When you love what you do for a living, it’s hard to establish boundaries around your work.
I’ve never had a regular job where I could motivate myself to wake up at five in the morning and get right to work, but being a professional freelancer does it. I want to spend as many waking hours as possible (and sleeping hours, if I could work in my sleep) writing, editing, and brainstorming new pitches and marketing strategies. Hell, I don’t even need coffee that early — my adrenaline kicks in and I’m ready to dive into work.
But recently, I’ve experienced what happens when I don’t put boundaries around my work. When you’re working 60+ hours per week, even if it’s doing something you love, there is a lot to balance.
As much as I love what I do, sometimes the reason it’s hard for me to turn down opportunities for new projects is because, well, I’ve got a little bit of a people-pleaser personality. It can feel hard to say “no” when a client asks me to take on an additional project even when my plate is (over)full, because it almost feels like I’m making up “excuses” for not taking on more work, or that my client will think I’m lazy.
Deep down, there’s also this little voice that tells me, “There’s no guarantee you’ll get a project like this again.” When you work as a freelancer for a living, there are often daunting decisions to make — sometimes, choosing one project can even mean you’ll have to turn down another in the future.
Call it overly ambitious (or call it “survival mode”), but sometimes I find myself biting off a bit more than I can chew … and I’m sure I’m not alone in this as a freelancer.
Catching an intense viral strain of the flu can really put a damper on your work ethic.
Because I was actually enjoying what I was doing for a living, I hadn’t realized that all those late nights combined with early mornings were resulting in not very much sleep. And I was a bit stressed, even if it wasn’t necessarily the bad kind — there was just always so much to do! And I wasn’t eating very healthy, or exercising much, because writing is a rather sedentary activity …
So, of course, this combination made my body vulnerable to the weird flu viruses floating in the city air. (Honestly, though, I blame this all on the person who sneezed on me at the concert I went to the day before I got sick. Ugh. Germs.)
What started as “allergies” (a slight tickle in my throat) rapidly turned into constant sneezing and a runny nose, which developed into an obnoxious hacking cough that just wouldn’t quit and an uncomfortable fever paired with its BFF, body aches — and after two days, I was beat.
The flu won.
I could barely focus on what I was reading because I was sneezing every five minutes, and coughing when I wasn’t sneezing. My mind and body were so tired that even after sleeping for 12 hours, I wanted to go back to sleep after being awake for only an hour or two.
I’m going to be honest: I was struggling. Hard. And I’m not one to admit that I can’t handle my workload (good ol’ pride shining through even when I’m sick as a dog). So I pushed through as much as I could, but as soon as I knew I couldn’t make my original deadlines, I communicated with my clients (and all of them were incredibly gracious and understanding, thankfully).
This experience was a wake-up call. I needed to set boundaries for my work, even if I enjoyed writing and editing and doing all the things. It just wasn’t making for a sustainable workflow in the long run.
My work wasn’t running me ragged — I was running myself ragged.
“Establishing boundaries” is a phrase often used by psychologists or therapists to refer to the practice of standing up for your own personal integrity when you’re faced with somewhat toxic people or situations. Boundaries are a way to prevent people from invading your space (whether it’s mental or physical space) or feeling entitled to control how you spend your time.
Boundaries, though, can be a bit difficult to establish, even if you think you’re good at them. You may easily say “no” to social events that sound boring or turn down projects that will require you to meet deadlines when you’re absolutely not available, but find that you say yes to something you’re on the fence about, or something that’ll just require you to shift a few things around.
If you’re finding yourself compromising your own well-being, happiness, or time for the sake of someone or something that isn’t adding to life satisfaction, then it’s time to think about what your limits are.
For me, it look a little bit of time to figure this out. I was enjoying what I was doing — constantly writing, editing, creating — until everything came to a head, and getting the flu threw everything into disarray. It was difficult to pick up the pieces and prioritize my work because I hadn’t had clear priorities in the first place.
I’ve found the most difficult boundary to create is the one between my professional life and my personal life. As a freelancer, it’s easy to conflate the two — I’m still fully me when I’m being my professional self. But that makes it all the more important to find ways to stand up for my own well-being, even if the biggest challenge to my boundaries is coming from me.
Acknowledging that I’m in charge of my choices, and that I need to respect my “time off” as much as my “working time,” has been the first step toward creating these boundaries between my work life and my personal life.
