Setting Boundaries to Avoid Freelance Overwhelm

Set Boundaries

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash


Working from home can turn into more of a “full-time” job than a 9-5 if you let it. Starting a business is no joke, and there will be long hours in the beginning no matter what you do. However, most freelancers are guilty of letting their business and their clients completely overtake their life, leading to overwhelm and burn out.

The only way to avoid the crash and burn is to wrangle your work into a designated box. Draw boundary lines, and don’t let anything cross them. This is something many freelancers forget or don’t even think to do, because freelancing is all about freedom … right? Well, yes, but freedom does not mean chaos. There should be order and structure to your day, even if you work in your pajamas.

If you don’t set boundaries, make your clients aware of them, and stick to them, you have only yourself to blame for your lack of down time and all that extra stress.

Set Work Hours

You don’t have to create a rigid time schedule, but above all else, you need either a cut off time, or a designated free time. For instance, my day starts whenever my daughter wakes up. That changes day to day, but you can bet your sweet fanny that I’m not waking up before she does just to sit at my desk at a certain time. I need every minute of sleep I can get. However, I have a cutoff of “dinner time,” which is roughly six o’clock. I don’t do any work after that, except maybe answer some email (and I really shouldn’t do that).

If I don’t have that cutoff, I may not technically be working all day, but my brain will be in work mode all day. And I can tell you from past experience that that mentality leads to sleepless nights where you can’t shut off your brain.

Maybe you do your best work in the evening. That’s fine, but you should be relaxing during the day. You should have a designated start time, and you shouldn’t do any work before that time rolls around. Maybe, with your kids and your schedule, you have to work early morning and nights. In that case, you should have a designated hour range in the middle of the day where you don’t think about work, say 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. You get my drift?

Apply whatever strategy works best for you, but set some sort of time-based boundary.

Don’t Work Weekends

This is a boundary I implemented in the last year, and I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner.

When I get a gig, I always calculate how many pages of the manuscript I’ll need to edit or write a day in order to meet the deadline. Previously, I’d calculate weekends into that. I felt like it would help me stretch things out and make the workload more manageable. I could do less per day.

Well, even though I was working fewer hours per day, it’s exhausting to work every day. It builds up over time, and eventually, you don’t want to look at your computer screen ever again. There’s a reason 9-5 employers give people weekends off. You need to reset. You’re your own boss; give yourself the luxury of free weekends. Set aside those two days to pursue your hobbies, spend time with your family, and go out and have fun.

Schedule Calls Ahead of Time

Calls are nerve-wracking to most freelance writers because most of us are highly introverted. We’re also big on the written word, where we can take time to think out everything and evaluate what we say, and chatting spur of the moment over the phone sounds like a nightmare.

Client calls are important, especially when you’re working on a project where you need to understand branding or capture the client’s voice in your writing. So, many freelancers feel like they need to say, “Yeah, sure,” whenever a client says, “Can we hop on a call real quick? Say, in an hour?” I’ve been there. I look at my schedule, which is always very flexible thanks to the nature of my job, and go, “Yeah, I could do that,” and I feel like I should just because I can.

However, I’ve stopped doing that. Why? Client calls are important, and the only way the client and I are going to get the most out of a call is if I have time to prepare. I need around 24 hours to figure out the questions I need answered, anticipate what the client will want from me, and, the most time consuming part, get myself in the proper head space for a call (Social interaction! Ahhh!). When I can plan for a call, I lose most of the butterflies, and the call goes far better. And since the arrival of my daughter, I also have to plan around her typical feeding and nap times, if I can.

If a client asks for a last minute call, just politely say, “I unfortunately can’t do a call today, but I could do [insert a number of different times that work for you over the next few days].” You don’t have to explain yourself and say why you can’t get on the call (although, if you have something big going on, it’s totally fine if you drop that reason in your email). As long as you give the client alternate options, you’re golden.

Talk to Your Clients!

I hear a lot of freelancers complain about a client who “emails me at all hours and expects me to hop on a call in the blink of an eye.” And yes, micromanaging, demanding clients do exist, but if you’re experiencing this, you need to ask yourself, “Did I do something to make this client assume I’m okay with this?” The answer is probably yes. Most of the time, you have a confused or oblivious client, not a demanding one, on your hands. And even if you do have a genuinely demanding client, it’s your responsibility to lay down the law. You’re a business owner, not a stooge.

