Breaking Out of Your Personal Jail: How to Get the Freedom You Crave

When I first started working, I was terrible about setting boundaries. I would work constantly, logging hour after hour to please insatiable bosses. I was convinced that the longer and harder I worked, the more likely I would be recognized and get to where I wanted to go in my career.

This all came to a head one snowy Chicago winter when I found myself with a 2 month old baby, trying desperately to balance the demands of a relentless job and my new infant’s needs. Though my job historically required frequent travel, the prospect going back out on the road so soon after giving birth seemed unthinkable, and so I summoned the courage to ask my boss for permission to suspend travel for another 6 months. To my shock, he agreed, and while the job ultimately proved the wrong fit, I learned an invaluable lesson that day: You have to be willing to do the hard thing – or make the courageous ask – to get what you really want.

Asking for what I really wanted, and being willing to walk away from the job to get it, gave me the freedom I was craving, and ultimately paved the way for a whole new career that was to come.

In order to take full responsibility for crafting the life we want, we must stop blaming our external factors when things aren’t going our way and do the courageous thing that is needed. Many adults have yet to make the shift, preferring to continue blaming external circumstances instead of taking responsibility for their professional lives. They continue to outsource their power and decision making to their current employers and bosses (and occasionally, spouses).

If you’re ready to take full responsibility for breaking out of your own jail of limiting beliefs about work, here are four strategies that can help you make the shift.

Check about real versus imagined expectations.

Many of the expectations we feel are imposed on us as leaders are imagined. Have you checked in with your boss, team or people manager to clarify what is actually expected of you? Before you go cancelling the family vacation, or working long hours over the holidays, sit with your boss to clarify: “I have this in my mind that you expect x, y, & z by this date – is that correct?” You might be surprised about how much lighter your load gets when you consolidate and regroup.  

Manage the perception.

A few years back, one of my coaching clients worked for a company that imposed an expectation that the staff work all the time. Staff learned to leave their lights on and desks messy to create the illusion of activity 24 hours a day. You need to get clear about how you are contributing to the perception of your work, and where this is creating the impact you want to be successful in your job. The employers were forced to pay accordingly, and the false perception of productivity ended up costing them – literally.

Stop avoiding and blaming.

If you had all the freedom you crave, what would you do with your time? “Not enough” is an excuse many leaders use to stay safely where they are instead of taking agency for the situation they want to create. If you want to do something, you’ll find a way to make it a priority. Taking control of your world means you are responsible for the choices you make – all of them.

Write yourself a permission slip.

When you get clear about what matters most, you can set new boundaries about how to honor your commitments. Leaving the office every day at a certain time, staying off of work-related apps or email after-hours or carving out certain hours for strategic thinking are all new habits that can be reinforced with accountability partners like direct reports, your team, or your manager or your coach.

As an adult, you are the only one who makes choices about your life. There’s no one who can give you the freedom you crave, or make choices that serve you best. Workplaces are responding to workforce demand for more freedom – the rest is up to you. You can make the hard choices yourself to create the professional life you want.

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