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A Freelancer’s Guide to Setting Boundaries

by Katie Mehas

in Your Brand, In Business

About this column

Business basics for brand creators. Because keeping up with the details shouldn’t derail your big dreams.

A Freelancer's Guide to Setting Boundaries

When I was a magazine editor, the company occasionally sent us away for a day of off-site training.

One of these training sessions was based on the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At the time, it felt pretty self-explanatory. Plan, prioritize, be proactive. Collaborate, listen, work on mutually beneficial solutions. In an office environment with limited independence and not a huge amount of input on long-term, company-wide strategy, the methods they set forth over the course of the day weren’t exactly earth-shattering.

Now that I’m at the helm of my own business, however, I find myself thinking back on that day (and not just because of the free lunch). It turns out, when you have control over literally everything your company does, effectiveness extends far beyond just hitting your deadlines. Suddenly, you’re in charge of researching the strategy to build the processes that create the products that result in the timelines that necessitate the deadlines.

No pressure.

The one habit that seemed the most superfluous at the time is now the habit I have the hardest time with, and the one that has become absolutely crucial in the sustainability of my business:

Habit #7: Sharpen the saw.

Back when I was clocking in at my cubicle every day, this seemed like the easiest thing in the world. Sure, I had days when my work spilled over into the evenings, when I would stay late or come in early or take work home for the weekend, but taking time away from my work was basically my raison d’être. I took holidays, I went out for dinner, I slept at night. I read books on the elliptical at the gym. I did yoga every Saturday morning.

Essentially all the things that went out the window when I became my own boss. (And, er, the things that went way out the window when I had kids, but that’s a whole ’nother blog post.)

When your office is 15 feet away from your bed, it’s easy to find yourself working more than you’d intended. One more email. One more blog post. One more Facebook post. One more hour…night…week…

If you find yourself caught in the cycle of overworking, it may be time to start setting some boundaries. I know this is easier said than done — it’s something I’m working on every single day. And it may feel like you’re doing your clients a disservice by not being available to them every waking moment. However, you’ll find that the version of you that’s cared-for, well-rested, and happy is ever so much more beneficial to the people you’re trying to serve than the version who’s burned-out, overworked, and ready to throw in the towel. Caring for yourself is a love letter to your clients, and setting reasonable boundaries is the first step in penning that letter.

Here are a few ways you might begin to create the space you need to thrive.

Set office hours.

I once had a conference call at 2am when I was launching a partnership experience between Disney and HSN. It was a really long night (and made for an even longer next day), but while nights like those happened from time to time when I was working a “regular” desk job, they were a break from the usual schedule, not the norm. When you create your own workday, you can easily find yourself sitting at the computer at 10:00 on a Friday night, every Friday night. Your to-do list probably has enough to keep you busy for three days straight at any given time, but if you’ve set office hours, it makes it a lot easier to say, “Okay, it’s closing time. Is there a deadline coming up that I need to finish right now, or can the rest of this list wait until tomorrow?” That way, a big project might push you into overtime, but you’re less likely to let the end of your workday creep later and later each night.

Schedule your emails.

I spend a lot of time with my phone in my hand. So when I see an email come in at 8pm, there’s a very good chance I’m reading it at 8pm. The problem is, if I sit down and send a response right away, I may get another back at 8:15…or 10:15…or 2am. This is an even bigger issue when you find yourself serving clients all over the world. When you factor in time zones, you could easily be on call 24-7, and shooting off a “quick” email reply can easily turn into another couple hours on the computer during what should be your downtime (or your bedtime). But if you schedule your email response to send out during your set office hours (see above), it doesn’t matter if you’re replying at 2am, 10am, Friday at midnight, or over Sunday brunch — you get to control when the conversation continues. I like Boomerang for this, but you may find something that works better for you.

Plan time off.

Whether this is a lunch break every day, recognizing a federal holiday or two, taking weekends off, or scheduling a week’s vacation sans internet, intentionally taking time away from your work forces you to focus on yourself for at least a little bit. And you have to be intentional about this. Remember that bit about sharpening your saw? You can’t do it if you’re constantly sawing — and the more you plug away, the duller you get. If I go too long without taking a day off, I suddenly find myself spending an hour replying to an email, and I can’t get anything done at that rate. But after a day or two away, I’m like a new person. Decide in advance when you want your time off, and let your clients know you won’t be available. This might be something you do by publicizing your office hours on your website, or maybe you just need to let clients know you’ll be away from your computer for a week in March and schedule your deadlines accordingly. If you plan to take more than a day or two away, make sure your VA is comfortable handling your email, or at least set up an autoresponder to let people know when to expect a response from you. Chances are, you’ll be able to structure your work schedule so that (almost) no one will even notice you’re gone.

Micromanage your deadlines.

