How setting boundaries made us better freelancers

On constraints, flexibility and business

From the earliest age we fight against the boundaries and restrictions placed on us — and we see only how they stop us from getting what we want. It’s easy to miss how much we gain from boundaries; how they nurture, protect, and even push us to be more creative. As we mature we realize that setting boundaries helps keep chaos at bay.

In fact, the older we get the more enamoured we grow with the freedom that comes with setting our own rules. I laugh as I think of all the wonderful stories that come from the poor choices freshmen in college make. On their own for the first time, they throw boundaries to the wind and just do. In the end, they’re left with incredible life experience and (often) an extra 15 pounds.

I laugh, but I cry a little inside.

The events that spawn those “wonderful stories” — which are so funny later, assuming everyone survives — can cause an awful lot of pain in the moment and create setbacks to growth in the future. Success doesn’t come merely from surviving.

Venturing outside a traditional work environment

Looking back at the last six years of our life, I see a lot of the “college freshman” approach to our business choices. Except my husband and I, ages 40 and 35 respectively, were experienced adults who had made a careful plan. In 2010 we chose to leave his corporate job of 10 years to freelance full time. From there we joined a startup, worked remotely for an overseas agency, and recently have settled into working remotely for a former freelancer.

Sounds simple, but, in reality, it was more like whitewater rafting without helmets or a paddle.

Freelancing Like Whitewater Rafting

Much like college freshman think they are adults, we were naive enough to think that over 15 years of contracting experience would transition seamlessly into successful freelancing. In some ways it did. We had an established service, a stable client base that provide recurring work and consistent referrals, and an understanding of how much we needed to charge to meet our financial needs.

We were also aware of some of our weaknesses.

We understood the fundamentals of billing, client communication and taxes, but that was about it. Neither of us were particularly strong business people so we took steps to strengthen that area. We read books and talked with friends who owned their own companies. It seemed that we’d filled in our gaps and established the right boundaries.

Where it went wrong

Even with all our planning and experience, we didn’t see a group of important boundaries that were going to trip us up in our freelance business. And when it did, it was painful. Fortunately the planning we’d done and the boundaries we did have in place caught us like a safety net.

The fall hurt and the stop was jarring, but we were able to learn and move our business forward.

As I shared our frustration with others in our field, I realized they had the same problem. Everyone seemed to stumble when in the same spot: establishing solid, functional boundaries with people.

What we learned to fix it

We looked at where we’d stumbled and saw patterns in the expectations of the people involved. Most significant to our dilemma, people have expectations of what a business should be. They’re used to brick-and-mortar stores.

Historically, we’re used to working brick-and-mortar jobs.

 

With the new trend toward remote offices and freelancing, this can create some challenges, but once you realize these expectations exist, you can use them to your advantage.

Remote Workers

If you’re a remote worker, you investigate the office culture just as you would if you were going into a physical office each day. Learn how communication is handled and communicate with your boss and/or co-workers as if they were your clients. Just like with freelancing clients, you’re building a relationship and hopefully creating trust.

If you’re freelancing, treat it as if it were a physical business. Use the expectations that people have, the thinking that you’re a brick-and-mortar store, to help with setting boundaries that you want for your business. They respect business boundaries. Now it’s up to you to create the constraints that fit your needs and desires.

Start by setting boundaries for yourself.

Create specific tasks for each day. This breaks a project into manageable parts while giving you a sense of accomplishment. It also provides a clean place to end your day and keeps you from feeling that you always need to be working.

Keep a calendar of appointments. Don’t assume you’ll remember that meeting. As soon as it’s set, put it on your calendar with a reminder. It makes you seem more trustworthy and reliable to your clients, coworkers and friends/family.

Be deliberate about your time. Don’t think you can “just.” Everything you do takes time away from your goal. You can easily lose the better part of a day doing something five minutes here or there. Be intentional with your choices so you aren’t giving away your free time.

