Crossing the line

Imagine you and I are standing across from each other. Dividing us is a line on the ground. We’ve just come to an agreement. We’ve agreed that I cannot cross the line, and that there’s a penalty if I decide to step across it: you’ll take me to the ground and slit my throat.

Now, I know you’re pretty reasonable. You’re not a psycho or some ruthless killer. So I step across the line with confidence.

Another example. 

Imagine two people are negotiating a contract. One of the clauses is that should the client use the designer’s work outside of any domains or events specified in the contract, the client is liable to pay a £100,000 fine. 

The client signs the contract. He knows the designer is an independent contractor and isn’t audacious enough to pursue legal action against a globally recognised brand. So he uses the designer’s work wherever he pleases. 

I’ve written before about the importance of strong filters. The idea that saying no and setting boundaries allows you to find quiet and stillness, which you can use to discover and focus on what is essential. Essentially, with strong filters, you’re protecting your time, energy and attention. Doing so gives you more time to experiment and explore, more freedom, more optionality, and often leads to you doing better work.

The two key pieces to the success of strong filters are saying no and setting boundaries. That’s where it all begins. Now, saying no is hard, and setting boundaries is just as difficult. But what’s more difficult than both of these things is upholding and enforcing the boundaries you set.

If you can’t or won’t take action to ensure the preservation of the boundaries you set, what’s the point in setting them? You’re just going to end up like teachers in schools nowadays. If a kid doesn’t care about getting detention, doesn’t care about staying late, doesn’t care about his grades, his future, how he appears to his classmates, what can you do? You can say, “Don’t do that” and imply that there’s a punishment for ignoring you. But what are you going to do? Shout a bit? Write to his parents? You have nothing that the kid recognises as a valid threat, so he can do whatever he pleases.

If I tell my boss that I want to operate on more of a maker’s schedule, instead of a manager’s schedule, and he agrees, great. But after a week or so, he begins to schedule meetings for me throughout the day. He starts popping his head in for a chat for some ideas on some project. He messages me on Slack and gets antsy if I don’t respond immediately. 

I’ve said I want a maker’s schedule—which means long blocks of uninterrupted time—and my manager has said that’s fine. But now he’s testing the integrity of the boundary I’ve set. Do I let him keep impeding my maker’s schedule, or do I remind him of what I’m trying to do?

Know what you’re getting into. Saying no and setting boundaries is the first step. But it’s also the easiest one. The real test of your commitment to what you’re trying to achieve with such actions is this: how are you going to respond when people try to bust down the walls and structures you’re putting in place? Will you allow them to push through, or will you push back?