You’re probably already tracking your major deadlines — blog post by Tuesday, client project next Thursday, analytics report the first of every month. But sometimes when you only list out the final dates, it can be hard to manage your time. You may find yourself feeling like you need to keep working and finish everything in one sitting, or you may end up procrastinating until you have to finish it all in one day. But what if you broke it down into even smaller deadlines? You might try spreading a blog post over a week, to get a fresh perspective on it each day (Monday: choose a topic, Tuesday: write half the post, Wednesday: second half, Thursday: edits and HTML, Friday: social media and newsletter). You might give yourself a month to outline a sales page, with micro-deadlines all along the way. The more specific you can be about what you need to accomplish in a single day, the easier it will be to log off at the end of your “work hours,” and the less likely it is you’ll be cramming (into overtime) for the deadline at the last minute.

Close the door.

This is one of the first things you read in articles about working from home: close the office door after hours so you’re not tempted to wander in for “just one more…” Well, my office became a kids’ room almost five years ago, and I now do all of my work in a room without a door. I look forward to the day when I can have a dedicated work room again, but in the meantime, I set other boundaries for myself. I may read emails on my phone, but I only reply from my computer. Unless there’s something that needs my attention right away, my laptop stays closed outside of my regular business hours. I’ll admit that I’ve pecked out more than one blog post from my phone as I sat up with unsettled children way past their bedtime, but I won’t sneak in work when we’re having actual quality time. If you have an office door, great — make use of it! But if you don’t have that space in your home, find some other way to create a barrier between your work and the rest of your life.

Find a hobby.

This ties into planning time off, but if you have something you’d really like to be doing, it makes it more fun to frame it into your schedule and makes you more likely to do it. Maybe it’s 20 minutes of a video game when you hit a certain deadline or a two-mile run every morning before you get started. Maybe it’s stand-up paddling every Saturday or a standing lunch date every Tuesday. Whatever it is you want to be doing, make it a formal part of your schedule and be firm about it. You may need to make the occasional exception when there’s a big deadline on your schedule, but making this part of your routine ensures you’re usually finding the time for it. I don’t care how much you love your work — make time for play, or you’re going to burn out eventually.

Take care of yourself.

No, this is not the same as spending time doing something you enjoy, though that’s a different part of taking care of yourself, and you need both. I’m talking about the basics: sleep, eat, shower, exercise. In the most functional terms, if you’re not caring for yourself, you’re not going to be productive. It may feel counterintuitive, but if you’re feeling worn-down, stepping away for a nap or a shower or some lunch could save you time if you’re able to come back and get work done twice as fast. (This sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. If anything, I’m understating how much this helps me.) And don’t forget to nurture a creative practice of some sort. I spend a lot of time writing copy and coming up with strategies for other people’s businesses. But if I never allow my own creative mind to roam free, I find I run out of things to say. Whatever your creative practice — reading, writing, painting, gardening — make time to let your mind wander and do something that allows you to replenish that well.

Practice saying no.

I have a bad habit of volunteering for things. The friend who needs a little resume help? Sure, I’ve got that. Looking for someone to speak at your conference? Count me in. In need of a cake for your upcoming event? I’ll bake it. What I’m learning is that I have to choose how I really want to spend my time, because when your schedule reaches a certain level of “full,” you’re going to have to give something up for every new thing you take on. I’ll gladly lose sleep to bake my brother’s wedding cake. I’m not going to put off writing a new course so that I can revamp the resume of someone I haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ll accept the invitations to sign up as an alumni interviewer for my college once I have a little more free time. It’s okay not to take everything on yourself right now. And this goes equally for those little, “One more thing…” additions to your client projects. If a request is out of scope for your project, let your client know. There’s a good chance they’d rather have you approach it fresh as a new project than try to shoehorn it into your current project as an afterthought, especially if it’s going to be to the detriment of the work you’re already doing.

Let go of your guilt.

I may be projecting here (not sure if I should blame Catholic school or motherhood for this one), but I suspect you feel a little bit guilty every time you do something just for yourself. You need to let some of this go. Not every minute needs to be dedicated to your work, and not every spare penny needs to be dedicated to training and hiring and reinvesting in your business. Sometimes, it’s not just okay, it’s necessary to, say, take an extra long lunch and get a really good massage. Remember, caring for yourself is necessary to make your work sustainable and to make you productive and efficient. Setting boundaries makes your work better. And while I certainly can’t say that I don’t feel guilt when I choose self-care over eight to ten solid hours of productivity, I know I’m a better person (mother, writer, etc.) when I do. Your clients don’t expect you to work through every weekend, every holiday, every late night — and if they do, there’s a pretty good chance you’re working for the wrong clients.

It’s so much easier to leave work at work when you have somewhere to physically leave, but that doesn’t mean that life as a freelancer has to equal endless hours and creeping schedules. When you treat yourself with care and compassion, it opens you up to increased creativity, productivity, and efficacy — and while your clients may not notice that you’ve scheduled yourself some time away from work, you can be sure they’ll notice the benefits.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

How do you set boundaries in your business? Is there a practice you’ve tried that helps you make the space you need?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carolina January 16, 2018 at 9:19 am

This post speaks volumes to me! Micromanaging deadlines and scheduling emails is something I intend to fully integrate into my routine. It’s been a struggle with these things the most. I love all your tips, but those spoke the loudest!
Thanks so much for sharing!


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