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How To Set Boundaries (and stick to them)

Boundaries are tough. We want to be there for our clients, but need to be able to step away and have some sanity. We can’t live glued to our email inboxes or our smart phones.

The problem is, clients don’t understand. When they see you online posting all over Facebook, they assume you’re available.

When they know you work from home, they assume you don’t have normal office hours and are available.

We can’t blame clients for calling on a Sunday morning when we haven’t told them it’s not okay to call on a Sunday morning.

And it doesn’t help that different freelancers have different office hours. Some of us work during “normal” office hours, others after our day jobs, and some only on the weekends.

It’s no wonder clients are confused.

Here are a few simple ways to help set (and stick to) client boundaries, and reclaim your personal time:

Set office hours

I know we like the freedom of working whenever (it’s part of the fun of working for ourselves!), but if you work with clients you need to have some regular times that you’re available–even if it’s only on Wednesdays from noon-3pm. As long as clients know when you’re available, they’re less likely to panic or expect responses when you’re “out of the office”.

As someone who has tried a variety of schedules in my freelancing career, I can say that outlining office hours for client calls and email response times has made a world of difference in keeping clients and myself happy. Having regular hours also helps keep me on track and allows me to log out at 5pm (just about) every night and spend time living my life instead of sitting in front of a computer.

Put your office hours in your email signature and auto-responder

Simple, right? This subtle reminder tells clients when you’re able to get back to them. If you don’t work weekends, it lets them know that they email that they sent Saturday morning won’t even be seen until Monday.

I also include an average response time in my auto-responder, so even though I’m often faster, it reminds clients that it may take me a while to get back to them. You can copy my auto-responder here.

Don’t send emails outside of your hours

Here’s a secret: I was recently out of town on vacation for a friend’s wedding. While I told clients I was unavailable, I still hopped on and checked and responded to my emails. But I didn’t send them.

Instead, I scheduled the emails to go out after my vacation dates, so my clients never got anything (and subsequently never responded to anything) until I was back in my office and ready to work. This meant I spent about 5 minutes a day checking email, and the rest of the time enjoying my vacation.

The same thing goes for responding to emails at night or outside your office hours. Sometimes we’re working weird schedules (because, life) but that doesn’t mean we want to start an epic email thread or for clients to think we’re available right then.

There’s nothing worse than responding to an email at midnight only to have the phone ring because they client realizes, “hey, she’s up and working!”.

Use Streak or Boomerang to write and schedule emails to send during your regular work hours.

Tell clients how to contact you

Nothing is worse than having client communication in your email, Facebook, Twitter, and project management program. Choose one or two ways for clients to contact you, and tell them what they are and when it’s appropriate to use them.

This will keep everything organized, let clients know it’s not okay to use Twitter for support, and make you feel more okay with not friending clients on Facebook.

True story: I have it written in my retainer contracts that contacting me through any avenue except the support email address and phone calls (for emergencies) may result is termination of the contract. I’ve had clients email me, then post on my Facebook wall and tweet at me repeatedly, all because they didn’t think I was answering my email fast enough. Not fun, and made me look bad, even though the issue was extremely minor and something the client messed up anyhow.

Don’t answer the phone

I try to reserve phone calls for emergencies only, but my idea of an emergency may differ wildly from a client’s. First, don’t give out your personal number. Use Google Voice and get a free phone number that can ring your home phone and/or cell phone. Create a custom voicemail message for clients that includes your office hours and instructions for leaving a message.

Then, set your Google Voice number to only ring during your work hours. This is the best thing ever. EVER. You can set the times and days that your phone will ring when someone calls your Google Voice number, and then during your off-hours send clients straight to your voicemail.

And even better: Google can transcribe the voicemail message and text it to you, so that you can skim through and see if it’s really an emergency, or something that can wait until later.

Outline your office hours and communication policies in your contracts

Yup, in your contracts. It may sound extreme, but it’s so helpful! It again reminds clients of when you are available, and the ways they can get in touch with you. And they have to sign it. Enough said.

Get out

It can be hard to enforce boundaries when you’re sitting at your computer, in work-mode all the time. So get out. Whether that’s simply pausing your inbox to get out of it and focus on something else, getting into the kitchen to cook a great meal with your partner, closing down your computer to curl up and watch Netflix, or getting out of the house so you’re not even tempted to put yourself in the position of working.

Clients only know what we tell them, and without having our own boundaries clearly defined and in place, we teach clients that we’re available whenever they want. Clients don’t mind you having office hours–they only want to know what those hours are so. So set hours, tell your clients, and stick to the times you set.

What boundaries do you have in place? Let us know in the comments!

Want more boundary ideas? Here are 10 more boundaries you should have in place as a freelancer. 

Erin Flynn Erin E Flynn has been making websites since the dark ages of the internet (1999), and running her own web development business since 2012. A huge fan of streamlining and communication, Erin now helps coach new designers in simplifying their businesses and making more money. When she’s not glued to her computer screen, you can find Erin hiking, camping, or binge-watching Netflix. Find her online at erineflynn.com, or join her Unstoppable Crew to take control of your design business!

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • As always another awesome from you Erin! Thanks, so something I need to think about. I respond at all hours of the night to my clients and on weekends and it constantly feels like I’m working. Time to take a step back!

    • I used to do that too! After setting boundaries I am a MUCH calmer person who can actually unwind at night and enjoy my weekends! I highly recommend getting your boundaries in place ASAP! 🙂

  • Great article, Erin. I’m sure that sticking to these boundaries will tremendously improve one’s productivity. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at grexit.com)

    • Thanks Niraj! It’s amazing how much more productive and able to unwind you are with firm boundaries in place!

  • Thanks so much, Erin!
    I’m a freelance designer that just moved to freelancing full time, and can totally foresee many of these issues arising. Having some tips to nip the problems in the bud is so incredibly helpful!

  • There is gold in here, gold I say. Thanks Erin. It’s good to know all the things I’m doing wrong. Google Voice is a win too.

  • This is so brilliant! Guuuuurl you da bomb.

  • It’s as if you read my mind, I’m struggling with the same thing in my business. I feel like I can’t switch off, because I’m always working trying to make my client happy.

  • Ok so what to say to the client that emails you at 12:13pm then again at 5:16pm, then 23 hours later at 11:14am emails you ranting that she’s been emailing for DAYS without getting a response to asking for her login information (which I had already sent multiple times).
    I was of the office unexpectedly for 2 days and I forgot to put the auto responder on. Uggg, she’s driving me crazy!

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