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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?

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We talk a lot about finding our “Right Person.”

It’s really the core of everything we do here at The Voice Bureau. The Voice Values get the most attention, but they really underline that work — they’re essentially a tool we use to signal to our Right Person that we’re a great fit for what they need.

But why the obsession with finding your Right client? Aren’t most marketing businesses focused on finding you the most clients? Isn’t that the whole point of marketing?

Well, first of all, it’s time to let go of the scarcity mindset. This idea of getting the most sales sounds great on paper. (More money! Broader reach! Success and fame and fortune!) Sounds like anything but scarcity, right? But, when you start to look closer, you realize what you’re actually saying: I’ll take anything I can get.

You wouldn’t name your grisly murder mystery novel Harry Potter and the Fluffy White Puppy in order to tap into the youth market. You wouldn’t run your therapy practice out of a taco truck in order to find clients who don’t need therapy but do want some lunch. And do you really want to pay the extra fees to have 50,000 people on your mailing list who never once open an email?

There are enough of your Right People to support you.

We’ve talked before about what happens when you say “yes” to your Wrong Person, so I won’t rehash that here. But here’s the thing to remember: you don’t need them. In fact, there are so many potential clients out there, you can speak directly to your Right Person and stay friends with your “competition” without ever running out of people to work with. I won’t tell you that it doesn’t take work, but it’s healthy and pleasant and so, so worth it.

So if it’s okay to limit your focus to your Right Person, what does that actually look like? What happens to your business when you find your Right Person?

Here are a few things you might find:

 

They buy more, and more often, with less selling.

You still need to have a great product and you need to work to get the word out, but when your Right Person is tuned in, you’ll find that that’s just what it is: getting the word out. There’s no hard sell, no bending over backwards to make exceptions and changes and customizations. Just sharing the work you do best, and connecting with the people who want what you’re offering. You actually get to focus on the work you love and not so much on the sales part (that I think we all hate). Amazing.

 

They like you. They really like you.

There have been a few times in my online business career when I really thought I’d have to give it up, and almost all of those have been when I was trying to be someone I’m not. This work just doesn’t feel sustainable if I can’t be myself, especially when I’m trying to connect authentically with my clients. But there’s something really interesting I’ve discovered: when I open up and put myself out there — introversion and opinions and flaws and all — people react. I get emails. Comments. Notes from readers who get me. Who relate to me. And I can’t tell you how amazing that feels. Not only does this business feel sustainable, it feels like it’s actually keeping me going. (Thank you.) Self-employment means we forgo the water cooler and the casual chats at a coworker’s desk, but having a quick email from a reader who’s been thinking of you more than makes up for it.

 

They thrive on your natural connection.

Do you break out in hives every time you see some marketing guru insist that you need to use vlogs to reach your audience? It’s okay, there’s a good chance your Right Person understands. Might they enjoy seeing you outside your box? Sure. But the kind of client who insists on you doing things outside of your zone of genius is also the sort of client who, mid-project, wants to change the scope…and the timeframe…and the process. In other words: if they’re asking you to change who you are before you’ve even worked together, there’s a good chance it won’t be the last time. But the ones who get you? They’ll take you the way you are. And whether you’re inherently inclined to share every detail of your life or you’re more reserved, your Right Person will not only understand, they’re right there with you.

 

They talk you up.

I can’t think of anything more genuinely flattering than a natural referral. And it’s a great way to stretch that marketing budget. (You have a marketing budget, right?) When you have the positive experience of working with your Right Person, there’s a decent chance you’ll be at the front of their mind when they have a friend looking for [insert what you do here]. On the other hand, you might be awesome at what you do, but working with your Wrong Person…well, you probably don’t want to hear what they have to say about having a bad experience, but you can be sure that someone will be hearing it. (Ugh.)

 

They trust the process.

You know how you have a particular way of doing things that really works for you? Maybe (like us), you know that you work best in writing and not on the phone. Maybe you prefer single-day intensives to long-term retainer packages. Maybe you really need your new clients to complete a series of exercises before you can get started. Your Right Person understands that you have a way of doing things, and they’re more than happy to come along for the ride, which means you get what you need to do your best work.

 

They let you live in your zone of genius.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m an introvert. My marketing style isn’t loud or pushy or in-your-face. Can I write copy for businesses who go for that sort of thing? Sure, but it’s not what I do best. It’s in my wheelhouse, but it’s not my zone of genius. The cool thing about my Right Person is that they want what I do best — which means I get to do that, instead of trying to fight against my instincts.

 

They’re excited by what you do.

