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How to Set Up Boundaries as a Freelancer

Dec 16, 2019
(updated: Dec 6, 2022)
Max 5 min read

We've all been in that situation - the one where clients are emailing or texting us at all hours of the day or night. In these moments, you might think to yourself, 'How did I get here?'. Why are my clients expecting me to be at their beck and call? Sometimes you might feel stuck - especially if you don't have many clients and need the income to make ends meet.

If you've been in this situation before, one of the best ways to approach the situation is expectation management. This is often easiest when you're just starting to work with a new client, so you're aligned at the very beginning on both sides. 

Understanding Your Situation

There are many different types of freelancing set-ups. Sometimes there are one-off projects while others are recurring contracts are ongoing. If you have a recurring client, think about how many hours you're working for them a week. The more hours a client has bought of your time, the more responsive they expect you to be. Whether I'm working for a client 10 hours a week or 40 hours a week, I typically have a minimum 24-hour turnaround policy for emails and communications. That doesn't mean it will always take me 24 hours to respond, but it's a minimum amount. 

If you're often not online or aren't checking email or communication channels frequently, you may be able to extend the turnaround time to 2-4 days, depending on the situation. However, it is important to think about how to communicate this with a client to make sure they're informed. 

How to Communicate with a New Client

Including it within a contract

As you're building out your contract, you may consider including communication terms within the contract. For example, including that, all emails or client communications will be responded to within x amount of time, unless the contractor has communicated he will be out of the office for a duration of time. By including it in the contract, you protect yourself from misaligned expectations and can use this to have a conversation with your clients. Some clients want daily check-ins to their email platform, slack, etc, so you can determine if this is within your bandwidth and something you can exceed at. 

Having a Conversation with Your Client

If a 24 hour turnaround time during the workweek seems reasonable and within your bandwidth, having a conversation with your client that in order to focus on getting deeper work done, there are times where you'll only be going through emails and responding once a day. This might only make sense for certain types of work, where others might need more integration and interaction with clients. Think back to your situation and what makes sense.

How to Renegotiate Boundaries with Existing Clients

If you have a client that is constantly messaging you about new work situation or adjustments they need to be made now, consider having a conversation with your client about expectations. If you work with them on a project by project basis, think about waiting until the end of the project and before starting a new one to have a conversation about what went well and what didn't go well, across the board. Opening this up can make it easier for both sides to share their needs and think about if it makes sense to continue the contract. 

If that isn't possible, consider collecting data on how much time is being spent responding to emails and communications and how that is detracting from the work that you've been hired on to do. Communicate that you have some concerns about the amount of time it takes responding to emails, and how that could potentially slow down the progress of the project. 

Either way, make sure that you come prepared with data on what's happening, what needs to change, and how both yours and your client's needs can be met. If that doesn't happen, it may be time to consider firing your client. 

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