If we’re full time freelance and work from home, it can easily take over our lives if we’re not careful. This can eat into our free time and headspace, damage relationships and eventually lead to burnout. Read on for some tips on how to set and maintain healthy boundaries as a freelancer.
Why Have Boundaries?
There are two main reasons to have boundaries – your mental health, and the quality of work you offer to your freelance clients.
Working long hours, damaging your relationships and feeling like someone’s servant are not good for our mental health long term. Having good boundaries improves our quality of life by separating work and home life and maintaining our self esteem. Now we’ve escaped the workplace, people can only treat us badly if we allow them too. Sometimes they might just be disorganised, push out of habit to get a good deal and sometimes they might be ‘bad actors’ who play hardball. In any case, setting and maintaining boundaries is good for out mental health.
Quality of Work
If we’re overworked, rushing around trying to please everyone and constantly stressed, we’re probably not doing our best work. By having good boundaries we can preserve our creativity and time so that we can offer the best service.
More subtly, if we feel we are getting screwed over we may sandbag or get passive aggressive with our clients. If we get this way after we haven’t set or maintained boundaries then this is unfair and will be highly confusing for the client!
By this, I mean what you can help with and what you can’t. I design websites and often get asked to fix computers, set up email programs and all kinds of other stuff that isn’t my job and I don’t know much about. Saying yes to these kinds of things often means people will then ring you when they have IT issues, and I’ve just created myself a distracting responsibility outside of my core services. Be clear about what you can offer and what you can’t – extra points for having referral schemes in place so you can recommend people to help with those things and make a small referral fee each time. Everyone’s a winner that way.
This also covers what’s in scope of a project and what is a chargeable extra – scope can creep easily and you might end up doing way more than you bargained for. Extra work is great – but it needs to be paid for and will probably affect the timescale of the project. Let the client know the cost and time implications and they can choose whether to go ahead or leave it until later.
Track it and bill for all the work you do, or at least be aware of the time you’re spending if you’re on fixed cost. If you don’t track your time, it can rapidly disappear. Let your clients know if you’re going to run over before it happens, and see what they want to do. Most are OK with extra budget if they know beforehand – springing a larger bill on them doesn’t tend to go so well.
I’d also advise that you don’t do ‘spec work’ – this devalues your trade and will often only lead to doing more free work for people. More info on this at https://www.nospec.com/
When I first started my web design business alongside my day job, I was working evenings and weekends. Once I went full time with FCS, people carried on contacting me at all hours as that’s what I had allowed previously. Over time I decided to work weekdays 10-6, so I published these hours on my site and in my proposals, got a new phone number for personal use and stuck to the contact hours.
Separate social media for personal and business is also a good idea – do you want your clients knowing all about your personal life and messaging you about work stuff on your personal profiles?
Some people will try to get around your working hours or methods – so ignore those Sunday 9am texts with ‘urgent’ things. The more you allow this, the more some people will do it. The only way is to say no and stick to it. I remember getting an email from one particularly blunt design client on a Saturday morning just saying “WHY AM I NOT NUMBER ONE ON GOOGLE FOR <INSET RANDOM PHRASE HERE>” and it ruining my weekend. Without even going into how much is wrong with that question, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to respond.
It might be tempting to relax this in the current climate, but be aware that the behaviours you allow now will continue once things improve.
While you’re freelancing for people and getting paid, you don’t have to accept poor behaviour from anyone. You don’t have to accept rudeness, constant late materials or payments while expecting you to do things right now, or expecting to crash into your schedule with their ‘urgent’ requests.
I’ve fired clients for being massively racist and sexist – I don’t want to work with and help people with those beliefs and attitudes.
Undermining your skills and experience is another thing you don’t have to put up with – if people tell you how long it ‘should’ take or constantly say things like “it’s only a small job, can you just fit me in” then that’s a sign they don’t respect you and will be trouble down the line.
While it might be a new thing, setting boundaries doesn’t have to be complex or confrontational. The earlier you address working hours, costs and contact methods, the easier it is. A quick email saying how you work is usually enough, with a reminder if that doesn’t stick. It can be collaborative, where you discover and agree what’s going to work best for you both. I prefer online project management systems to emailing for example, but some clients get stressed out with them so I will use email for their projects.
I find having separate phone number and email for work and personal makes it a lot easier to just close it down and walk away, so I’m not seeing people’s emails etc outside of work hours. I have a tech support email for genuinely urgent issues that I receive 24/7.
Dealing With Yourself Afterwards
Setting boundaries has been a gradual process, and years down the line I still feel bad for setting and sticking to boundaries. Whether it’s declining a job with a ridiculous deadline or refusing to continue work without a due payment, I can set them but often feel bad afterwards.
If you’re struggling it can be of benefit to get help here – whether it’s a mastermind group, freelance colleague or even a therapist if boundaries really push your buttons.
We’ve discussed how boundaries are important, areas that they are appropriate, how to set them and how to manage yourself afterwards. Setting and maintaining your boundaries is essential for our mental health and quality of our work so I hope this has been useful. Please comment below if there’s anything you’d add, or you’ve had any relevant experiences lately!
More info on boundaries and PDF worksheets here