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Ximena Vila Ferral: How to protect professional boundaries

Ximena Vila Ferral: How to protect professional boundaries

Ximena Vila Ferral is a Mexican-born, Texas-based designer and developer. When not plugged into her full-time gig as a web designer Designer at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

In the second part of this series, we dive deep into project overload, hitting burnout, personal and professional boundaries, when to take a step back, and calendar prioritization.

When Did You Last Experience Burnout?

This took place mainly during the pandemic, but it had been building up over time. Quite simply, there were just too many things piled on my plate.

I was working at an agency where I wore many hats, which was great because I learned a ton, and it got me to where I am now. At the same time, I became known as someone willing to work and figure things out. I wound up getting a ton of tasks or projects — anything they could offer — dumped on me.

Throughout all of this, I was underpaid and pretty unhappy.

So, I took on freelance projects to compensate and bring in more cash while continuing to work with AIGA out of pure love for the community they’ve built.

Pushing Through Until You Can’t

Once we went into lockdown because of COVID-19, we lost those social, in-person elements of both our personal and work lives.

So I dove into all of my work, thinking, “Great. I’ve got time! I’ll do all of this work and take a course on frontend plus another course plus XYZ.”

One thing wound up being a month-long AIGA Unidos initiative where we hosted five events per week for five weeks. I was involved in almost all of them: presenting, hosting, building the site. I worked through my birthday until 2 or 3 AM because I was just so hyped about it.

I didn't feel burnt out because I thought, "This is so cool. I'm doing this and this and this." Once it ended, I crashed badly, which was exacerbated by the isolation of lockdown. The stress and anxiety really got to me physically.

After Burning Out, How Did You Move Forward?

I mean, I was simply not doing well, so I knew I absolutely had to take a step back.

As great as the people were, the work and compensation at my agency were not good for me. So I told them I’d be reducing my hours to part-time.

I stopped freelancing altogether. I needed to take as much time for myself as possible. At the same time, online AIGA events for our chapter went on hiatus.

Once that happened, I had all of this new time and mental energy to slowly rework my portfolio, which landed me my current role at UTSA.

Non-Negotiable Boundaries

From the get-go at this new job, I have said, “Boundaries! This is how much I’ll be doing. If you want me to work on weekends, it’s a hard ‘no’ unless you tell me in advance.”

I’ll no longer be the person who goes, “Of course, I’ll stay for however many hours or work through the weekend to get this done because you failed to plan properly.”

Since my experiences at the agency, I’m far better at saying no to preserve my time and health. With that extra time and better pay, I can now pick and choose projects, so I only take on work that I truly believe in. Burnout definitely made me more aware and selective.

For instance, I’ve had to tell myself that coding courses need to be put on hold for my sanity. My mind frequently says, "I want to do so many things."

At the same time, it realizes, "I need to sleep" — because burning out again means not being able to do anything.

How Do You Draw Professional Boundaries?

It’s tricky and I definitely don’t have a set approach to this. I have coworkers who’ll say to me, “I don’t know how you do it. I definitely can’t. You just say ‘no’ and close off your time.”

Then I'll respond, "Well, the thing is, I already had to learn that the hard way."

So I think there are a couple of things to consider here.

1) Value Your Livelihood Over Your Job

I’ll tell them: “Look, I know you want to show up, do everything, and be excellent. But not protecting your free time does not necessarily equate to doing a good job.”

Then many people think, “No, I’ve gotta grind. I’ve already worked my 40 hours, but if I keep going and busting my tail, maybe I’ll get that raise or promotion.”

So the first thing I think we should try to understand is, as much as you love the job and they tell you you're indispensable, you're not. They can still very quickly let you go or replace you. It’s just not worth burning yourself out for them.

What’s worth it is respecting your own time.

2) Be Firm in Your Boundaries

Next, it’s about being straight-up honest with your manager or superior. Communication and honesty are the greatest priorities for me. I might say:

“Look, this is where I’m at. I can work reasonable overtime, but I have to respect my time. So I need you to tell me a week or two in advance so I can schedule stuff and give you a yes or no.”

I also live by my calendar, which helps me out if I say, “You want me to do this? I actually already have something scheduled that I need to respect.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, family event, or time to lay on my couch. If it’s there, I respect the commitment and ask others to do the same because I do not want to burn out again. If your managers can’t understand that, you may not be in the right place. I try to emphasize it as: “I’m doing this for both of us, not just me. If I burn out, I am of no use to this company.”

Ultimately, it's about being transparent and honest with yourself and whomever you work with about why you're doing it — and then being firm in those boundaries you've drawn.