Expect interruptions. They’re necessary and unavoidable, but look for ways to minimize them. Work with interruptions instead of allowing them to create frustration.

Next, create boundaries for your clients.

Establish when and how they can contact you. People expect businesses to have limitations.

It’s your job to steer your clients in the direction that works best for you and, in the end, makes you most productive for them.

If you prefer to be contacted by email or chat, don’t provide a phone number. If they can contact you from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, have it written down. If you’re willing to help after those hours, but will be screening the calls, make that clear as well.

Set a policy to manage emergencies. Just like interruptions happen, problems also arise. Communicate your availability, additional charges that may apply, and what you need to do to make this happen for them. Be honest and be consistent and it will build trust and respect.

Communicate the progress of the project regularly. Do not assume your client knows something. Once you begin working, they have no idea what’s going on until you provide an update. Communicating regularly, possibly daily, makes them part of the process.

Be firm, but kind. It is your business. It runs the way you want it to. If that doesn’t work for the client, then maybe you’re not the right match. However, also listen to their needs and feedback. Maybe you’ve established a boundary you’re willing to shift to be more available to a wider range of clients.

Be willing to give, but for reasons and within limits. Yes, it’s your business. Yes, you have set these boundaries for a reason, but that also means you can adjust them.

Life is fluid and each project is different.

 

If you shift a boundary for a client, be clear about why and what your expectations regarding that boundary will be in the future.

Setting boundaries to reduce friction

Now, realize your business is going to impact the people in your life (friends, family, roommates, even co-workers) and establish boundaries to minimize the friction.

Have office hours. This sets a consistency for you and your friends and family. It allows them to minimize interruptions and plan around your schedule.

Have a “Do Not Disturb” protocol. People understand that there are times when interruptions are detrimental. Provide a visual or written cue that you are unavailable. It helps reduce frustration.

Have a shared calendar. Sharing a calendar has similar advantages to the point above. Meetings can be planned around and deadlines met with less friction.

Be willing to give back. If you ask them to adjust to your needs, be willing to adjust to their needs. It doesn’t have to be a perfect balance, but it needs to be done with gratitude and genuine interest in what matters to them.

Acknowledge their sacrifices. Anytime you ask the people in your life to adjust to meet your needs, they are giving something up. Don’t assume they realize your appreciation of this. Be intentional.

Evaluate and improve

In the end, you have to live with the boundaries you’ve created.

Evaluate your boundaries and look for areas to improve. Initially, you will create boundaries that on paper seem to work. As you use them, you’ll likely get feedback. Mine that feedback for ways to change, improve and grow. Working with your clients, friends and family will help you create a stronger business.

Be flexible with the boundaries. They’re your boundaries; you can adjust them when it’s better for your business. The boundaries you create are well-intended and serve a purpose, but each client, project and situation is different. Be flexible so that you don’t limit yourself or your options unnecessarily.

Apologize when you make a mistake. You are going to cross a boundary and it’s going to impact someone. Begin rebuilding trust and relationship by apologizing when it happens. Listen to the impact it had on the other person and use it to make both you and them stronger. People understand failure and mistakes, but they expect you to be honest when it happens.

Use boundaries to your advantage

In the end, you don’t want your business to resemble a kindergarten class without a teacher, a place where chaos abounds and tears flow freely. Instead, establish solid, functional boundaries that provide for your business’s needs and all the lives it impacts.

But remember, even with well-established boundaries, you’ll find that the biggest companies still struggle. Projects, clients, workers and circumstances are always changing. Plan well. Think ahead. Set your boundaries, but be flexible and have your own safety net to catch you when something fails.

Image by: Ozzy Delaney via Compfight cc

Cate DeRosia
Cate is a freelance writer who, in her spare time, homeschools two teenagers and works alongside her developer husband. She writes about family, career and life at catewerks.com. Most recently, she’s begun tinkering with acasualbrewski.com, a site dedicated to her experience with beer and the world around it. Both blogs, like her life, are works in progress.