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