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Tips for setting boundaries

  • 1.  Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-18-2019 07:53 AM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 12-18-2019 12:13 PM
    I would like to start a discussion on the topic of setting boundaries. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but with only so many hours in a day, it can be necessary to say no to potential opportunities. 

    A tip I have learned from one of my ASCE mentors @Karen Jehanian is if you don't have the bandwidth to do it, find someone who can take your place. For example, my alma mater asked me to come back earlier this year as an alumni guest speaker for a Friday night event. While I was available, I had already committed to an event out of town early the next day. Instead of trying to balance both events, I recommended a fellow alumna instead which worked out great for the event!

    What tips do you have for setting boundaries? Or tell me about a time when setting boundaries worked out for you? 

    Danielle Schroeder EIT, A.M.ASCE
    Associate Engineer
    Pennoni Associates
    Philadelphia PA

  • 2.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-19-2019 01:20 PM

    I'm really interested to see what feedback others have on this topic. Historically this has been a struggle of mine. Only recently have I been able to not say "yes" to every request. After a season of stretching myself so thin that I had no time to myself that I wasn't sleeping, I had to start changing my ways.

    One little thing that has helped me is to simply explain this to those that ask. Something along the lines of "Since I'm already serving in ____ capacity, I don't think I have the time to do it as well as it needs to be done." Sometimes I'll offer to do something like help clean up after the event if I don't have time to help organize/run it.
    I love your suggestion to recommend someone else that may be available -- I'll have to remember that in the future.

    Heidi Wallace EI, A.M.ASCE
    Engineer Intern
    Tulsa OK

  • 3.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-19-2019 03:43 PM
    I don't see it in terms of boundaries as much as to place a value on my time. My advice is to simply decline in a polite way if you don't want to or don't have the time. Say yes to things you either 1) want to do because you are interested and enjoy it, 2) helps you connect to goals you set for yourself, or 3) helps your company advance their goals. There are so many things that one could do but not necessarily are the best of use of your time. What do I mean by valuing your time? For instance, I serve on a number of boards with non-profit leaders. They depend on a heavy amount of volunteer labor and fundraising to run programs. They are usually very grateful for every dollar that is donated and as a result desire to spend it all on direct programing. But that sometimes end up filling their time with wasted tasks. My advice is nearly always to outsource non essential tasks to vendors and avoid the things that don't advance your goals. In this example, the leader should be spending time in strategy, fundraising, and raising up volunteer leaders and not cleaning the bathrooms when there are plenty of companies that would do it for a fixed fee. Think of yourself as the leader of your own time and ask your self if this opportunity is truly the best use of my time.

    If you value your time, others will too. It's OK to let someone down politely and to remember that not everyone is thinking of your best interests. I don't think you need to feel obligated when asked or to have a responsibility to help find someone else.

    Jesse Kamm PhD, PMP, A.M.ASCE
    Senior Vice President of Construction Management

  • 4.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-19-2019 03:42 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 12-19-2019 03:42 PM

    First of all, you must set boundaries on how much time you spend on work, family, personal time and professional involvement  Then you need to make a best attempt to meet those goals.  If you sleep for the recommended 8 hours per day, that leaves 16 hours per day for all other activities. Travel to and from work (1 hour total), and an average 9 hours at work leaves 6 hours.  Say you average one hour a day for yourself, that leaves 5 hours for everything else.  Most people spend one day of the weekend doing household duties – groceries, cleaning, laundry, misc. home repairs, lawn care, etc. Sundays are usually spent doing family activities.


    Depending upon your stage in your career, pick one professional society that is most currently relative and attend its meetings. Young engineers may find technical groups most rewarding, while more professional associations may be relative for middle age and older engineers.  As to support to institutions of higher learning, become a contact for your employer with the college's placement office (you get paid for this time usually).  Also, pick one event for the college that you can schedule well in advance that you can do on your own time.  My local alumni group does a freshman sendoff each August.  Also, there are local college recruitment days that you can bolster by giving an hour or so to.


    In todays business environment, it is important to balance all aspects of your life to maintain both your physical and mental health and business and personal relationships.


    Peter J. Fadden, PE (Retired)


  • 5.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-19-2019 03:44 PM
    Hi Danielle,

    What I can offer - admittedly more about setting priorities - based on my experience follows.

    When asked questions or assigned action items or tasks try to understand the importance and if it really needs to be answered or done now. You want to pose your questions in a constructive manner and be transparent about why your asking, e.g., it creates a conflict. This is a powerful technique that I've used, have taught to others, and have had them use back at me. 

    A corollary to the above is consider "yes, but or maybe if" when given with work assignments that pose conflicts with existing tasks and deadlines. You want to avoid saying no unless it's a question of safety, ethics, or morality. A response of "yes, but or maybe if" with qualifier can open the door to discussion and negotiation.

    Finally, be deliberate and strategic when offered an optional opportunity and try to understand how it will benefit you or others. This feels in line with the advice you've already been given.