Think about it. When a client emails you late in the evening, do you respond that evening? Have you ever mentioned your preferred working hours to that client? The first time they wanted to hop on a phone call, did you completely rearrange your schedule to accommodate them to try and make a great first impression?

I’ve done all that, too. I’m still guilty of those things from time to time, even though I now know better.

If you’re like me and you work with clients who have day jobs unrelated to the work you do for them, that client probably emailed you in the evening because that was the first time he/she got a breather. He/she probably didn’t even expect to hear back until the next day, but here comes your response email at 9 p.m. That client now has every reason to believe that you typically work in the evenings. The next time they need to ask you an urgent question, they’ll probably send that email in the late afternoon, and they may begin to expect you to answer that evening. Is that rude of them? Not at all. You’ve conditioned them to think you work at night because you respond to their emails as soon as you see them.

A client who’s always eager to hop on a call and discuss the project is, in most cases, a passionate client. In my line of work, I help people create, rework, and polish their ink-and-paper babies. I want to work with clients who have a vision, who love the story they’re telling, and who feel strongly about their desired message. I’ll take an eager, Skype-loving client over a disconnected, uninterested, uncommunicative client any day.

If you feel the same, just take a moment to to mention your typical work hours and days to your client the next time he/she asks for a “quick call in five?” Also simply tell him/her you need more notice to set aside a time slot for the call. In my experience, 95% of the time, that client will have zero issues with setting up a different time to call, and they will remember your boundaries the next time they want to video chat.

All you have to do is clearly state those boundaries! It sounds simple, but so few freelancers do it.

Be Deliberate in Making Exceptions

One of the many great things about freelancing is the flexibility. Sometimes, you need to bend your boundaries. If you approach this the wrong way, however, it can become a slippery slope. You need to define here and now what constitutes the need for an exception so that you don’t find yourself answering emails at midnight because, “It’s an exception, I swear!”

So what constitutes a necessary exception? Well, the exact scenario will differ based on your niche, your work style, and your personal life. However, in general, an exception should only be made for accommodating circumstances neither you nor the client can change.

Let me give an example.

I make exceptions on either my evening cutoff or “no work on weekends” rules if those are the only days or times that a client can schedule a vital Skype call due to their day job. When I’m taking on a ghostwriting project, I always need an initial interview and then a second call to discuss the outline. If the client can only make those calls on Saturdays because he/she works long hours Monday-Friday at a job totally unrelated to their book, I’ll make that exception. No problem.

However, if that same client wants to set up a Saturday call to discuss something small that could easily be resolved over email, I can’t make an exception there. I will politely tell the client that and take steps to begin resolving the matter in that same email.

Final Thoughts

Catering to your clients’ needs is very important, but you can make your clients happy without bending over backwards every single time. And I promise, in most cases, your client isn’t even asking you to; you’re doing that to yourself.

I know the fine details on top of the day-to-day work and constant email correspondence can seem overwhelming, but that stress is significantly reduced if you quit letting it bleed into other parts of your life. Once you start operating within your desired work hours, you’ll start to realize that that email really can wait until tomorrow, and that you can squeeze in that extra task before your cutoff time if you just stay off Facebook during your work hours that day.

If you muddle your boundaries and fall back into bad habits, as I have many times, check yourself, understand where you’ve gone wrong, and recommit. The only way you really screw up is by abandoning your boundaries as a lost cause, not by slipping up. Start over, and don’t beat yourself up.

If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of business.


2 thoughts on “Setting Boundaries to Avoid Freelance Overwhelm

  1. Chris Lovie-Tyler says:

    Another really helpful post, thanks.

    I especially like the section on planning for phone calls. I do much better when I can plan for calls and meetings too.

    • IJustWanttoWrite says:

      Thrilled you enjoyed it, Chris. Phone calls are my kryptonite, lol, but I can’t seem to escape them. Having time to prepare helps *so* much. Thanks for stopping by again.

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