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Hey everyone! Happy 2023!

I hope your new year is off to a good start.

Have you taken the time to reflect on the last year and what you want to achieve with your writing this year? If not, listen to the episode “Do a Year-End Reflection.”

Today I’m going to be re-releasing one of my favorite podcast episodes, which helps you set clear and sustainable boundaries with your job.

It is based on an exercise I call “Semester Absolutes” that is best to do at the very beginning of your semester before things get overly hectic and you start just saying yes to everything.

Trust me, if you set your limits ahead of time and then truly commit to honoring them, you will vastly lower your chances of exhausting yourself and burning out.

Before we start, I just wanted to let you know that this year I am focused only on private coaching.

I have space for two new clients starting in early February.

If you’re ready to level up your writing practice and get that manuscript written and submitted to publishers once and for all, check out the “Work with Leslie” page.

Alright, so here’s the episode, “Create Bulletproof Boundaries with Your Job.”

Make sure to take out a pen and a sheet of paper, and away we go!

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Hi writers! So glad you’re tuning in today!

Wouldn’t you agree that these days boundaries have become such a buzzword?

All the time, we hear experts talking about how we need to maintain strong personal and professional boundaries if we want to protect our limited time and energy and put it towards the things that matter to us most.

But, on the other hand, I’ve noticed that there’s very little good advice or practical strategies on how to actually do this.

On today’s episode I’ll be giving you an exercise with an exact formula that will help you create bulletproof boundaries with your job.

Most academics I know struggle every semester with feeling besieged by too many responsibilities and not enough time to devote to all of them.

On top of that, many of these tasks, and the meetings that go along with them, are things you would rather not do, which can cause feelings of resentment on top of the overwhelm.

This can easily turn into an ongoing state of burnout.

If you’re anything like I was as a junior faculty member, you might find yourself saying yes to almost every request that comes your way, whether it’s from students, colleagues, or higher-level administrators.

(And this is not even counting all the requests you get from your family and friends!)

Sometimes you might agree to do something because you truly want to be helpful or it’s convenient and doesn’t seem that difficult for you to do.

In other cases, you might not feel empowered to say no because you’re obligated to the person asking or you worry that there could be negative consequences for you in the future if you turn it down.

For those of you with people pleasing tendencies who will do anything to avoid conflict, this issue is compounded even more. You know who you are!

Try the “Semester Absolutes Exercise”!

The exercise I’m about to share with you is one that I call “Semester Absolutes.”

I developed it with a coaching client who was an advanced assistant professor and one of the only women of color in her department at a research-intensive university.  

This person, who I’ll call Dawn, originally came to me to help her create a healthier relationship with her job—which at the time was all-encompassing and extremely stress-inducing.

She wanted to overcome procrastination and make more space for her personal life, which included the dream of starting a family and becoming more involved with local community causes she was passionate about.

As I got to know Dawn more, I was bowled over by the amount of work she had on her plate.

This junior faculty member was involved in no less than 12 different research projects, on top of teaching, serving on committees, and running her own lab which included mentoring both graduate and undergraduate students.

By being stretched way too thin, Dawn was not able to give her best to any of her projects or to show up consistently for people, including herself.

Unsurprisingly, she was totally stressed out and often felt like she was failing at a job she had worked so hard to get.

These feelings would turn into a vicious cycle of procrastination throughout the day and anxiety at night about not getting enough done.

Meanwhile, her work just piled up even higher, causing the cycle to continue.

I wanted to help Dawn find the simplest and easiest way through these challenges, so I created the Semester Absolutes exercise.

I guarantee that if you do this exercise at the beginning of every semester, you will feel far less overwhelmed and much more satisfied with your work because you will know ahead of time what to say yes to and what to say no to.

So onto the magic formula!

The best time to do this is at the start of your semester or even a week or two before it begins.

First, make sure you’re feeling calm and able to objectively and honestly assess your schedule.

Write down your personal and professional goals that you want to keep front and center.

Then, you can create a list of boundaries that can guide your decisions throughout the semester.

