Why Setting Boundaries Is the Secret to Preserving Energy and Focusing on What Matters

Why Setting Boundaries Is the Secret to Preserving Energy and Focusing on What Matters
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One of the major plots of the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade revolves around the search for the Fountain of Youth — some magical elixir that causes a person to live forever. I watched this movie years ago, fascinated by the concept that something as simple as a sip of water could restore the vitality of those who drank from it. Why the obsession? I wondered.

Many decades, a thriving company and a few kids later, I get the allure. Not because I wish to live forever, but because who wouldn’t want boundless amounts of mental and physical fuel?

You could say our pursuit for this mythical fountain persists, only under a different name: energy. Nearly two years into this pandemic, we all want it.

In writing for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten aptly describes this elusive quality: “You know it when you got it, and even more when you don’t,” he says. “This is the enthusiasm and vigor you feel inside yourself, the kind you might call chi, after the ancient Chinese life force or the pronouncements of the storefront acupuncturist.”

As an entrepreneur, I am no stranger to the tiredness and fatigue Paumgarten speaks of. “For months, during the main pandemic stretch, I’d get inexplicably tired in the afternoon, as though vital organs and muscles had turned to Styrofoam,” he writes. “Just sitting in front of a computer screen, in sweatpants and socks, left me drained.”

There’s this myth in the business world that we shouldn’t share our struggles; that we should always maintain the appearance of strength — otherwise, our careers and reputations could be at stake. But I think there’s an error in keeping our challenges under wraps. It’s human to feel the weight of everything we’ve lived through — to have days when our overwhelm feels palpable.

Every day I’m confronted with tasks that pulse with urgency, hundreds of emails awaiting my reply — an overflow of requests and decisions to make.

In my early days of building Jotform, I’d often joke that I needed a clone. But what I’ve learned since is that it’s not more “fuel” we need — it’s to stop seeking more energy in order to hit peak productivity.

What we badly need is balance.

Why boundaries are essential to preserving energy

“The key to success at work and in life isn’t really starting strong, it’s staying strong,” writes Harvard Business Review contributor Elizabeth Grace Saunders.

Almost anyone can muster enough gumption for a short burst of high-energy effort, she says. “But what about after that initial burst? Do you still feel the same a few months or even a year into your new job, goal, or project? Have you abandoned your ambitions? Do you continue to push on while fighting signs of fatigue or burnout? Or do you wildly vacillate between hyper-productivity and getting nothing done?”

Creating that staying power, according to Saunders, is about managing our time wisely to avoid burning out.

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he asks us to pause and ask: Am I investing in the right activities?

“Essentialism,” McKeown writes, “is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

What really matters?

We live in a society that is always pushing for more. Distractions abound, so it’s only natural that we believe our reserves to be limited. Because we feel incapable of doing everything, we read endless articles on how to “hack” our energy levels — how to boost our productivity to do all the things.

But I’d like to suggest this paradigm shift — behind our never-ending pursuit for that mythical fountain of energy, is this: an obsession with perfectionism and work addiction.

When the bar for what we need to get done keeps getting higher, we’ll never be enough. That’s why the way of the Essentialist advocates for clarity and understanding the reality of tradeoffs: We can’t have it all or do it all.

Which leaves us with this core question: What really matters?

As much as entrepreneurs are driven and self-motivated to achieve success, they also need to grasp the value that our time is a limited resource.

At Jotform and in my personal life, balance is critical for ensuring a healthy culture. But maintaining those boundaries has been a process.

In the beginning of building my company, I didn’t model the best behavior — answering emails long into the night and on weekends, always being “on.” But to show an example of how we’ve evolved over the years: I now ask that all employees erase Slack from their phone.

My concern isn’t for my team to have “more energy” but to use their peak hours on what’s most essential — on what matters most.

Block out breathing room

“To have staying power, you need to keep your work within sustainable boundaries — and you need to work at a sustainable pace,” Saunders encourages. “There are days when back-to-back meetings are necessary or when you need to go from task to task to task. But for most people, this strategy doesn’t have long-term viability.”

We need breathing room — whether by designating a no-meeting Thursday, blocking out a 30 minute window to take a stroll outside in the sun, or taking a week off to fully recover — this is the balance needed to have that staying power.

This is what I know for sure: “Hacking” energy is a sexy trend. But restful, rejuvenating downtime is the true elixir for living a healthier, happier life.

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