Not making time for sleep in lieu of finishing a project or working on extra things that I enjoy — not making time for just simply relaxing — is an example of how I was overstepping my own boundaries and not respecting something that is valuable to me (sleep and relaxation).
And sure, I’ve had some issues with time management — but that comes back to not establishing boundaries on my work. By convincing myself that it’s soooo cool that I can work any time, I end up telling others that “I’m working” all day long, drawing out smaller projects because I haven’t drawn any boundaries on my “work time.”
Regardless of whether the demands come from yourself or others, boundaries can happen only once you make the choice to stick to your personal principles and value yourself and your personal time as much as you value your work.
I’m not an expert at this by any means, but I’m getting better and better at enforcing healthy boundaries around how much time I spend on my work, which translates to healthier boundaries with my clients, too. Here are some of the tactics that have worked for me (and, if I’m being honest, this is still a work in progress). Maybe some of these will work for you, too.
Workaholics are a special breed. There’s something about the thrill of completing a project that makes you excited for the next one on your to-do list. But there’s a darker side to this personality type: Nothing’s ever “done,” or perfect enough, and there’s a little bit of anxiety constantly pulsing through your veins, driving home a message that “Work is never over” … so you’re constantly working.
This can be especially bad if you work from home; when are you technically “off the clock” if you haven’t clocked in in the first place?
Recognizing this tendency is the first step in establishing and enforcing boundaries. Take a moment to acknowledge that, hey, maybe if you’re checking emails and writing and working from sunup to sundown, you’re letting work run your life.
Being an overachiever is not a bad thing. But striving for perfection in every project for every client — no matter the cost to your physical or mental health — is a bad thing.
If you’re anything like me, this is a hard habit to break. But the first step could be a small change.
For example, tone down the workaholic mentality by being your own parent and giving yourself a “bedtime.” Lights off at 10 p.m., no, “But I just need one more hour and it’ll be just right!” If it can wait until the morning (and most things can), then close your laptop and get some shut-eye.
You’ll thank yourself once you remember how it feels to actually get a full night’s sleep.
And if you have trouble disconnecting from your emails in the evening, pick a reasonable time to “clock off” for the night and enjoy a different activity that gets you away from your phone or laptop.
A key to enforcing boundaries is communicating to others what your limits are in terms of time, and being honest with them and yourself. This can be especially hard if you’re balancing multiple clients or projects at the same time, but if that’s your situation, then it’s even more important to communicate.
If you have a client who presents unreasonable turnaround times — for example, asking you to instantly complete a project that will probably take you about four hours, but will require you to push back another project, not to mention skip your lunch — then you need to let them know what your workload is like and that their demands aren’t feasible.
No matter how much you want to impress your clients, you’ve gotta stick to your boundaries, especially regarding your time. Otherwise, they won’t respect them, either.
For example, let’s say your client wants to meet during a time that you’ve blocked out for yourself to get your own personal projects done. Communicate the times you are available to work on client projects and stick to those times. And if they offer you a project that you’re just not able to squeeze into your busy schedule at the moment, be upfront with them and let them know, “I’m excited to work on this for you — I can get this back to you by ____.”
It might feel like you’re saying “No” or “I can’t handle this,” but in reality, you’re standing up for yourself and your work limits. Plus, you’re not compromising the quality of your work simply to get a few extra projects on your plate (that you admittedly can’t juggle). In time, clients will understand what these boundaries are — hopefully. If a client doesn’t respect your boundaries, then consider having a (somewhat difficult) conversation about expectations and what your time commitments can be.
Communicating with your friends or family about how much time you have for them might be even harder than talking to a client; they’re important people to you, and you don’t want them to feel like you’re saying, “You’re less important than my work.”
But you’re not saying “No.” By sticking to your boundaries, you’re standing up for yourself and your personal values — because if you don’t, then who will?
In these situations, it’s a great idea to find a certain time of day or day of the week that you can set aside to chat on the phone or hang out with friends or family. Maybe find time on the weekends to reach out or get out of the house (you know, to start giving yourself the weekend off).
And if you’re able to carve out only an hour or two per week, that’s okay; just make sure your loved ones know this. The important thing here is communicating and sticking to these limits on your time, so you feel happier with your time management.
The whole point of boundaries is that if someone doesn’t respect them, that’s their problem, not yours — you set the boundary that works for you and stick to it, no matter what their reaction is.
