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

Working Well when Freelancing can be easy to forget.

With over 2m people freelancing in the UK, more people are turning to working for themselves, but what impact might that have on your mental health, and what things do you need to consider when you’re freelancing to make sure you can work well? We asked Matthew Knight from community support group Leapers – to share his advice on looking after your mental health when working for yourself.

You know the drill – now you’re freelance, not only are you doing the work, but you’re also sending the invoices, finding the next project, chasing those invoices, accounting, marketing, sales, not to mention all of the other stuff you’ve got happening in your life, remembering to take a moment to make sure you’re doing ok can easily fall to the bottom of the list.

1 in 4 people will struggle with poor mental health at some point this year – that’s a huge number, and even if you’ve been fortunate to never have poor mental health, looking after your own emotional wellbeing when freelancing is critical. After all, there are no paid sick days, and not being able to work is not really an option for many of us.

So, we’ve set ourselves a mission: to support the self-employed and their mental health. We’re doing this in three ways:

  1. Awareness – we’re telling as many people as we can that mental health matters, and encouraging freelancers to actively think about it, before they leap into self-employment, and once they’ve moved to freelancing.
  2. Community – we’re encouraging people to join our community, a sort of ’team for people without a team’. Even if Leapers isn’t right, there are many communities which provide a support network – people who understand the experience, people you can talk to about what’s happening, and find ways to work well.
  3. Things – we create tangible stuff which help people maintain good mental health, understand their personal stressors, and put actions in place to manage them. Different people need different approaches, so we create lots of types of things, like podcasts, ebooks, chats, emails, fridge magnets (coming soon).

It seems simple, but honestly, even just the first point – helping people to actively think about the value of looking after themselves, helps people to work well. It’s the small things which have positive impact, such as journaling.

We suggest the best place to start is to take 10 minutes at the end of each day – in a notebook you’ve dedicated to this, write down 5 or 6 things you did today. Then mark each one with how it made you feel: was it positive or negative? Was it motivating or frustrating? Was it fun or stressful? A simple tick or cross. Do this for a week, and see if there are patterns. Do this for a month, and see if the patterns continue. Over time, you’ll start to understand what motivates you, and what stresses you out.

You don’t need to do anything to even manage that stress yet – just actively being aware of it is the first step.

And then, start to talk about it. 

Perhaps within a community for freelancers, maybe with peers, with friends, with your team-mates. Whomever you feel most comfortable sharing when you’re not feeling at your best – let’s face it, we all have off-days, it’s human. Share what you’re experiencing with others, and see how others dealt with similar situations. Listen and learn. Even if no-one replies with much more than an emoji hug, writing it down, putting it in to words, helps you understand the experience better.

Where you go from there, entirely depends on your personal experience, the way you approach challenges and successes, and the sector you work in – but just putting 10 minutes aside every day, to think about your own mental health is critical. We’ve got lots of tools, techniques and approaches, plus the wisdom of over 1600 members sharing the way they approach things, you can be sure to find something useful.

Over 60% of freelancers say that poor mental health has affected their ability to work. Don’t let it get to that point. Put you on your to-do list, and prioritise understanding your own stressors, sharing within your community of support, and finding tangible things to put in place to give yourself some structure and support.

Matthew Knight is a community host at Leapers, a project supporting the mental health of the self-employed. As an individual you can register as a member for free, or find resources and tools at leapers.co. If you’re an organisation who hires freelancers, there’s also guidance on working well with the self-employed via the Freelance Friendly Businesses network at leapers.co/orgs

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.

Coping with quiet periods in freelance life

It’s just been the summer holidays here in the UK, when a lot of small business owners and company staff are off work to be with their kids. This can cause a bit of a slowdown for freelancers over August, which can delay projects, affect morale and limit cashflow. This can also happen around Christmas or New Year with similar results. The same can apply if you’re in-between contracts or larger jobs.

Here are some tips on how to handle these quiet times as a freelancer.

Have A Holiday

If you can’t beat them, join them. If people aren’t getting back to you on projects, maybe take some time off. During the summer break is a great time to work shorter hours and make the most of the sun (especially in the UK). It doesn’t have to be the whole month, but consciously having a rest while things are quiet can mean you’re raring to go when everyone gets back off their holidays and wants to pick up on projects again.