A while back, I wrote about my blind spots — the things I love to do and do well that seem so natural to me, I can’t imagine anyone hiring me to do them. Organization. Project management. Content strategy. Brand voice development. They’re all things I live and breathe…and apparently, not everyone feels the same way. Turns out, there are a lot of people out there who are thrilled to have someone do those things for them. It’s a great feeling to send a project out to a client and get their enthusiastic response in return. (There have been tears. It’s true.)

 

You’ll probably find that you need to rethink your Right Person a few times throughout the course of your work, and it’s also possible that your Right Person blog reader and your Right Person paying client aren’t the same person. It’s great to imagine that you can just be yourself and the money will come rolling in, but you do need to keep working to get yourself in front of the right eyes, and it takes more than just “being yourself” to run a successful business. But when you focus on the Right Person and manage to connect with them, it’s absolutely magical, in every way. And there’s plenty to fill your schedule — trust me.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

What sort of experiences have you had working with your Right Person?

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Business as UnusualMy daughter recently started preschool.

Go ahead, take a moment to bemoan the passage of time. It’s my new hobby.

With the total upheaval of our schedule, it’s been hard to find the time or motivation to keep up with everything, if I’m being completely honest. Client work, sure. But blog posts, web updates, social media, not-so-pressing emails? I’m…a little less focused.

It’s been really good for her — this is the first time she’s been away from me and around kids on a regular basis — and I’m sure it’s good for me, too (and not just because I’m walking or biking the half-mile to her school twice a day). But it’s also been a huge change, and a major emotional adjustment. And she’s already gotten sick twice.

That’s not all, of course. It never is.

There’s the family stuff, as usual. (When you have a big family, there’s always some sort of family stuff.) And it seems like lately, every time I read the news, there’s something new to worry about. If it’s not the threat of nuclear war, it’s literal Nazis marching down our streets. It’s collusion and corruption and floods and widespread wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth.

And I’m supposed to blog about marketing tactics.

I think, especially for those of us who are particularly sensitive to the world around us, it can feel like we’re constantly on edge, and that can make it hard to focus on things that feel a bit…banal in comparison. Who can think about a sales funnel when the world is ending? (It’s not. Not today, anyway.)

So how do you keep on keeping on with business as usual when it feels like life is anything but?

Well, there are a few different approaches you might take.

  1. Use your voice.

When it feels like the world is falling apart — personally or globally — you want to talk about it, right? So use your platform to amplify the signal of people who are doing good work. Take a stand. Ask for help. Share your feelings. Your business does not exist in a bubble, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. This approach is probably the most healthy, and certainly the most helpful. Tackling these problems head-on — in your own way, however you can — is the way we create change. You might even build this into your business — plan for a portion of proceeds to go to a charity that means something to you, or schedule time to dedicate to something important to you, whether that’s a volunteer organization or family dinner every night (or once a week). Be explicit about your priorities, and it will be easier to build your life around them.

  1. Plan ahead.

One of the nice things about having a few blog posts in the bank is that you can just drop one into the schedule when you’re feeling less than motivated. Of course, this means you need to do some planning and set aside some time to actually write a block of posts before you need them, and it doesn’t really help with more time-sensitive work, but you might be surprised by what a difference this makes.

  1. Remember that life goes on.

While it may feel strange to talk about business when the “real world” is all that’s on your mind, people are still working. Your clients and your readers still want your support, even if you feel strange offering it. Don’t shy away from being in business. If you had a desk job where you had to punch a timecard each day, you wouldn’t stop going into work when the world got you down — or at least not for long. Which leads me to my next suggestion…

  1. Take a nap.

Or a walk. Or a vacation. Sometimes, you need to acknowledge that life takes precedence, and business will wait. If you miss a blog post, will the world end? Will you find genuine relief from a day off? When your job description doesn’t come with a vacation package, it’s easy to find yourself working 24-7, 365, but sometimes, life calls for a day off. Just make sure a day doesn’t turn into a year.

  1. Know when to back down.

You can’t shut down every time there’s a bump in your life, but there are some occasions that call for a moment of respectful quiet. I, personally, have found myself really turned off by businesses who refused to adapt their calendars immediately following a major event, especially one that would be considered a disaster. A general rule — if a large portion of the world (or, at least, of your audience) is glued to the news because of something major unfolding, don’t butt in with an advertisement. At best, you’ll be ignored, and at worst, you’ll come across as callous. If you’d rather not talk about what’s happening, just step back and keep quiet until some time has passed. And if you’d prescheduled a few posts that you weren’t able to cancel in time, follow up with something relevant and heartfelt. No one expects you to shut down your business, but be aware that while you’re promoting, other people may be hurting. Be kind.

It’s impossible to completely separate our work from our lives. Behind every business is an actual human, and it’s important to remember to be gentle with ourselves. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes, that needs our attention more than another blog post about how to optimize your email marketing or make the most of social media.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

How does your life factor into your work? Do you find it hard to shut out the outside world when it comes to your business?