    Mitchell Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX

  • 6.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-23-2019 01:44 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 12-23-2019 01:43 PM
    Setting Boundaries is usually a surveyors task. As a PE I can submit a site plan to the County showing property lines setbacks etc. If a legal dispute over property lines comes about it is like a chess game. A PLS takes a PE.  Usually there is not an issue- but I just ran across a project where a client wants to subdivide a lot into 4 parcels on a sloping hill. The neighbor to the South has built a retaining wall that encroaches on my client's land. I will not touch this with a 10' pole and recommended that my client contact a PLS.

    Professional advice- Always have a contract. I was just fined $5K because a disgruntled client filed a complaint with the NV Board against me. She brought me a conceptual idea for a house which I agreed to engineer.  She then changed the orientation of the home 180°, changed the shape from an L to an Elbow, changed the roof pitch, changed the plate height, and size and numbers of windows and doors and room layouts. All of her changes were hand scribbled and sent to me after she took a photo with her camera of my CAD drawings and texted (not emailed) them to me. After 50 hours of work I grew frustrated and gave up and sent her pdf drawings which she gave to another Engineer.

    My sin. I did not have a written contract. Apparently 22 emails do not qualify as a Contract.

    From the responses so far I think that you were talking bought  time management. Get yourself a FilemakerPro database to let you track things. (I don't think that you will be fined if you don't speak at a function). Only take on projects that agree to pay at least 50% up front and get it in writing!

    Richard LaPrairie P.E.,M.ASCE
    LMI Engineering L.L.C.
    Reno NV

  • 7.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-25-2019 10:27 PM

     Thanks for the question Danielle.

     Of course, my initial non-reflective response sort of 'danced' around what the opinions of Jessie, Peter, Mitchell, and Richard postulated.

     Then I recalled the words of wisdom for such types of decisions about the intersection of engineering-type logic with that of those who have had a lifetime of lessons-learned for such matters.

    Rather than paraphrase them, I offer them for consideration below. [1]

    • "You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want."

    Zig Ziglar

    • "Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like."

    Lao Tzu

    •  "The shoe that fits one-person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases."

    Carl Jung

    • "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'

    Martin Luther King, Jr."

    So, Danielle, the answer you seek . . .and each person faces…lies within your understanding and life-view purpose you wish to embrace.



    [1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/zig_ziglar_381984  downloaded 25DEC2019

    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880

  • 8.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-26-2019 12:48 PM
    Not sure what you mean by setting boundaries: In a social sense or in the case of property boundaries?
    If in a social sense it might refer to personal, ethical or legal boundaries - maybe in the home, at the office or on the street.
    As for property boundaries, in Massachusetts our law says that a PE in the branch of civil engineering "may perform land surveying incidental to his engineering work for  locating or relocating any of the fixed works embraced within the practice of civil engineering excluding property line determination." (Emphasis added.) The same principle applies in other states. As a matter of fact, our Board of Registration made a determination years ago that a civil PE could not design a utility to be installed parallel to a property boundary without a professional land surveyor to determine the location of the property line.
    Robert W. Foster, PE, PLS

    Robert Foster P.E., L.S., M.ASCE
    Hopkinton MA

  • 9.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 12-30-2019 08:13 AM

    Thank you to all who contributed to this thread! 


    While my original intent was not about setting property boundaries, I did appreciate the multiple insights given as it is important to understand how property lines are determined as well as learn lessons from past projects.


    In terms of setting boundaries in the more task assignment side (regardless of it fits under the work, professional society, or friends/family portion), I see a theme throughout the responses that communication is key! Whether it is explaining what is already on your plate to asking clarifying questions (i.e. when does this need to be done or do I need to be the one to do it), you need to have a conversation with the person beyond just "can you do XYZ task?".

    I hope to implement this more in 2020!

    Danielle Schroeder EIT, A.M.ASCE
    Associate Engineer
    Pennoni Associates
    Philadelphia PA

  • 10.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 01-02-2020 08:05 AM
    There is a nuance on boundary-setting that I don't think has been touched on here. Setting priorities is really important, but I also think it is important to push back on tasks that don't need to be done, or "work" you are expected to do at work that doesn't actually progress the company's goals (what I call non-promotable work). 

    Example: A young engineer was initially asked by the head of their office branch to do a non-promotable task - like take and distribute meeting notes, order office supplies, or plan a charity golf tournament - the first month of work. Wanting to make a good impression and be a team player, the engineer agreed. Now, 5 years later, the engineer is still expected to do this, even though from an ROI standpoint it makes little sense. It's just assumed that the engineer will take care of it.

    In my own anecdotal experience (and also in a lot of research I've read on women in the workforce), a lot of times this type of non-promotable work is taken on by women. Statistically speaking, women are more likely to have been raised to be people-pleasers, to put others' needs above their own. Even when I had a female boss, I found myself being asked to do things like "water the office plants" or "pick up a card" for everyone in the office to sign to congratulate when someone won an award. I was almost always the first person asked to do these things (I was the only full-time woman in my branch office the first time I was asked). At the time, I didn't feel like I had a choice to say no due to power dynamics (at the time I was also the most junior employee), although I know now that I always have a choice.

