There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to setting professional boundaries in your freelance career.
For many, boundaries are a constantly evolving construct, ever-changing to realign with new goals and aspirations.
For instance, early on in my career, I had very few boundaries. I frequently pulled as many hours as I could and was constantly on call for my employers and my clients.
I was able to do so at the time because I felt it was a necessity to achieve my goals, and I had plenty of energy to work around the clock.
But in time, as one might imagine, this high-energy approach became both unsustainable and quite frankly, unnecessary.
I am no longer the same person that I was in my twenties.
Today, I am an established professional who neither struggles to make ends meet or fails to secure quality clients.
Naturally, my priorities have shifted.
Mental health and happiness have relinquished their former position on the back burner.
This is why, I’ve adopted a set of simple rules that allow me to unplug each week and maintain my sanity: No client work on the weekends, no client-facing apps on my mobile device and always discourage texting as a means of work-related communications (including other casual methods of contact, like social media).
And while everyone’s boundaries are going to be different, I genuinely believe that it’s important for professionals to set boundaries that make sense for their own well-being and stick to them for the following reasons.
Boundaries help you avoid burnout and make you a better freelancer
My boundaries have become even more important since the onset of the pandemic when I broke my own rules and let a few weekends and late nights slide.
While in quarantine, I fooled myself into thinking, “Hey I have nothing better to do and this entire thing will blow over in a few weeks – I may as well make a bit of extra money while I’m stuck at home!”
After several weeks of non-stop work and around-the-clock calls from clients who were working from home for the first time in their careers, I started to feel that familiar feeling of burnout.
I became short-tempered, unproductive, disengaged and creatively stifled. In short, the more I worked, the worse I became at my job.
And it turns out that there’s real science behind this burnout phenomenon.
According to Psychology Today, taking a break or going on vacation actually makes you more relaxed, more productive and more creative.
Some studies even indicate that this so-called “respite effect” can increase productivity by as much as 80 percent.
Your brain, like your body, simply needs to rest in order to be at its best.
This is also one of the reasons why many creatives report they have their best ideas while doing monotonous and relaxing activities, like taking a shower or lying in bed.
According to Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, allowing the problem-solving part of your brain to rest may actually allow you to activate other areas of your brain to approach the problem from a new angle or new context.
I, for one, can certainly vouch for those brain-boosting respite effects.
That’s why I owe it to both myself, and my clients, to take regular breaks and unplug whenever possible.
Boundaries set clear expectations and define the tone of the engagement
If you’ve ever read the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
The book follows the adventures of a boy who caters to his mouse friend with a seemingly never ending list of demands.
With each request that’s met, instead of being satiated, the mouse makes a follow-up request which ultimately renders the boy, who clearly doesn’t understand the importance of boundaries, frustrated.
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.
When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw.
When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin.”
In freelance, if you don’t set clear boundaries and expectations with your clients from the very beginning, there’s a chance they might become like that mouse.
For instance, if you have the “no weekends” rule like I do, and you let a client convince you to break that rule once, there’s no reason why the client would assume you wouldn’t break that rule again.
The client might also assume that you’re easily swayed in general, meaning that they will be less hesitant to push or ask for special favors.
Don’t get me wrong, I do my best to treat my clients like gold. I take on rush jobs, I pull in long hours, I make miracles happen Monday through Friday.
And that’s why I don’t feel bad about having the weekend boundary in place. It’s all about give and take.
In fact, on the extremely rare occasions that I have broken that rule, I usually ask for something in return, like extra pay. This way, the burden of sacrifice is mutually experienced.
Any less would be the equivalent of me standing outside a Chick-fil-A on a Sunday and demanding a chicken sandwich.
All businesses have rules and regulations. Why should your freelance business be any different?
I’ve never lost a client because I refused to work on the weekend. Truthfully, if I did, I doubt it’s the kind of client I would want to work with in the first place.
Setting boundaries gives you time to focus on my goals and aspirations
Setting boundaries has also given me more time to focus on my new goals and aspirations, which have evolved since I was that scrappy young 20-something always chasing a paycheck.
When I say I don’t work weekends, I actually mean I don’t work on client projects on the weekends.
I instead work on myself and my side projects.
I usually spend Saturdays allowing my brain to rest. On Sundays, I work on one of my own blogs.
In fact, I spent almost every Sunday in 2020 working on my travel blog side project in hopes that it would eventually create passive income and give my brain more breaks from freelancing.
In a year’s time, that blog grew to 2 million views, produced several thousands of dollars of additional revenue, and drastically improved my SEO and WordPress development skills.
In the future, I hope to do the same for my freelance blog.
It’s my goal to have multiple streams of passive income by 2022 – a goal that would never be achievable if I let my client projects exhaust me.
I would like to think that my clients also appreciate working with a professional who is always learning and improving her own skills that, in turn, make my services and insights even more valuable.
And I know having those accolades under my belt helps me win jobs.
Wouldn’t you prefer to hire a freelancer who knew how to create and promote content that attracts millions of eyeballs? Talk about blowing away the competition.
Setting clear boundaries with your clients isn’t about being lazy or doing less work, it’s about maintaining your mental health, boosting your brain function and making you an overall better, and happier, freelancer.
What boundaries do you set as a freelance professional? Share this story and tag @CollectiveDotCom on Instagram or @CollectiveFin on Twitter and let us know.
Tennessee native Morgan Overholt is a freelance graphic designer, owner of Morgan Media LLC and co-founder of TheSmokies.com. Morgan and her team have worked with nationally recognized clientele from all over the world, including the Centers for Disease Control Foundation (CDCF), Kimberly-Clark, and Stanley Black & Decker.
Morgan transitioned into the role of freelancer and small business owner after spending nearly a decade in the traditional corporate world left her feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Today, Morgan is passionate about sharing her story with other hopeful entrepreneurs who hope to follow in her footsteps. She has been featured on Upwork.com, Refinery29, and Business Insider.