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Making the Case for a Dash of Audacity

Despite what my Crayola-colored hair might suggest, Audacity is not one of my top Voice Values.

In fact, it’s pretty far down my list. I tend to favor a measured, cautious approach. Accuracy is more my speed. Slow and steady. Dot my i’s, cross my t’s. Fortune may favor the bold, but brash and brazen give me hives.

It doesn’t help that our current climate here in the United States is basically a tableau of Audacity gone wrong — an endless stream of entirely over-the-top things said or done seemingly with the sole purpose of shocking us until we’ve become numb to the constant onslaught of stupefaction and vulgarity. Can he say that? Is this legal? Is this real?

Audacity done right, though, can bring a punch of humanity to your business — a spark of motivation, a much-needed laugh, a gentle nod to your fellow outsiders. It just takes a light touch and a bit of self-awareness. A nudge, not a slap.

Whether you’re looking to embrace Audacity as one of your top Voice Values or you’re interested in just a pinch for added flavor in your brand conversation, Audacity can be a lot of fun. It’s bold and daring. It’s loud and courageous. It’s…not for everyone.

Or, well, it can be. You just have to know how to use it.

Audacity is an interesting Voice Value because it gives you permission to be who you are, no apologies. You can be Audaciously non-Audacious — brazenly square, in a room full of dance-party unicorn badass babes. There is a rawness to Audacity, a realness and an authenticity, a willingness to see a trend and say, in the immortal words of Arya Stark, “That’s not me.”

In a brand conversation with a softer, gentler feel, Audacity can help you build a sense of urgency.

In some cases, Audacity comes through as playfulness. It’s not necessarily a no-filter nose-thumbing at the establishment — sometimes, it’s a play on words and a refusal to take itself too seriously. Not everyone with a high Audacity value is comfortable with — or interested in — swearing in their business communications. (And not everyone who lets slip the occasional burst of colorful language is sporting a high Audacity value, though it’s often a sign of some Audacious tendencies.)

Audacity shows your readers that you’re not afraid to be authentically you. Sometimes, that presents as a rebellious middle finger at the establishment. Sometimes, it’s a refusal to fall in line with what’s expected or “cool.” It’s rejecting the narrative and replacing it with something that feels more true to you. It takes courage.

Letting loose a tirade of invective is certainly Audacious. Airing your dirty laundry is Audacious. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. There are certainly businesses who have built their reputations around scandal and feuds, but I think we can do better.

I recently placed an order with Lime Crime*, a company that positively oozes Audacity. At their best, this comes across as vivacious, enthusiastic, and inclusive of customers who see themselves as outsiders or even outcasts. At their worst, it’s resulted in a mountain of complaints and criticism — not about their products but about their behavior. To be honest, as someone who votes with her wallet, it kept me from purchasing from them for years, and it was only after several glowing reviews from friends that I was willing to give them a try at all. In this case, a little too much Audacity overshadowed their Excellence and actually detracted from the humanity of the brand a bit — a heartfelt mea culpa would’ve gone a long way to soothe their scandals, and I probably would’ve been rocking those badass lipsticks for years.

That’s the thing about Audacity — it’s easy to wear it as an armor when asserting your individuality, but if you don’t pair it with a bit of vulnerability, it can backfire, and what started as authenticity becomes a facade.

So yes, I think a dash of Audacity could do you some good. You can use it to spur your readers into action. It can make them feel included and special. It might make them laugh, or reply with a hearty, “Eff yeah!” It’s empowering — for you and for your readers. But it doesn’t always need to look the same, and it should never overpower the substance of your brand conversation.

So be bold. Be courageous. But, above all, be you. Because you are why your Right Person is here.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

How do you embrace Audacity in your business? Do you see an opportunity to be a little more Audacious, or does the idea make you want to hide under the covers?

 

*Yes, that’s an affiliate link. While I can’t — and won’t — speak for the actions of the company, I can wear their lipsticks without leaving little kiss marks all over my babies, and that link gives you $5 off if you decide to give them a try.

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In Defense of Saying "No"Have you ever worked with your Wrong Person?

It’s not a phrase we use often — we’re more focused on the positive here, the Right Person ideal client who you really want to do business with, day after day.

It’s a very different experience with the not-so-ideal client.

There’s a mindset in certain circles of business that’s focused on getting as many sales as possible. Don’t say anything too “out there” or you might scare off clients. Try to mimic the voices of the big names; it’s working for them. Appeal to as many people as possible. Hustle. Promote. Sell sell sell.

But here’s the thing: when you dilute yourself to appeal to everyone, you’re going to miss out on the people who would love your weird little quirks. And you’re going to attract people who are looking for…well, whatever it is you’re pretending to be.