    Regardless of the time it takes, minutes spent doing non-promotable work add up over the course of a career. If I spend time doing low-priority tasks or non-promotable work during that day, then I end up working late on project work. For me, that resulted in feeling that I needed better time management skills, when in fact it was a boundary issue. I didn't want to say no, and so I said yes to too much and nearly burned myself out. In hindsight, I've realized that not wanting to say no came down to some sort of fear. Fear of being rejected or fired, fear of damaging a relationship, or fear of missing out on an opportunity. 

    I think that in general, women's boundaries get pushed on more often than men's, and younger engineers' boundaries get pushed on more than experienced engineers. Additionally, this can be very challenging as a manager - there is a fine line between coaching someone to help them move in the right direction (which is what managers should be doing) and being a bottleneck in the process because everyone feels like they have to come to you for sign-off on every little thing.

    Here are a couple of things that have worked for me:
    1. When asked to take on any new task, I do not say yes immediately. Instead, I ask questions to fully understand the scope of what I would be saying "yes" too, understand how it affects my own goals or the company's goals for the year and then ask for a short period of time to think about it. Now, you might not always have this luxury - if you're simply assigned a project at work to do, you can't really say "no." But, you can always get in the habit of getting a defined scope and understanding the importance of what you're working on. So, if you already have a ton of work on your plate and your manager says, "I'd like you to take on this new project," instead of saying either: "Are you crazy?" or "Sure", you say "That sounds like an interesting project. I need to understand better how this fits in with my other deadlines and priorities, and what we may need to shift around to make that one work. I am finishing up this previous task you assigned currently, can we plan to talk about this later today (or tomorrow) and see how it fits?"
    2. Along the same lines, practice saying no, especially to non-promotable tasks. There's never going to be a hard-and-fast-rule here - a lot of it depends on who is asking and what it is - but if it's a task that will take more than a couple of minutes, you could say, "I'd love to help you out, but I really need to stay focused on this project or deadline coming up. Perhaps [name of someone else] could help you."
    3. If you have a coworker or manager that chronically drops last minute or unreasonable requests on your desk, do not say "yes" without getting clarification on scope and when it needs to be done. It's tempting to many of us to "save the day" by immediately agreeing, but this type of scenario lends itself to mistakes and potential burnout if it becomes a chronic situation. Sure, last-minute changes happen, but if you're seeing it all the time, something needs to change. For me, 9 times out of 10 last-minute requests came down to lack of communication. More frequent check-ins help, even if it's just 5 minutes to make sure everyone is on the same page for priorities and where you are in the entire project (i.e. fully understanding what is left to be done). 
    4. If you are a manager, do not have an open-door policy. You have to block out uninterrupted time to get your own work done. Instead, institute "office hours". Consistently schedule an hour in the morning and/or afternoon when your door is open for drop-in questions (you may need to do both if those you are managing are very inexperienced), or more hours if a major milestone is coming up; the point is these are scheduled times, clearly communicated excepting emergencies.

    Stephanie Slocum P.E., M.ASCE
    Engineers Rising LLC

  • 11.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 01-03-2020 08:00 AM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 01-03-2020 07:59 AM
    Hi Stephanie,

    Your suggestions on setting boundaries, as well as those suggestions by other members, are very valuable to me.

    Thanks very much!

    James Wang, M.ASCE
    Senior Cost Estimator
    Turner & Townsend
    Shenzhen, China

  • 12.  RE: Tips for setting boundaries

    Posted 01-03-2020 10:48 AM
    Stephanie makes a great list of suggestions for new engineers, whether male or female.  Learning to say "no" in a diplomatic way took me more than 20 years after college to learn.  I still say "yes" more than I should because, for me, it is easier.

    I would like to point out, that doing some of the non-promotable things on a voluntary basis are pretty important too.  For example, helping to organize a golf tournament is a great team building activity.  Organizing it yourself is a crazy building activity, so do not do this unless in your previous life before engineering, you were a professional golf tournament designer.  Whether you are building a team with your company members, or with similar level people outside your organization, this is an opportunity to show how you work with a team effectively.  Doing it because you like it after the first event, should be voluntary, not assumed.

    Helping your manager manage his commitment to ASCE as conference chair or in my case CEC-Houston and Greater Houston Builders Association provided me with plenty of opportunities to network with others in a working group situation that brought me to the attention of senior engineers, principle engineers or potential clients that I did not get while working at my EIT position in the current job.  I like to call this networking self promotion for the next company.

    I think that picking up coffee, or donuts, etc. is a hazing exercise that a lot of small companies/groups have for the new person.  It gets tired, even with manager repayment long before the 3-years of every Friday that I did it during the second to last recession.  Scared tends to take the "no" answer out of you, so do not be afraid to ask if the status quo can be changed.  We worked out an alternative schedule where everyone participates that they used for the next 5 years I was still there, before I elected to go to work with one of the companies I networked with regularly on the CEC-Houston committee.

    Dwayne Culp, Ph.D., Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE
    Culp Engineering, LLC
    Rosenberg TX