With prices being high in school holidays, a stay home holiday can work just as well, hanging out in the park or visiting local places.

Work On Your Side Projects

I’m sure we’ve all got side projects on the go that get neglected when we’re busy with client work. A slowdown from clients is a great time to get on with these projects, sharpening skills (or learning new ones) and restoring motivation.

A side project could also become a source of income, and if it makes enough, maybe even be a way of not doing small client projects at all!

Work On Your Website & Marketing

Maintaining our own websites and doing our own marketing often slides when we’re busy with client work. Natural breaks in projects are a great time to update your website and plan your next marketing cycle, working on strategy and creating marketing materials for the coming months.

Plan Ahead For The Next One

It’s a bit late for this summer, but if you know you often have a slow period over Christmas or other times during the year, maybe plan ahead and book in work for these times so you have paid projects to be working on. You can then deliver the work and get feedback/paid as soon as your clients are back in their offices.

Summary

We’ve looked at a few ideas here to help smooth out the peaks and troughs of freelance life or make the most of times when clients might not be available to work on their projects.

Reader’s letters: How do I find clients and get paid?

I received this message via Facebook and will answer it here so everyone can read the reply.

“Hi, I need your advise and thoughts. I am a SharePoint trainer cum Consultant. I have been working since 2006 and started freelance in 2015. It was a terrible ride. In my country, many trainers are not paid by institutes who force the trainers to do hectic training. I was lucky to get paid though the payment came after 45 days. It was very difficult. Many many clients from USA used to make me work very hard and some forget to pay. I used to put police/lawyer in cc and somehow got my money from various clients. Some did not even listen to police and abused me who used to ask to me to work and never pay.

Things have not changed much in 2019 also. Many students are terrible who do not even do assignments. I have tried Udemy which is little ok, however the pricing is terribly cheap and many students are getting my content for almost free and I am struggling to get needs met. I am pained. I do like making self paced videos, blogs etc, however, slowly I want people to pay. Also, I tried consulting and again one client in USA did the same thing of not paying and making me work.

I have stopped the client search till July. I get disturbed by many though who want my help and have no sense to pay. At least Youtube students were thankful and the udemy students are very abusive. I am planning to use Thinkific. I am totally angry with majority clients and students and I just like my work and want money for my work and no clients. Good clients are/were there and one is free and other busy.

I still am positive and hope that good clients will come. I want to consult once I finish all my books and not really interested in selling/sharing all my codes. I want to do many apps and sell there again will people buy apps. I am pretty sure that there are clients who need my works and can pay. I used to get all I want in my life before. Very strange that the right clients are not able to reach me. I am expecting few or 1 long term. I am determined to make clients/students pay in full first.”

First off, I’m sorry to hear you’ve had trouble getting paid. That can be a major issue for freelancers. One of the best ways to avoid clients that do this is to use a contract where you receive a large portion of the fee up-front and the rest before delivery of the final deliverables. This will filter out the time wasters who don’t have any intention of paying you for your work. It can be scary reducing your number of clients, but you’re better off not working with people where you stand a chance of not getting paid. You can then spend your time finding better clients and doing good work for them.

It’s sadly the case that many business people will play ‘hard ball’ and will either stall payment, need to be threatened to pay up or never actually pay at all.

The second point I get from your message is that while you have some valuable you’re trying various things and none of them are paying off. It can be hard to find your market, but changing approach or platform constantly means you’re always starting from scratch. Leaving bad platforms or changing tactics isn’t a bad thing if it’s not working however. The market is out there – you’ve just got to reach it!

I started off by doing a couple of websites for cheap and paying people to refer me. This mushroomed into a full time business within a year without having to spend a lot on marketing. If I was starting again, I’d specialise in one thing, build a portfolio, use a blog/book/YouTube channel to build credibility and then start marketing to the people I wanted to work with. More tips on how to become a freelancer

Choosing clients is very important so you do good work, get paid and get good referrals. I’m skeptical about online freelance marketplaces, but if you want to work with people in different countries that might be the fastest way to get started.

Nick