How to set attentional boundaries at work

How to set attentional boundaries at work

Whether in physical space or in human relationships, our attention remains our most valuable asset.

Messy desks, strange workplace dynamics... all of these are invisible distractions that erode our attention.

Setting up clear attention boundaries not only lessens the strain on relationships, but it can also boost productivity. How can you maintain focus at work and establish attentional boundaries? Read on!

Why Set Attentional Boundaries?

Neuroscientists discovered that our brains alternate rhythmically between states of concentration and distraction four times per second, working like a camera that keeps pressing the shutter, taking pictures quickly one after the other to make the image we see [1, 2]. During a distraction, the brain stops what it's doing to look around for anything that might be more interesting than the main focus of attention. This could be a sound outside the window, a phone notification, a coworker whispering, etc. If you don't set boundaries for your attention, your surroundings are more likely to steal your precious attention.

Poor boundaries at work can sap the attention we planned to devote to our work and lead to poor performance. Therefore, establishing healthy boundaries is essential to self-care as well as boosting productivity.

Creating boundaries between work and life

Setting up a work/life boundary that feels comfortable to you will determine how you focus your attention where and when it is needed.

According to research, an individual's subjective well-being and work performance are significantly influenced by the degree of integration between work and non-work roles "[3]. Hard workers are probably well aware that the prevalence of an overtime culture encroaches on personal time, energy, and life, and that it is difficult to work at one's best due to increased stress and emotional exhaustion, which in turn affects productivity and performance.

In a survey on the effects of teachers setting boundaries at work, some teachers reported that doing so helped them feel less burntout and motivated them to stay in the field longer [4]. This suggests that having clear boundaries at work can reduce stress and increase job satisfaction, giving people more time for their personal lives.

Interpersonal boundaries at work

At work, we may have coworkers who always ask for help, who are nosy, or who meddle in personal matters. We often don't say what we really think to people's faces because we don't want to hurt their feelings or because we don't want to upset them with our lack of care. Instead, we suffer in silence from the harm that these behaviours without boundaries cause us. Keep in mind: others' interference can cause resentment, anger, and burnout [5].


Sense of Boundaries

How people judge or value boundaries and how well they can stick to their own rules. It includes both physical and psychological boundaries.


Setting boundaries for relationships at work can help to lessen the stress brought on by interpersonal interactions. Rather than spending all of our time and energy trying to get along with and communicate with coworkers outside of work, setting boundaries can leave free space for both parties, reduce unnecessary energy consumption between people, and help us to concentrate more on our work.

How to set interpersonal boundaries at work?

Establish priorities

Start by figuring out what you want, what's most important to you, and where you want to draw the line. Consider what makes you happy and satisfied as well as what makes you angry or bitter. Do you truly feel happy when you say "Yes" or does it make you feel bad? Realize that each time you say "Yes," you are also saying "No" to something else.

Respect other people's boundaries

Maintain your own boundaries while fully respecting others'. Be clear about what you can and cannot do. Respect the privacy of your coworkers if you don't want them to ask you about personal matters. Don't worry about other people's work and lives, and give yourself more time to focus on yourself.

Sincerely and firmly say "No"

You might worry that setting boundaries and saying "No" to people will hurt your relationship with this coworker, but in reality, boundaries make things clearer and easier for everyone and, in the long run, make your relationship stronger. If you hide how you really feel and accept the other person's requests, your workload will get heavier, and you will unconsciously "resent" your colleague, which will hurt your relationship in the long run.

Remind yourself that you are not that important

We often think we are "unique and irreplaceable," and in a lot of ways, we are. But when a coworker asks you to do something you don't want to do or can't do, why not think, "I'm not that important, they can find someone else to do it too!"? For example, if you have already planned to go to the gym in the evening, rather than agreeing to your colleague's request for a shift, explain why and try to refuse. Perhaps you will discover that you are "not that important" and that your "refusal" does not offend others after all.


How to set environmental boundaries at work 

Eliminate any potential distractions

Before starting a task, put your phone in "focus mode" or just move it out of sight, because "the presence of the phone in the field of view" can significantly lower a person's cognitive function [6].

Keep your work environment orderly

When our desks are cluttered, we are more likely to get distracted. In a study done by researchers at Princeton University, it was found that people did not do as well on cognitive tasks when things in their field of vision were not neatly arranged [7]. Another study showed that the same is true for the digital environment [8]. Therefore, keeping your computer desktop tidy and clean is also essential. For example, you can separate the files on your computer's desktop into three groups: unprocessed, in-process, and finished. This way, you can see at a glance how your work is going.

Make a separate workspace

More and more people now work from home, and clinical psychologist Jessica Borushek says that the brain is prone to making connections between experiences. For example, if you work in your bedroom, you might find it hard to focus and stay awake at work, and it could also be hard to sleep at night. However, if there is no way to work anywhere other than the bedroom, professional organizer Ben Soreff advices: make the bed before you start working each day; the process tells the brain, "I'm going to switch to work mode instead of rest mode!" [9].


It's quiz time!

Setting boundaries for your work can be done in the following ways:

A. Sorting files on your computer's desktop into different folders

B. Working while chatting with a colleague so he/she doesn't feel bad

C. Working in bed for comfort

D. Cleaning and organizing the desk every so often to keep it neat and tidy


Research & Reference:

[1] A Dynamic Interplay within the Frontoparietal Network Underlies Rhythmic Spatial Attention. (2018, August 22). Pub Med.

[2] Neural Mechanisms of Sustained Attention Are Rhythmic. (2018, August 22). Pub Med.

[3] The anisotropy of personal space. (2019, June 4). https://Www.Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov/Pmc/Articles/PMC6548369/.

[4] Wang, Yan.(2011). A study on the influence of work and non-work role integration on individual subjective well-being and job performance (Master's thesis, Nanjing University).

[5] Bernstein-Yamashiro, B. (2013, March 1). Teachers-student relationships: A growing field of study. Wiley Online Library.

[6] Nelson, D., PhD. (2017, February 16). Self-Care 101: Setting Healthy Boundaries.

[7] Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479–488.

[8] Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. (2011, January 12). Pub Med.

[9] There’s One Room You Should Avoid From 9 to 5, According to Experts. (2020, October 12). Apartment Therapy.

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