How Successful People Use Boundaries to Keep Moving Forward

Each week I allocate 90 minutes to write these posts. Last week, like many others, I wasn’t totally satisfied with my work when I hit the 90-minute mark. It could be better, I thought. Nonetheless, I’d reached my time limit, so I published something that wasn’t ideal in my mind. It was simply the best I could come up with for the time I had allocated. And it ached to publish something I knew could be better.

Do you struggle to find the balance between “ideal” and “good enough”?

My brother-in-law is a digital designer. Clients pay him to do excellent work for commercials, websites, and branding. As a designer, everything in him wants to produce the ideal. Yet he understands something that many designers do not: Ideal is the enemy of excellent.

He explained to me that the last 20 percent of his production can take as much effort as the first 80 percent. Sometimes, the pressure comes from a client to put endless effort into the last 20 percent, and other times it comes from his own desire for the ideal. Either way, he continuously must remind himself to “Boundary Up.”

Those boundaries are set based on a proactive consideration of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Up front, and as he goes, he determines the level of profit or benefit (to himself and to others) gained in exchange for money or energy invested.

Gartner CEB recently illustrated this through a study of sales professionals that focused on their customer service. Almost 90 percent of the salespeople surveyed said they believe that above-and-beyond customer service is the surest way to grow a customer relationship. Ironically, the research showed no statistically significant relationship between servicing above expectations and account growth. In other words, giving more service than expected to a client doesn’t create any more value in return.

Now sometimes going above and beyond expectations is an act of sacrifice or done out of love. But it shouldn’t be done just because someone asks for it, or because you feel a pressure to achieve the ideal.

How To Know When to Boundary Up

What do you do that takes 20 percent of your effort to get 80 percent accomplished… and tempts you to spend another 80 percent of your effort getting the final 20 percent right? Perhaps you need to decide that you’ve:

  • Done enough – because that spreadsheet model or PowerPoint doesn’t need the formatting to be absolutely perfect. You are the message, not your slides. The effort to get those bullet points to line up perfectly won’t outweigh the gain.
  • Said enough – because you keep talking and talking and talking to make your ideas clear, and yet, your ideas don’t always need to achieve ideal clarity. The effort you put into coming up with the extra words (and that your listener puts into hearing them) doesn’t outweigh the benefits.
  • Been enough – because you can’t be everything to everyone. Maybe you’re spreading yourself too thin in an attempt to please too many people. And your extra effort to be everything is too depleting.
  • Thought enough – because too much analysis leads to paralysis. Think well and then act and figure the rest out along the way. The extra thinking about the “what ifs” won’t result in better outcomes.
  • Given enough – because the best givers are sustainable. In his book Give and Take, researcher Adam Grant explains that Givers are more successful in life than Takers or Matchers, but the giving needs to be strategic. In other words, the extra giving—without any reciprocation—may not be a gift worth giving.

Where do you need to say, “Enough is enough!” and boundary up?



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