Setting and maintaining boundaries as a freelancer

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.

Mental Health

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!

Scope Boundaries

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.

Time boundaries

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/

Contact Times/Methods

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.

Behaviour Boundaries

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.

Setting Boundaries

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.

Summary

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

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

The ethics of ‘faking it until you make it’

Many sources encourage us to ‘fake it until we make it’ in a new career path. If they’re selling coaching/ebooks or ‘growth hacking’ their social media this kind of advice is especially common. There are some ethical issues around this attitude though – both for the freelancer and their clients.

For the freelancer…

Committing to a task or project we don’t know whether we can pull off can be stressful. We’ve all got different levels of stress tolerance. What rolls off one person can cause another sleepless nights or even a breakdown. Especially with creative work, being stressed out gets in my way and reduces the quality of my work. Why add more stress to your life when it can be avoided?

For their clients…

Clients are hiring us to get a job done for them, because they don’t have the skills, time or inclination to do it themselves. They may be looking to us for our expertise and skills. If we ‘talk a good fight’ but don’t actually have the expertise or skills to carry out that task, then in my opinion that’s unethical.

Clients may see or find out that you don’t actually know what you’re doing. This can also lead to a late task or project, or in some cases outright failure. Clients are unlikely to be happy with any of those outcomes, which can result in damage to the relationship or even the reputation of your business.

You can still learn on the job

An easy way around this situation is to be honest with potential clients and tell them we’re not very experienced at this task and seek their consent to give it a go on their project. They may well say go ahead anyway and you can learn together, but some will decline. Either way, the client is aware of what’s going on and you’ll be less stressed about things.

Another solution is to do a test piece of work before committing to the client project if you have time. This shows you the effort required (which will make your quote more accurate), and the piece can possibly go on your portfolio too.

Summary

As we’ve seen, there are some issues around ‘faking it until we make it’ for both the freelancer and their clients. I’d strongly recommend you’re honest with your clients if you’re new to the game or trying out a new skill/tool for the first time so you’ve got their full consent, don’t get stressed and don’t let people down.

Freelancing With Confidence

It’s scary setting up on our own as freelancers and trying to attract clients. Certainly in the early stages this can lead to us offering all kinds of services to all kinds of clients in an effort to appear successful. This is not a great strategy though as we can end of a jack of all trades and master of none, with no focus to our services or client base.

Picking Services and Clients

It takes confidence to focus on particular services for a small group of clients, but this allows us to get better at this smaller range of services. Saying ‘no’ is hard, especially at first while trying to build a client base, but we need to find our confidence and stick to what works for us. Now it’s our business we can decide for ourselves and don’t have to offer everything people ask for.

Acting Confidently

Confidence also comes through in our marketing and the way we speak to people. Don’t be afraid to decline work if the budget is not enough, the project doesn’t interest you or you just don’t like the person. Working for low rates for people you are not eager to help is a recipe for unhappiness. It carries an opportunity cost too – as you will then not be available if a better paid job or work for a client you really like comes along. Life’s too short to be doing things you don’t truly want to do and that’s probably why you’re self employed in the first place.

Acting confidently is reassuring to clients. They don’t want to hear dithering and you being unsure you can deliver – they want to feel sure you can help. This might take some practice and faith at first, but as you start to successfully work with clients it will start to come naturally.

Summary

Have confidence in your skills and that there are lots of potential clients out there for you. Choose your services and your clients. Reassure your clients by acting confidently.

Managing Email As A Freelancer

While email is a great way of keeping in touch, email overload can turn out to be your enemy when working as a freelancer. Constantly checking emails and replying only bring you more emails to respond to. Striking a balance between being available and getting your creative work done is difficult.

Set Aside Time For Emails

Inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a business mentor, I now check email in the afternoons once I’ve done a few hours of focused creative work first. This allows me to get my scheduled work done before getting distracted and fragmented with enquiries and small tasks.

Checking email after doing a few hours of focused creative work first helps get scheduled tasks done without getting distracted Click To Tweet

Use Separate Email Addresses

I recommend you set up various email addresses to separate the emails you receive. For example one for enquiries, another for project notifications, one for newsletters and other non-time sensitive information and one for support requests. You can then keep to one inbox if you need to focus. I set the support address to come to my phone and notify me so that gets priority and I see them out of normal office hours.

Write Emails To Reduce Back and Forth

The way emails are written can reduce the number of responses required to reach a conclusion. Offer choices and ask directly for things rather than leaving emails open ended. Another tip that saves me a lot of time is having a bank of canned responses to emails in Simplenote/Evernote/Whatever that I copy and paste when needed.

Inbox Zero?

We aim for ‘inbox zero’ (a term created by Merlin Mann on his now defunct site 43 Folders) and usually succeed in reaching around ‘inbox ten’. By using an online project management system and David Allen’s Getting Things Done method of ‘deleting, deferring or doing’ we can process email in batches and (mostly) clear the inbox. This stops things getting lost in the list and is much less stressful.

Read some tips on reaching inbox zero from Creative Bloq.

Keep Organised

I use folders for each client and then a folder for each of my own projects and organisations I deal with. This keeps the inbox clear and means I can find things when I need to.

Save attachments and delete them from the emails to save space in your email folders and mailboxes.

Managing Freelance Enquiries

If all goes well you will be generating enquiries asking for your freelance services. To make the best of your time you need to process these quickly and separate enquiries from genuine potential clients from ‘shotgun’ enquiries that are unlikely to lead to paid projects.

Picking up on the blog posts on choosing your target clients, spotting potentially difficult clients and the post about saying “no”, you need to disqualify the unsuitable projects as fast as possible. For example if you don’t offer SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), just thank the enquirer for their time and decline the work (extra points for introducing them to a trustworthy contact for a referral fee…).

People will be at various points in their research and buying process. Good proposals or pitches take time to write. If someone is just researching and has a vague enquiry, give them a ballpark figure and timescale and offer to write up a full proposal if those constraints are acceptable to them.

Limiting Time Spent On Enquiries

In answer to the eternal question ‘how much is a website?” I ask them if they have a list of requirements or a specification I can quote on. If not, I offer to write them a spec document after a discovery phase. If they are serious they will go for this, if not you will save yourself hours of educating these clients with no guarantee of a paid project at the end of it.

Again, you can spend longer with people when first starting your freelance business and you have lots of free time, but once you have a regular stream of enquiries you are better off focusing on the straightforward enquiries and projects.

Getting Back To People

If you’re really busy, it can be hard to manage your freelance workload as well as dealing with enquiries. Putting time aside for focused work and admin helps with this – turning off your email and phone while you’re focusing and then dealing with emails and calls once you’ve hit your daily target.

Most people are fine with waiting a few hours for non-critical enquiries, but don’t leave things too long. If you can’t respond fully, a quick call or email thanking them for their enquiry and letting them know when you will follow up is a good idea.

Alternatively, an “out of office” autoresponder can let people know their email has been received and that you’ll get back to them fully at a later time.

Having a set of email responses can save you a ton of time as well, as you can copy and paste and then edit to suit.