Sand or stone: Where do you draw the line?


A boundary, as defined by, is “something that indicates bounds or limits.”

While some people may choose to view boundaries as something that can restrict their progress, other – perhaps wiser – people view boundaries as something to keep them safe. Just think of the high walls built around power stations, the lowered crossing guards where a train intersects a city street, or the solid yellow lines that tell American drivers “do not cross”. Such boundaries definitely restrict our activities…and we’re safer for it.

Business boundaries, on the other hand, typically have more to do with emotional or psychological limits you set on (a) your choices and activities as well as on (b) the actions of other people whom you encounter in the course of doing business. Although they are non-physical, the quality of these boundaries can make or break your business.

Boundaries typically come in three flavors.

Porous boundaries are more show than substance; they don’t really serve to impose limits, because there’s nothing backing them up. It’s like trying to rope off a deep hole in the ground with a piece of sewing thread; even if people notice it in the first place, they can easily get around or under or through it to explore that deep hole if they really want to.

Rigid boundaries are ones that could knock unconscious anyone who runs into them. They’re unyielding, unchanging, and excellent at keeping things separate.

Strong boundaries combine the positive attributes of the other types. A strong boundary is one that maintains well-defined limits while, at the same time, allowing for strategically chosen people/actions/events to get through to the other side.

So what does that have to do with business success?

There are so many things clamoring for your attention, it’s crucial to establish strong boundaries that protect the time, space, and energy your business deserves. At the same time, it’s important to provide for some flexibility in terms of what gets past your boundaries; if you don’t, you risk missing out on unexpected opportunities.

Is this a tricky balancing act? You bet.

If you allow energy-sucking, time-wasting activities or people to trespass your business boundaries at will, you’re all too likely to come to the end of a work day and wonder where in the world your time went – you were in your office all day, but you’re hard pressed to point to anything you got done that was part of your strategic plan for growing your business.

This potential challenge is made even more exciting for the many solopreneurs who office out of their homes. If you work from a home office and have even one other family member to deal with (I include furry creatures in this definition), you know all about the way those family members often think you’re available to them simply because you’re physically present at home when they want your attention.

For some, however, boundaries go beyond strength into rigidity.  If this is true for you, you’re likely to shut down your awareness of possible actions that, while not part of your original plan, would powerfully contribute to getting you where you want to go.

So how do you go about ensuring your boundaries work for you, rather than against you? The first step is to tune in to what your boundaries currently look like, so you can determine whether they’re porous, rigid, or simply strong. (Think of this as the “Goldilocks and the three bears” approach to setting boundaries. You don’t want ones that are too loose, nor ones that are too tight, but instead are just right.)

Success requires focus and commitment AND flexibility.

Let’s start by looking at porous boundaries.

You may have a problem with setting wimpy limits if you realize:

This applies to a puppy continually dropping her ball at your feet in an invitation to play, a child coming into your office complaining he’s bored and wanting you to do something about it, or prospects talking you into giving them a discount simply because they don’t want to pay full fare for your service.

This does nobody any good: You diminish your own power and self-confidence while increasing your stress; the other person continues to be clueless that they’ve trespassed; and the cycle is likely to repeat itself long into the future. A perfect lose/lose situation.

Unfortunately, I had more experience with this particular scenario than I could have wished, until I figured out a way around it.lines in the sand by Ian.Kobylanski

My husband is semi-retired, while I – a classic late bloomer – am in business-building mode. Joseph would frequently just plop down in my office or stand in the doorway and start talking to me, despite the fact that I was focused on working at my computer. What I thought was obvious work mode looked more to him like “Oh, wow, she’s home, so we can visit” mode.

I got cranky because I thought he “should” be able to tell I was working, and it took me a ridiculously long time to admit that my results were not going to improve without me being more intentional, clear, and assertive.

So I figured out a way to combine flexibility with firmness. If it turns out Joseph just has a quick question or comment for me, I’ll pause what I’m doing. (Important marriage tip: Don’t ignore your spouse.) But if it turns out he’s just wanting to chat or have a leisurely discussion, I’ll tell him that I’m on task and want to postpone our talk until I’m done.

This seems to create the best of both worlds for us. I don’t get obsessively focused on work to the detriment of a key personal relationship, nor do I willy-nilly sacrifice my business effectiveness. It may have taken a while to establish this protocol, but it’s been well worth it for both of us.

This often happens because you’re not clear on what outcomes you’ve committed to create, which means that you’re prone to the business equivalent of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. (Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you it’s a lot more fun and rewarding to do this with pasta than it is to try it with high-priced business-building tools that are wrong for your business.)

Are your boundaries strong or rigid?As for rigid boundaries, they come with their own set of clues, as well. You may be suffering from counterproductive rigidity if:

A firm commitment to a well-thought-out course of action is one thing; blind adherence to a plan even in the face of countervailing arguments is something else entirely. Failing to accept and appropriately act on input can cost you big time in terms of wasted time, money, and energy.

This relates closely to the first clue. Getting defensive when challenged is often a good sign that you’re choosing NOT to consider unexpected input that could help you make a more powerful decision. It may feel easier in the short run not to add additional data to your decision-making process, but taking that easy route can come back to bite you later in the form of disappointing results.

Say you “always” insist on getting paid for all speaking gigs, even short ones. Then an organization comprised of your ideal clients asks you to speak pro bono in exchange for getting the contact information for all attendees, being listed as a sponsor in all their marketing materials (complete with links to your website), and being allowed to sell your products in the back of the room. If you refuse to budge from your “no pro bono” stance, you miss the opportunity to put yourself in front of scores or even hundreds of your ideal clients. Is that really a good trade-off in terms of long-term business success?


Clearly, having either porous or rigid boundaries is going to work against you. The question then becomes, what do appropriately strong boundaries look like, and what can they do for your business success? That’s a topic we’ll explore next week.

But for now, what’s been your experience with managing boundaries? Do you find you have an easier time in some situations than in others? What has helped you to be firm but not rigid?

Or are you one of the not-uncommon entrepreneurs who’s found herself in a pendulum swing from porous to rigid and back to porous, because you can’t quite figure out what deserves your attention and what doesn’t? If that’s the case, it might be worthwhile to spend some time chatting.

My specialty is showing entrepreneurs how to get clear on what they want to accomplish, identify and focus on only those tasks which will propel them toward the goal, and follow through on their carefully crafted action plans.

Is that something I can do for you? Maybe. Maybe not.

The only way to tell if we’d work well together to get you out of overwhelm and into overdrive is to go on a first date with each other. By asking and answering some questions, both of us will get a good sense of whether we’d make a fabulous team or if we’re simply not suited to one another. Nobody is committed to anything beyond that first date – until and unless we both agree we want to move forward.

If that sounds worth exploring, it’s easy to set up a get-acquainted call. Just let me know when you’re available to talk by calling me at 319-270-1214 or emailing me with “It’s time for good boundaries!” in the subject line. We’ll arrange a time to talk, explore the possibilities, and see what shakes out.

(By the way, thanks to Ian.Kobylanski for the image of the lines in sand and to McKay Savage for the image of the stone wall.  I found both in the Creative Commons section of Flickr.)

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One Response to Sand or stone: Where do you draw the line?

  1. Pingback: Caught any trespassers lately? | Stepping Into Big

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