Individual productivity, attention, and tips to help you set boundaries

Published Oct 27 2020 08:04 AM 3,536 Views
Co-authored by Emma Stephen and Tony Crabbe


There’s not one moment when it all changed. The speed of innovation and connection started as a slow creep with the first telephone call in the 1800s, the first email in the 1960s and dial-up Internet. I can still hear my mum telling me to, “Stop chatting on MSN because I need to use the phone!”. Then suddenly we were catapulted into a world where it’s possible to connect with anyone at a moment’s notice. Boundaries around how we connect have been falling at an intense rate, opening a world of opportunity for connection, education, research, cooperation across nations, businesses, and more.


Technology has toppled boundaries everywhere and we’re certainly feeling that in our now hybrid workplaces. We often see boundaries as undesirable because they mean separation, but boundaries can also be protective of our productivity and well-being. In a world where attention is scarce and the lines between individual and collective productivity are blurring, a key capability is developing boundaries of a protective nature.


Protective boundaries in the workplace keep us at our best, ensuring we can give work and people the attention and care required to succeed in today’s workplace. These protective boundaries fall into three categories: today vs. tomorrow boundaries, access boundaries, and social boundaries. So how do we go about setting up healthy boundaries that protect us and how can the Modern Collaboration Architecture – picking the right technology for the task – support?



The Today vs. Tomorrow Boundary

This boundary is about creating the conditions that remind us of our longer-term goals and keep our focus. They shape our environment to focus us on that big chunk of work due “tomorrow” rather than diverting down “today’s” easier path of consuming email, scanning our phones, or looking at cat pictures. Procrastination can be beneficial¹ until, at some point, we need to just get it done. Getting it done is where these boundaries come into play.


When you start your day or week, think about your priorities, whether that’s a daily highlight² or a top three for the week. Try using a custom list in ToDo to create your Highlight or Big 3 Lists – your purpose for the week. This helps keep the focus on some of the bigger items you need to make progress on (and keeps you from getting sucked into busy).


It’s great to make the list but what about making the time? Recent research has shown that for the majority of people, somewhere between 07.00 and 12.00 is when they most easily find Flow³. What’s your rhythm and when are you at your best? Whether you use MyAnalytics or a simple, recurring calendar block, schedule focus time into your diary and protect that time. Don’t want to get sucked into emails but still want to see your appointments and focus slots for the day? Use the Advanced settings in Outlook options to make it start-up on the calendar (instead of your inbox).


Ever had good intentions to get started on something but then got distracted as you search for the document you want to work on and something else grabs your attention? Try using Task View in Windows 10 to scroll through your documents from the last days and open them directly from there. Focus Assist is also a helpful way to block out alerts when you don’t want to be disturbed.


The Access Boundary

This boundary is about consciously deciding when we are available online or not – when do we jump to reply and when are we unreachable because we are focused on progressing our priorities? When we don’t set this boundary, we notice a feeling of getting pulled into the whirlwind of business as usual, blasting out emails, and feeling busy.


A few years ago, when you started your day, you didn’t used to run out in your pyjamas and answer all your letters immediately. Why do it with email? Turn on your “Focused” and “Other” inboxes and you can teach Outlook which mails have priority for you. If you are going to try something like inbox opening hours, the trick is awareness – put it in your email signature or chat status – so that people know when they can expect a reply. You can also turn off all Outlook alerts except for calendar reminders which puts another barrier in place to stop you getting sucked into email. Set your status to “Do Not Disturb” or the now available “Offline” status functionality.


What about at the end of the day? Fully closing the workday leaves us to better connect with our families, friends, and hobbies. Setting access boundaries that align with our commitments outside of work sets both a mental boundary and a physiological one. Physiologically, always being “on” increases cortisol – a stress hormone – and with it, the risk of burnout. Mentally, creating a level of segmentation helps us focus and transition into the different roles and responsibilities of our home life.


Take a last look through Microsoft Teams and check if any alerts or @mentions need your attention, check what’s upcoming tomorrow, in short do what works for you. Our most important piece of advice is to build a ritual that helps you step away from work and re-focus your attention on your leisure time. Leverage quiet hours on Microsoft Teams mobile and try building in a virtual commute (coming soon to desktop), a great step to help you switch off at the end of the day regardless of your work setting.



The Social Boundary

This boundary is all about how we work with others and our expectations of others and ourselves. Our digital life needs social boundaries as much as our analogue life. In the work context, this means agreeing how we will collaborate and engage with others.


One of our Microsoft subsidiaries benefited when they did this at the organizational level, setting out six rituals for how they work together. These focused on various topics from being fully present in meetings to ensuring that people had and took time to refresh throughout the day. Whilst this seems like a culture topic, technology can also support at the individual level to set expectations.


Try using your status in Microsoft Teams to make it explicit when you are available and in what time-zone. If you do email on the weekend, save drafts in Outlook and send emails when you get into the office on Monday. Whether you’re working across time-zones or just have different rhythms, leverage the power of co-editing, comments, and chat to work more asynchronously when it suits you. Use meetings to focus on discussion and ideas.


We hope this blog gave some actionable tips that are helpful to you and others you work with. We’re definitely still learning, and we look forward to learning with you. What have you tried? Let us know.


Join us in the next blog with a focus on attention in the context of teamwork.


  1. The Perks of Procrastination, Harvard Professional Development, October 2016
  2. Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Bantam Press, 2018
  3. Future of Work research, Microsoft and BCG, October 2020
  4. Dettmers J, Vahle-Hinz T, Bamberg E, Friedrich N, Keller M (2016) Extended work availability and its relation with start-of-day mood and cortisol. J Occup Health Psychol. 2016 Jan;21(1):105-18


This blog post is a part of our series on the Modern Collaboration Architecture, developed by Rishi Nicolai, a Microsoft Digital Strategist with over 25 years of experience in leading organizations through change and improving employee productivity. Blog one and blog two can be found under the links.



About the authors:

Emma Stephen

Emma is a Customer Success Manager at Microsoft and is passionate about bringing the human element into the workplace. She believes technology both enables change and can catalyze wider change efforts if introduced in the right way. Emma is based in Zurich and currently studying for her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology with a hope to leverage this in the organizational context. 


Tony Crabbe

Tony Crabbe is a Business Psychologist who supports Microsoft on global projects as well as a number of other multinationals. As a psychologist he focuses on how people think, feel and behave at work.  Whether working with leaders, teams or organizations, at its core his work is all about harnessing attention to create behavioral change.   

His first book, the international best-seller ’Busy’ was published around the world and translated to thirteen languages.  In 2016 it was listed as being in the top 3 leadership books, globally.  His new book, ‘Busy@Home’ explores how to thrive through the uncertainties and challenges of Covid; and move positively into the hybrid world. 

Tony is a regular media commentator around the world, as well as appearances on RTL, the BBC and the Oprah Winfrey Network. 


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