Look, I can teach you all the things I know about freelancing and how to run a business, but if you don’t know how to set rules and boundaries, you’re going to have an awful time.
If you want to have someone blow up your phone 24/7, dictate your entire life, and generally give you no time off, just go work in Silicon Valley and make a boat load of money. (I did this, I would know. Minus the boat load of money part, because I didn’t stay long enough to find out.)
Boundaries not only help your professional life, but they help your personal life, too. Although this isn’t a relationship blog (I would run THE most boring relationship blog in the world), there’s so much magic in setting boundaries. Look, I get it. It’s hard to have boundaries and hold to them, but if you set them early, almost every single client will understand and respect them.
The problem comes when you never set boundaries and then expect clients to somehow magically know these boundaries. Spoilers: That’s not how it works. It’s just like dating, if you don’t tell the person what you need and how you operate, how are they supposed to know?
Even things that are common sense, like not calling at 2 in the morning (Yes, I’ve had a client do this), are not always common sense for most people.
If you’re at the point of burnout where you are dreading working every day or checking your email, this is NOT okay. This is not how freelancing and running a small business should feel. So let’s dive in to how to fix it.
Set business hours
“Oh, groundbreaking advice, Jackie.” I know, this is common sense. But do you ACTUALLY follow it? Do you shut off at a certain hour?
I heard it once put this way: How often are you unavailable?
In the digital era it’s easy to feel the need to be “ON” 24/7. I’ve had clients see me currently Tweeting late at night and think it’s okay to call me. “You’re working anyway!” No, I’m not.
Look, I totally understand and respect needing to work until late hours and get things done. Ideally, you end work early and have good work-life balance, but I’ve been freelancing for over a decade now and I understand the late night hustle that is needed.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to be “on call” all the time for work.
Set business hours and be clear with everyone what those hours are. Then, ACTUALLY FOLLOW THEM.
If you tell your clients you don’t work weekends but you’re answering their emails throughout the weekend, they’re not going to respect your boundary.
You need to respect your own boundary first, and then your clients will follow from there.
Set clear due dates as often as possible
Even if you have due dates and delivery dates in your contract, keep bringing them up. If you need edits from a client by a certain point, be extra clear about that.
Let them know when they’ll hear from you, how your process works, when you expect to be paid, and anything else that they’ll need to know to work with you.
Set clear communication rules
Along with having set hours, be clear on how you prefer to communicate. Do you like phone calls? Email? Skype?
If you run a business that can have unexpected emergencies that need to be taken care of right away, be clear on how they should contact you when those arise.
Have a rush fee
There are a ton of clients who will respect how long you need to take for certain projects, and then there are ones who will expect something done by yesterday.
If you want to fit it in, go for it! However, have a rush fee set in place and communicate that to the client. That way they’ll know you’re serious about your work and can’t just demand things from you at any given point in time.
My first few years of freelancing were extremely stressful because I said yes to everything all the time. I’d always jump on last-minute assignments, even if it meant staying up all night. It was worth it in the fact that I could pay bills, but also not one of those clients ended up being a long-term client.
Have a professional relationship
I’m going to overlook the amount of times someone has tried to talk to me with the approach of working together only to end up hitting on me and talk more about business relationships in general.
There are a few clients who have become really good friends through the years, but those are not the norm.
It’s up to you how you want to approach your business relationships, but I’ll tell you how I do it and what I’ve learned after this decade.
If you want to be friends with a client, do so after the contract is over. That way no one feels awkward and you don’t even need to discuss your current project. I’ve tried to be friends with clients in the middle of a project but it turned into endless unbilled hours which made my time feel unvalued. If you’re going to work with friends, it’s even more important to have boundaries and expectations be discussed before you potentially ruin your friendship.
I will happily meet clients when they’re in my city for drinks/food and to catch up. As someone with an online business it’s nice to meet clients face to face.
For me, that’s about how far relationships extend. I do not accept Facebook friend requests, follow anyone on my personal Instagram account (which is why I have a business account), or give clients my personal number. Which flows into my next point.
Have business social media accounts
On almost every social network, I have a personal and business account. I don’t accept requests from clients on my personal account and instead direct them to my business accounts.
Sure, I think it’s good to share who you are with the world, but clients don’t need to see my dating life, inappropriate memes, or 297092742 pictures of my dog.
Some people blend it all into one, which I totally respect and you’ll have to decide what works best for you.
Be ready to cut it off
I try to have a few barriers to working with me to filter out clients who are going to be extremely needy. There’s a whole starter questionnaire, I don’t respond to emails within a few hours,
Just like in dating, if someone walks all over your boundaries you should be ready to walk away. Period.
This doesn’t mean take their money and run. You might have to give them a refund depending on your contract, but if it gets to that level don’t be afraid to cut your losses.
Take breaks. ACTUAL breaks
This has less to do with setting boundaries with your clients and more to do about setting boundaries with yourself. You are your own employee, don’t forget that. If you saw an employee running themselves into the ground you’d (hopefully) be concerned and want them to take a break.
I am notoriously bad at taking vacations. The last time I took an actual vacation where I didn’t bring work and fully relaxed was 2016. It’s something I plan to drastically change in this new decade of my life.
However, I’m really good at taking mini breaks. I take weekends off and don’t check email. I spend some days by the pool completely decompressing. After huge projects I take the whole next week off and do other projects that don’t involve writing.
This is what currently works for me and why I don’t feel as deprived from having a vacation.
That’s not what my first few years of freelancing looked like. I’d always have my emails on, I was writing until my eyes were twitching, I had no hobbies, my dating life went to hell, and all for no good reason. There were a million ways I could have balanced everything.
Boundaries are how you go from frazzled to actually having a damn life and a business that makes you happy.