okay, let’s see if those green flags bear out to be true.

SARAH: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right, let’s recap. I’d love to hear how you’re feeling now versus at the beginning of our conversation.

SARAH: Man, it’s eye-opening to see my reflection in this mirror, and I think that that is empowering. I can stop letting kids in my front door. It seems so simple in that context. It seems so simple and obvious in the context of, “Hey guys, ring the doorbell first.” And how far away I had gotten from the practice of saying, “Ring the doorbell.” And it’s just that simple. There’s no morality attached to it. There’s no winning over anybody’s approval. It’s not attached to my ability to be successful. I just had forgotten to say like, “Ring the doorbell.” In that context, it feels a lot easier to think like, “I can say ring the doorbell.” I think that I came into this conversation thinking that I had some really enormous hurdles to break down before I start this new job. When in reality it’s just, “Okay, ring the doorbell.”

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, I love it.

SARAH: It’s not hard.

MURIEL WILKINS: I love it. Ring the doorbell. Okay.

SARAH: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think that’s a great mantra to use.

SARAH: Yeah. Ring the doorbell.

MURIEL WILKINS: And they can still get a hug after they ring the doorbell. How about that?

SARAH: Exactly. I still get to be the person I want to be once they’re in my house, but we’re just not starting from a place of assuming that you’re barging into my house.

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right. That’s right. Wonderful. All right, Sarahs, let me know how it goes.

SARAH: I will. Thank you so much, Muriel. I appreciate it.

MURIEL WILKINS: When you’re facing a situation like Sarah, awareness is important, as I’ve said, but so is acceptance – because a lot of her strategy around going into this new role and looking to avoid burnout is also being comfortable with the idea that the to-do list will never be done, and that’s okay. The lessons from this conversation are really important for many people, even if they aren’t currently changing roles or facing burnout, because by the time you realize you’re burned out, it might be too late to make the small changes to fix the situation. It’s great to be proactive and you can test out those small changes. It’s good to remember that piloting these practices also means you don’t have to do anything forever, but try some experiments. It’s the only way to know if doing something differently will lead to different results.

That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders and for this season. We’ll be taking a hiatus over the summer. As we’ve learned today, breaks are good for everyone to reset and refresh. In the meantime, you can catch up on any past episodes you’ve missed in your favorite podcast app. And before you go, I have a really important ask of you. If you love these coaching conversations, it would mean the world to me if you head over to Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen and leave a five-star review.

Better yet, share it with your friends and family and encourage them to subscribe. If you want more of Coaching Real Leaders, join my community where I host live discussions to unpack every episode and answer your questions. Become a member at You can also connect with me on LinkedIn at Muriel Wilkins. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe; sound editor, Nick Crnko; music composer, Brian Campbell; my assistant, Emily Sofa; and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations and to you, our listeners, who share in their journeys. If you are dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show. Apply at From HBR podcast network, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.

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