The world of a freelancer – or even the individual working from home – sounds glamorous. Okay, not glamorous. (No one ever used “glamor” when discussing sitting in front of a computer in pajamas with a bowl of cereal) But it calls to people trapped in Cube World, dragging through jobs they despise. I’m the first to admit I adore being a freelance writer. I will also stand here and tell you if you fail to establish firm boundaries – for your clients and YOURSELF – you will live to regret ever embarking on the pathway of living the dream.
Refresher on Freelance
The number one thing people cling to: YOU are in charge of your life. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely up to you. Most of us lean on the positive. No more punching in and out of a time clock, no scrambling to cram a sandwich in your mouth in the five minutes you carved out for a lunch break, and no stressing over last-minute schedule changes. You get to decide the ins and outs of your business and how you’ll conduct things.
Of course, you still need to meet the requirements of your client. And that means deadlines, guidelines, and communications. But since you choose who you work with, it’s generally not the end of the world. (Feel free to debate the list of unsavory clients in another thread)
You’re responsible for submitting invoices, wrangling taxes, and locating your insurance. Actually, ALL paperwork now belongs to you. Unless you choose to spend funds on an Accountant to handle the work for you, you need to keep track of everything financial. There’s no HR department to do it for you.
And you’d better believe the IRS will come hunting for their cut of your work.
But as long as you’re checking boxes, everything else remains fluids. And that’s where problems start accruing. In a rush to establish ourselves as independent writers and freelancers, we forget that we’re still human beings. It’s exciting to say, “I’m my own boss.”
So we don’t erect boundaries.
And then we crash and burn.
I’m not here to talk about the unwanted clients out there. (Yes, they exist. We can discuss their traits at a later time) This is more about the well-intentioned people who don’t realize they’re draining you.
Because YOU failed to set up a framework for your partnership.
You call the shots when you’re the boss (remember how excited you were to say that?). Or you fall back on old habits of deferring to someone else (guilty) and find yourself rushing around at all hours.
Getting angry with a client isn’t fair if you never set down rules in the first place. You can’t blame a child for touching the stove if you didn’t explain it was hot. (Although, to be fair, we all put the finger on the stove – just to test our parents’ warnings)
A freelancer is responsible for setting up boundaries from the BEGINNING of a new working relationship. And if you don’t, you can’t get upset down the line when you’re running around like a crazy person on your vacation.
How do you do this?
- Always use the three-letter abbreviation of your time zone in communications.
- List your hours in the scheduler you send for your consultations.
- Reference your hours in your contract.
- Only respond to emails during your working hours.
- Let clients know when you’ll address a concern – even if it means the next day.
- Change all team-based apps (Slack, Team, Asana, etc.) to reference your hours.
When you establish yourself as a business – rather than a person – people treat you as such. They don’t contact you in the middle of the night. You won’t get panicked messages asking why you didn’t respond over a weekend. And you don’t find yourself fielding deadlines in the middle of your vacation.
You’re in charge of your business, but if you don’t outline your limits and communicate them with your clients, you may as well be one of their employees. And that’s NOT how a freelancer works. You need to remain firm and allow them to see you as a creative partner.
They’ll understand – and respect you. (Provided you’re polite about it, of course)
Setting YOUR Boundaries
Of course, clients aren’t the only part of the equation.
YOU need to put up some walls, too.
I know plenty of freelance writers who are working themselves to death. (I’m not exaggerating) They work full-time jobs, come home to write, and MAYBE squeeze in a couple hours of sleep. Others write ALL DAY. They demonstrate no respect for their health or well-being.
And it shows in their writing. More importantly, it shows in THEM.
You cannot go 24/7. You can’t go 18, 14, or 12 hours. It’s insanely unhealthy. If you talk to best-selling authors or Pulitzer Prize winners, they don’t write that long every day. They have schedules and routines that include breaks for walks, exercise, visits with friends, whatever they’ve built into their lives to stave off cell and brain death.
And that’s what you need to do, too.
Are there vacations on your calendar? Days off?
Do you have working hours? (And “all day” is not the correct answer)
When you finish, do you turn off your work email and ignore it until those hours kick in again? (I acknowledge this is my biggest struggle)
Do you allow WORK to wait until you sit down at your computer? So you can engage with family and friends? (Or the occasional Minion)
You need boundaries for your sanity. And no one’s going to set them for you. Hell, no one sets them in the corporate world, either. That’s the beauty of freelance – you GET them! But we usually forget.
Build the Fence
I DIDN’T set boundaries when I started as a freelance writer. I’d pick up my phone until I dropped asleep from exhaustion. And I went running to my computer in the middle of dinner, on weekends (despite insisting I didn’t work on Saturdays or Sundays), even the week of my wedding. I definitely ignored the concept of days off – didn’t take a vacation for an ENTIRE YEAR.
Now, I take off the same days my husband gets. And you better believe I have vacations on my calendar. (DragonCon, here I come!) While I DO glance at my work email, I don’t respond to anything outside my hours. And the only reason I look is that I have writer friends who use that address.
I take walks in the middle of the day. Sometimes I cut out early to sit outside on the porch.
And my writing? It’s improved by leaps and bounds. Because I’m not stressing anymore.
More importantly, my mental health has calmed.
Now tell me: What boundary do you need that you don’t have in place?