Shirin Etessam is an entrepreneur (founder, OML TV) and transformational speaker. Her first book will be released in June 2023.

Almost 2,500 years ago, in the Tao-te-Ching, Lao Tzu advised: “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” In the busyness of the digital world, many of us believe no one living so long ago can comprehend our 21st-century lives and the challenges we face, but somehow Lao Tzu knew. He understood the reality of burnout, the self-discipline needed in business and the real challenge of boundaries—the paradox of our lives.

Boundaries in business are crucial in the 21st century, yet the question remains, “How do we establish healthy boundaries so we can be both productive and happy in our professional and personal lives?” Every day we are faced with the challenge of setting boundaries as we strive to make the deals and climb the corporate ladder, but the truth is without the ability to set boundaries—knowing our yes, our maybe and our hell no and honoring them—we can never be as productive, as successful or as happy as we hope to be.

Facing The Challenges

In the workplace, we face a variety of challenges daily, including but not limited to the types of boundaries. Physical boundaries are often the easiest to set because they relate to our personal space and how we interact with individuals in the corporate environment. Emotional boundaries are more of a challenge because not only do they help us manage our own emotions but they also guide us as we separate our emotions from the emotions of others while also allowing us to express empathy. Setting mental boundaries is an even greater challenge but these boundaries help us maintain the focus and energy to be our most productive while also safeguarding our mental health.

Overcoming the challenge of setting boundaries is crucial to your success. Healthy and professional boundaries help you avoid workplace drama and distractions so you can be more productive with lower levels of stress. Managing work-related issues through boundaries enables you to maintain a realistic workload in which you work reasonable hours while focusing on your unique work responsibilities. When you set beneficial boundaries, you can also better avoid burnout from excess stress and unrealistic expectations. Most importantly, your boundaries can act as an example for others and, in turn, help to create a healthier, happier culture for everyone with whom you work.


Let your yes be yes and honor your no. Self-discipline is defined as the ability to control your feelings and overcome your weaknesses—the ability to pursue what you think is right despite temptations to abandon your position. Self-discipline plays a huge role in facing the challenge of boundaries in the workplace and overcoming them. It requires that you honor your yeses and your hell-nos and consider well your maybes. Only when you honor them will your co-workers and colleagues do so as well. How do you do it?

In order to do so you must understand the tasks that make up your workload and the number of tasks you can reasonably take on in your workday. When you do, you can set your own unique pace as you gain the ability to set boundaries and stay productive during your day. With your new understanding, you can set limits—priorities, schedules, expectations and more. Setting a work schedule and sharing it with your co-workers not only helps you stay focused but also reminds your colleagues of your accessibility.

As you set boundaries at work, you’ll also need to set them at home so you don’t end up allowing work tasks to cross over and compete with your downtime. You may need practice to maintain your new boundaries, including rehearsing the ways to professionally and politely say no when the need arises. Saying no is difficult for most people, especially in the workplace, and it may lead to confrontations regarding the boundaries you have put in place. Never fear; you can prepare for conflicts by remembering the reason for your boundaries and communicating them with patience and calm when confrontations arise.

Priorities And Practices

Meeting the challenge and setting your boundaries begins best with an assessment of your personal priorities as well as the priorities of your position in your company. Your priorities can then help you determine your boundaries without interfering with your job responsibilities. The follow-through comes as you put those priorities into practice with healthy professional work boundaries. Open, honest communication enables you to explain and express your boundaries to others and create a healthier culture at work. Building beneficial professional relationships is also a crucial part of the process, as these respected colleagues and co-workers can help you maintain your boundaries and your work-life balance. Another crucial aspect of setting boundaries is the ability to delegate tasks. Delegating allows you the ability to not only manage your workload but maintain your focus and productivity.

Finally, remember the wise words of Lao Tzu: “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” Set a practice to “step back”—doing the work but also creating a separation with your boundaries to care for yourself and your needs. While stepping back can mean literal time off, it can also be an admonition to avoid getting caught up in emotional and mental dramas at work. It is crucial to create a work environment that you don’t need a vacation from, but equally important is to take time to relax and refocus away from work; both promise to deliver a fresh outlook, greater drive and enhanced productivity.

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