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The pressures at work these days are unrelenting.

And they seem to point in one direction if you are trying to advance in your career: Putting in more (and more and more) hours on your work.

But consultant Scott Eblin says it's a trap. More significantly, he argues on his blog there are people succeeding by taking an opposite tack. They aren't slackers, but they have boundaries. And they can make it work.

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He tells the story of a workshop he led of high potentials, where everyone was lamenting how between their personal and company-issued smartphones, they were always available – expected to be on call and alert for e-mails they needed to answer.

But one fellow mentioned that actually wasn't true for him: He had given back his company's smartphone after realizing a year earlier that monitoring his company phone 24/7 was literally killing him; his blood pressure was high and his health was deteriorating. He decided that it was either going to be his job or his phone – one of them had to go.

"His boss asked if he really meant it and if he really wanted to work at the company," Mr. Eblin writes. "The guy in my program explained that he did but not at the expense of his life. A year later, he was healthier, more productive and sitting in a program with a roomful of colleagues who, like himself, were designated high-potential leaders. Giving the company-issued phone back worked for him."

Paying more attention to this phenomenon, Mr. Eblin says we don't seem to notice that there is often one person like that in each group choosing to do things differently in the interest of living at his or her best. Here's four guidelines he says to follow:

  • Know what you need: In the examples he has watched, each individual had a clear sense of what they needed, such as less chronic stress, more time for fitness and more space to work on important priorities. To get what you need, you have to know what it is and be able to articulate it.
     
  • Set some boundaries: In each of the examples, the individual erected boundaries to get what they needed. “There are two important questions to ask yourself about boundaries. The first is, do you have any? The second is, if you do, does anyone else know what they are? If they don’t, you may as well not have the boundaries in the first place,” he says.
     
  • Do kick-ass work: The only way you get the opportunity to set and enforce boundaries is to do superlative work. In all his examples, that was true. “When you do kick-ass work, you’re much more likely to get some margin. The great thing about that is that more margin enables you to do more kick-ass work. It’s a virtuous cycle,” he writes.
     
  • Be willing to walk: In a number of situations he studied, the individual was ready to quit if they didn’t get what they needed. This might sound radical but if you want to lead a great and long life, it’s essential.

New Zealand life coach Louise Thompson writes in The New Zealand Herald that we need to remember while boundaries can sound like new-age psycho-babble, essentially they are just fencing – an internally defined fence that you use to keep good things in and to keep bad things out. "It's literally that simple. They are just a series of psychological fences that you use to keep yourself safe," she says.

She suggests pondering where that fencing is solid and where it is weak, giving yourself a score out of 10 on key areas such as time and commitments, your physical health, mental health, emotional health and material-financial requirements. With boundaries, she says, clarity and consistency are critical (also, of course, as Mr. Eblin says, courage – the determination to push for what you want, even if it could mean risking your job).

First, make sure your boundaries have been clearly stated. "This might seem pretty damn obvious, but I promise you the most usual cause of boundaries being stomped all over is that they have not been defined with clarity of expectation to the individuals in question in the first place," Ms. Thompson writes in a second article.

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Complaining solves nothing and sucks energy. Ask whoever you need to for what you expect. And don't worry excessively about conflict. "When you start applying this principle, what you will find in practice is that the vast majority of the time other people welcome the clarity and direction (often they have no idea they are driving you round the bend) and will happily comply with what you need," she notes.

And be consistent. You cannot expect other people to respect your boundaries if you are not consistently respecting it yourself.

One boundary you might want to consider is vacation e-mail. On Harvard Business Review blogs, Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, points to two problems we face with e-mail on vacation.

The most obvious one is that even when away from work, we are still available to colleagues at work or likely to check up on things through scanning our inbox. "After all, the mere presence of a phone, even unused, stresses us out," she says, citing a recent study that found we give that mobile "privileged attentional space" so it represents more to us than whatever else is going on.

More insidious perhaps, but less discussed, is the mountain of e-mail that will await us upon our return. A study – U.S. Travel Association's Project: Time Off – highlighted the great number of people not taking their full vacation and found an increasing number, 43 per cent, cited the fear of the stack of e-mail that would pile up as a reason. Like Mr. Eblin, she says you should be taking the time you need for yourself: Researchers found that people who take time off are more likely to get a raise or promotion.

You can use technology to fight technology. The health and wellness company Ms. Huffington started after leaving HuffPost has created Thrive Away, an app which, when you're on vacation, automatically sends a message to people who e-mail you letting them know when you'll be back. Then comes the kicker: It deletes the e-mail.

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"If the e-mail is important, the sender can always send it again. If it's not, then it's not waiting for you when you get back, or, even worse, tempting you to read it while you're away. So the key is not just that the tool is creating a wall between you and your e-mail; it's that it frees you from the mounting anxiety of having a mounting pile of e-mails waiting for you on your return – the stress of which mitigates the benefits of disconnecting in the first place," she writes.

As Mr. Eblin says: You can be the person in your group who takes the lead. It may seem scary. But he argues these decisions to stand up for your health pay off for your career rather than derailing it.

2. Quick hits

  • Do you really have to stay at a job for a year, if it’s not right for you, just to keep your resume clean? HR consultant Alison Green says if the work is not what you were promised, or its terms significantly change, or it puts your health or safety at risk, you can walk away. But the catch is you can only do it once with impunity; the second time, potential employers will be less forgiving.
     
  • Try taking productivity advice from the King of Hearts, in Alice in Wonderland, who famously said, “Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end; then stop.” HR consultant Tim Sackett urges you to follow those three steps with your various work projects. Begin. Go to the end. Stop.
     
  • Unilever chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed says it’s time for marketers to stop creating ads with gender stereotypes. His company’s research found that progressive advertisements are 25 per cent more effective than those featuring more traditional portrayals of gender.
     
  • Successful leaders do tough things, says leadership trainer Dan Rockwell, but don’t let that divert you from the soft side of leadership. Those tough things should be done with openness, kindness and empathy.
     
  • Next time you’re in hiring mode, be humble about your abilities. Bryant University professor Michael Roberto says a study found that the chance a player picked in the NFL draft eventually played better than the person picked just behind him was 52 per cent, essentially a coin toss. And that came after considerable research and data on the potential picks.
Video: Talking Management: How introverted bosses can better manage extroverted employees (Special to Globe and Mail Update)
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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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