Your Right Person comes to you because she believes you can do the job better than others in your market. Sure, it might take some convincing — samples, testimonials, great sales copy, even an exploratory intro session if that’s your thing — but by the time she signs on that dotted line, she trusts that you know what you’re doing. This isn’t blind trust, and it’s probably not boundless, but generally speaking, she hired you for being good at what you do, and she believes you’re going to do it well for her.

Your not-so-right person? They question you every step of the way.

Do you really need to follow this process? Can’t we do it my way?

I know you said you needed this, but I thought maybe you could work around it.

I was talking to my partner’s sister’s neighbor’s friend, and she knew someone who did work like this once, and she said…

It’s exhausting.

It’s not that they’re bad people, or even bad clients — they’re just not your clients.

See, that’s the thing about the Wrong Person.

It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, just wrong for you.

Someone else is already following your Wrong Person’s process. They totally agree with the partner’s sister’s neighbor’s friend’s acquaintance. All those areas of friction that keep you stalled and sluggish? Like buttah.

Your Wrong Person is their Right Person. And yet, here you are…

They’ll fill up your schedule. They’ll take all of your energy. Six weeks into a two-week project, you’ll glance back at your scope in the rear view mirror as you fly into double-overtime with no end in sight. You’ll work nights. Weekends. Your daughter’s birthday. You could be hit by a bus, and you’ll be pecking out an email on your phone with two broken thumbs, responding to the 8,654th “I know it’s a bad time, but…”

You remember how you were so excited to make the sale? You’re spending twice as long on a project that doesn’t bring you half as much joy. Too many of these, and you’ll find yourself questioning if following your dream is really worth it.

(It is. But not like this.)

Working with your Wrong Person takes a lot out of you. They expect you to work outside of your comfort zone, because they don’t understand where that is for you. It’s not their fault; they probably don’t know any better.

So here’s the thing. You do know better. And you know what else?

It’s okay to say no.

I’m not talking about after they’ve signed on, though, you know, feel free to have someone without two broken arms shoot them a message to that effect if you have a run-in with a Greyhound. I mean, at the beginning.

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t think I’m a fit for your needs.”

Boom. It’s that simple.

(It’s not. It never is. But it’s a start.)

Of course, some people will take it personally. It’s not. You just see what they need and know what you have to offer, and you understand that there’s a disconnect. So help them see where that disconnect is. Keep it simple but straightforward. You want X, I do Y. You don’t owe them a thesis, but be kind; they’re lost and don’t realize they haven’t found their solution. Try to have a plan for how you’re going to approach this in advance, because, if you’re anything like me, rejecting someone  — even for all the right reasons — is going to give you all kinds of anxiety, and having a script to fall back on takes some of that pressure off of you.

If you know of someone who’s a better fit to support them, make a referral. I know, it sounds totally crazy to pass a potential client on to someone else. But think of it this way: if you’re a dog-walker and someone comes to you looking for a birthday cake, you’re going to send them to someone who bakes birthday cakes. This isn’t really any different, just a little more specialized.

When we live in our own zone of genius, we tend to do our best work. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch yourself and try to learn more, but you understand what you’re all about, and you probably know, in your gut, when a potential client is asking for something different. Don’t fill your schedule with the Wrong People and then find you have no room when the Right People come calling.

So how do we avoid attracting the Wrong People?

Some of it is probably unavoidable. You’re going to get the occasional rogue inquiry, whether from a random web search or just someone who likes your philosophy but doesn’t really understand your process. Learn how to say no to them gently and with kindness. Make sure they understand that you simply don’t offer the experience they’re seeking, and steer them in the right direction if you can.

Other times, it’s just a matter of keeping your content authentic. This is especially true if you’re selling a physical product — you can’t exactly stop someone from pressing that “Add to Cart” button, but you may find yourself disputing their bad reviews and processing their returns for a product they just didn’t really understand (because, um, it wasn’t meant for them).

Remember that warning about scaring people off? Try to reframe your thinking. So you geek out over systems, or you cry at ASPCA commercials, or you take one week off every month to re-center on a desert meditation retreat. So your throw pillows are designed to suit a funky witchy-goth-boho vibe, or your hand-thrown ceramic mugs are intentionally a little bit wobbly. The kind of person who is going to love working with you is going to love that about you. They’re going to see you in all your quirks and think, “Finally, I have found my people.” And you’re going to have an awesome time working with them. But not if your schedule is already full.

So don’t be afraid to say “no.” It just frees you up to say “yes” to the Right Person — and it gives your Wrong Person a chance to find the place where they’re all Right.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Have you been approached by your Wrong Person? Did you end up working with them, or did you pass? How did it go?

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