working late

Working Late: 5 Essential Boundaries for Freelancers

From time to time I’ll fire off an email to a client during the late evening or early morning hours. Occasionally, an immediate response comes back expressing surprise that I’m working so late.  Often the client will follow with another or several emails, expect me to respond right then.

The thing is, I’m not actually available to clients in the wee hours of the morning. If I send an email at 1:23am I do it for my convenience, not the client’s.

Freelancers set their own hours.

I happen to work a split schedule. I work in the morning and then again at night. In between, during the afternoon, I schedule meetings and run errands. I go play or take the dogs for a walk. Although it’s a somewhat unusual time block, I create great work for my clients. But I am not available to my clients outside of my stated business hours which are the usual daytime, weekday hours, even if send a midnight email. So I won’t respond to the up-all-night client until the next afternoon. In this way I enforce my boundaries.

Design is a service industry. We independent creatives are in service to our clients. As a whole, we enjoy helping people achieve their goals. A good many of us often help to the degree that we forget about setting boundaries, or, if we’ve set them, we neglect to enforce them. The  problem with this is that we allow the wrong things to take up our time and become our focus.

Time is not a renewable resource. Our time is threatened on a daily basis by the expectations and demands of others. So many of us get out of bed and check email or pop on the television first thing, and move into our day based on what others want to make of it.

5 tactics to maintain boundaries

When clients and designers work together, it’s a collaboration. Every collaboration requires boundaries to make it work. These are a few boundaries I’ve established which help me serve you to the best of my ability.

Business hours. Publish official business hours in your contract and on your web site. Although you may not adhere to them behind the scenes and, as I do, function on an entirely different schedule, letting people know when you are available to them and when you are not helps protect your creative time. When a client thinks she can converse with you on Sunday evening, she will. Some of my clients actually work weekends (event producers, for example) but I cannot conform to their business hours. Even if you send a midnight email it should not mean you’re open for business or available 24/7. Ignore emails, phone calls and text messages until the next business day, and then be prompt to reply. NOTHING is a creative emergency needing your immediate attention at 2:00am.

Share your process. I begin every project with a research and inquiry phase. This means that, immediately after the project contract is signed, I am burrowed in for a few days preparing for concept development. So, instead of letting the client wonder where I am and what I’m doing, I let them know up front that they won’t hear from me for a specified period of time. I tell them what they can expect and then I am sure to follow through with updates. This raises their comfort level and confidence that they’ve entrusted their project to the right creative.

Protect your creative peaks. Discover what your best creative time is —when you are most energized to problem-solve and work on ideas. I peak in the morning and then again later at night. That is why I schedule meetings and field work during the afternoon. I recommend that you handle your correspondence, set meetings, and run errands when you are least effective creatively.

Take a day off every week. It’s very common for creative pros — freelance and employed — to work all the time. But for your own sake, you need to rest and recharge. You also need to reflect and plan. Decide on a day of the week when you will avoid working on client projects. Don’t even sit down at your drafting table or desk. Instead, to the things that relax and refresh you. For a number of years, I worked every day of the week, taking off a few hours here and there, but not taking an entire day. Living that way took its toll on me in that I lost my creative drive and had little energy to work. There was no joy in working. Taking a full 24 hours off of work every week has made a huge difference for me. When you take regularly-scheduled time off, you will increase in effectiveness and efficiency during your working hours.

Respect your own boundaries. Don’t allow a client to define your role, dictate how and when you work on their project, or suggest other things you can do for them that are not in your service offerings. From my own experience, I worked with a client a few years ago who asked me to set up their email accounts and fix a problem with their laptop. Another client referred to me as his publicist. And I recently released a client who, after giving me an initial design and print project a few years ago, expected me to broker printing on projects created by other designers.

You own your own time, how you work and when you work, and what you do. Get comfortable with saying “No”. You are not obligated to satisfy any client request or need that is beyond your normal scope of work. Remain true your service offerings. Don’t attempt to please a client by assuming a role you’re not comfortable with.

To truly be productive, boundaries are necessary. If I am always at the beck and call of every client, I cannot accomplish work for any of them in an effective manner. I need to choose when I am and am not available, and to be comfortable with refusing certain requests in order to complete the work in front of me to the best of my ability. Keep your boundaries intact with every client, and also take care of yourself.

Your Turn
What are your essential boundaries as a creative freelancer? Share your insights in the comments.

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