Think about the kinds of things you are asked by others to do on a regular basis in your job, and answer the following three questions:


1) What will you say “yes” to?

2) What will you say a definite “no” to

3) And what will you say “one and done” to?

So let me go through each of these questions one by one.

#1) The first question of “what will you say ‘yes’ to?” should include all of the things you actually want to do or will benefit you the most, along with how many times you will commit to doing them.

Think about the activities you tend to enjoy.

They don’t exhaust you, or they might even give you energy back.

Or, they could be things you feel fairly neutral about but there could be a big professional payoff for doing them, including networking with important people in your field or on your campus.

For Dawn, her “yes list” included things like, “review one journal article in my direct research area,” “finish planning a conference,” and “serve on no more than two departmental dissertation committees.”

The reason it’s so important to be specific about the number of times you will commit to something is that once you hit that number, you can turn down any other similar requests that come after.

So if it’s January and you’ve already reviewed your max number of articles, you can say no to everything else all the way until May without feeling any guilt or questioning your own commitment to your job.

Also, if you’re someone who tends to overcommit as well as underestimate the amount of time you have to work on things—which is actually something we all do—you might want to create an even more specific boundary like, “I will review three journal articles this semester, but I will only take on one at a time.”

This gives you permission to turn everything else down until your plate is empty again.

Don’t be like one of my former coaching clients, a very outwardly successful professor, who was so afraid of saying no that she would let email requests sit in her inbox for months until the decisions expired.

This caused immense stress for herself as well as diminished her professional reputation.

Something I heard recently that applies here is that it’s far better to give people a respectful and carefully considered “no” than an empty yes.

#2: So this leads into the second question of “what will you say a definite ‘no’ to this semester?”

Here, it’s important to reflect honestly on where you want to put your limited time and energy and what’s just not worth the effort.

Some activities very easily qualify for this list because you know from experience that you dislike doing them.

Others might sound like a good opportunity.

However, in the grand scheme of your own research and writing goals, as well as the energy you want to reserve for your personal life, now is not the time to take them on.

If we return to Dawn’s example, her “no list” included very specific things like “serving on a dissertation committee outside my department” and “spearheading any new initiatives in the department (including ones I actually really want to do since I am pre-tenure).”

What I love about her list is that it carefully reflects how she wants to use her time as a junior faculty member who needs to prioritize the activities that will help her get tenure.

And, by putting limits on even the things that she would normally want to do, it keeps her goal of creating more space for her personal life front and center.


#3) Finally, I added the third question of “what will you say ‘one and done’ to?” because we can’t always say no to everything.

There are times when someone with a lot of influence over your career asks you for a favor or when you just need to pitch in and devote some extra time and effort to things you’d rather not do.

For Dawn, her “one-and-done” list included things like “serving on one professional executive board” and “serving on a journal’s editorial board.”

In situations like this that you can’t get out of, you can avoid falling into a cycle of resentment by consistently reminding yourself that it’s temporary and provides useful lessons.

You will do this work just once, and then you reserve the right to say no to anything else like it in the future.

In my own case, I was once put in charge of planning a large, two-day conference at my institution when I was pre-tenure.

The person who was originally the main organizer was no longer able to do it, and I was asked to fill in.

This was an extraordinary amount of labor and not work I would have chosen, nor would I ever choose to do it again.

And yet, the professional connections I made from running this conference, which was so meaningful to hundreds of people, continue nearly a decade later.

So the important thing I learned from this experience was to try to use these “one-and-done” activities as growth opportunities and as a way to learn more about your department, institution, or profession.

And then you get to move on!


Summing It All Up…

Ultimately, your semester absolutes list can be as long or as short as you want.

The important thing is to clarify your goals ahead of time so you can keep them front and center and won’t end up getting stuck in decision fatigue or people pleasing once the craziness of the semester has started.

This is where people often break down and just start saying yes to everything.

Remember that no one will protect your boundaries except you.

I’ll talk in another episode about ways you can tactfully turn down requests, but for now, know that consciously taking on less will pay off for you in the end.

You will have more time and energy to devote to the things you care about when you set these limits in advance.