For all you entrepreneurs and freelancers out there, this is going to sound impossible. And honestly, it sort of is. That’s why “try not to” is the key phrase here.
Basically, what this translates to is this: Give yourself a break. Whether it’s on a Saturday, a Sunday, or a Wednesday, carve out time in your week to be completely “off” and disconnected. If you feel like your skin is already crawling with anxiety just thinking about taking one day off per week, then start slow. Pick a day and limit the amount of time that you’re checking emails, writing, or working on a project for someone else to only one to two hours.
I know. That sounds crazy. Only one to two hours?! Alright, then maybe allow yourself three hours, but that’s it. With most of your day dedicated to doing something relaxing, you might find that you actually feel great not being at the whim of the persistent pings of your inbox.
However, the only way you’ll probably feel okay with taking time off on the weekend is if you …
If you have a regular 9-to-5 job on top of your freelancer career, you already have some consistency in your weekday schedule — but that also means that the weekend and evenings are probably prime time for getting freelance projects done. However, just as your time is dedicated to a full-time job for an allotted amount of time Monday through Friday, your freelance work should have specific time dedicated to it, too.
Figure out how much time you need per week for your freelance projects, and set specific times during the week to work on those projects — and don’t compromise that time. Think of it this way: If you compromise your time during the week, that will mean you’ll have to make up that time on the weekends … when you could be relaxing and binge-watching the newest show on Netflix.
If you’re a full-time entrepreneur or freelancer who makes your own schedule every day, this might end up being a bit tougher to do, and it’ll require some strategizing and prioritizing. For me, it’s hard not to always feel like I’m working, since technically speaking, I could be working all the time.
It’s also something that might change week by week, but that’s okay; set aside an hour on a Sunday or Monday night, before your week gets rolling, to block out time for certain projects, tasks, and other maintenance activities that take up your time (like paying your bills!).
From answering emails to scoping out new writing projects and brainstorming your next article, make sure to set boundaries on all your tasks, no matter how big or small. Time always feels like it disappears from us … and often, it’s because we don’t realize how we’re spending it.
You’re probably thinking, “Hold up, you’re telling me to make boundaries but be flexible?!”
Well, yes. I’ll explain.
Healthy boundaries are formed when two people respect each other. In this case, writers may find themselves needing to respect themselves a bit more. Once you start enforcing boundaries, respect yourself and your time by not compromising them.
I had a professor in college who told me that he worked on his book manuscript between 7 a.m. and noon every day, no matter what. He never scheduled meetings, booked appointments, or taught classes during that time. The time he spent working on his book manuscript made him feel not only professionally accomplished, but personally accomplished, too.
However, when he had the opportunity to teach a course he’d been dreaming of teaching for years, he chose to introduce a little flexibility, but without compromising his commitment to his writing. The class started at 8:30 a.m., in the middle of his personal writing time. He chose to teach the class and adjusted his personal writing time, dedicating hours in the afternoon on the days he taught in the morning, because teaching this course lined up with another personal goal of his. However, he never compromised his commitment to his manuscript.
If a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up, it’s worth evaluating how you’ve scheduled your work boundaries. Hey, we’re all human here (I hope … robots, are you reading this?), so there are going to be some special occasions that call for a bit of flexibility. But before you make changes, pause and consider if this opportunity will help you feel personally fulfilled, and whether it aligns with your personal values. Respecting yourself is key, no matter what opportunities come your way.
The thing to keep in mind is that if you’ve dedicated X amount of hours per week to your personal projects, don’t completely get rid of those hours. Take the time to adjust the boundaries on your time so you don’t lose out on feelings of personal fulfillment that come from dedicating time to your own projects.
It might take some trial and error to create healthy boundaries. You might have to resolve conflicts that arise when you start to enforce boundaries on your time; people may push back when you explain that you can’t be as flexible as you used to be. But respecting your own time means that others will respect your time, too.
When you find yourself exhausted or overstressed (or getting the flu when it’s not even flu season), it’s time to sit down and really figure out how to block out your time to respect your own boundaries. Because if you’re a go-getter like me, it’s not your work that’s causing you this exhaustion — it’s probably just you.
And achieving healthy boundaries is possible, if you:
As a freelancer or an entrepreneur, it’s up to you to set your boundaries — and that’s pretty damn cool. Revel in that coolness by respecting your personal time as much as you do your professional time!
Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.