Setting healthy boundaries with clients can be a challenge for even the most seasoned freelancers. But without healthy boundaries, you risk finding yourself stressed, burnt out, and feeling like your clients are taking advantage of you.
A lack of boundaries has been exacerbated by startup culture, where employees are often expected to be available to take on whatever responsibilities and tasks they’re asked to handle—often outside of their normal working hours. While some companies have recognized that this isn’t conducive to success, the mentality can be difficult to break free from.
In this guide, we’ll be sharing eight impactful ways to set better boundaries with your clients so you can produce your best work in 2021. Let’s jump straight into it:
- 1. Define your boundaries
- 2. Respect your own time
- 3. Learn to say no
- 4. Watch out for scope creep
- 5. Set boundaries early
- 6. Put it in writing
- 7. Be consistent
- 8. Stop feeling guilty
1. Define your boundaries
Until you know what your boundaries are, it’s hard to enforce them with clients. Take some time to figure out what is and what isn’t acceptable in a professional relationship.
What hours do you want to work? How do you prefer to communicate? What happens if a client doesn’t uphold their promises to you in regards to getting materials to you, delivering feedback, or other things that will affect your workflow?
Answering those questions will give you some idea of where your boundaries are and what you need to enforce.
Without knowing your own boundaries, it’s impossible to set those boundaries with clients.
2. Respect your own time
One of the most important boundaries you can set with clients is around your time.
That means the amount of time you devote to their projects and communicating with them. It also means laying out a timeline for when different parts of the project will be completed, and how long they have to get feedback to you at each stage. You can write this down yourself or you can use free software like Bonsai to do it for you. Bonsai is designed specifically for freelancers and helps to track your tasks for every project and manage time efficiently.
You have to respect your own time before you expect your clients to respect your time.
Figure out when your peak creative hours are, and treat those hours as sacred. Block it out in your schedule and make sure you aren’t scheduling non-creative tasks during that time.
Make sure you also set a time to stop work at the end of the day, schedule breaks, and particularly schedule your days off. And when you’re not scheduled to be working, don’t respond to client requests.
3. Learn to say no
Saying no doesn’t come easily to a lot of people. You don’t want to disappoint a client or risk losing a project.
But saying no is important if you want to establish and maintain your boundaries. A boundary is meaningless if you aren’t willing to tell your client no to something that’s outside of those boundaries.
If you’re not comfortable saying no, Creative Director Dan Mall suggests letting your client know what you can do instead. Here’s some helpful language you can try using as an example:
CLIENT: “Can you finish the document upload functionality by 5 pm today?”
YOU: “No, but I can get it to you by 8 am tomorrow. Will that work for you?”
4. Watch out for scope creep
One of the most common places where clients may push boundaries is when it comes to scope creep.
Adding on to a project happens often, but it’s important that you’re being properly compensated for any additions.
Some clients don’t realize how much extra time scope creep can take up. They’ll think it’s “just a minor addition” when it could result in hours of extra work for you. This often happens with rounds of revisions, where they ask for “just one little change” without realizing the time and resources required for that change.
Be clear about what’s included in a project and how many rounds of revisions a client can expect before being charged for additional time.
5. Set boundaries early
You should always set boundaries from the outset of any relationship with a client.
Let them know if you don’t respond to email or phone calls on certain days or outside of certain hours. Spell out each phase of the project and when they can expect to see certain deliverables.
It’s also important to set expectations for when you need things from them. If you need feedback within three days after each phase is complete to stick to the project schedule, make sure they know that and are on board with it.
If you set your boundaries from the start, clients will have a much easier time respecting those boundaries and not asking for allowances outside of them.
6. Put it in writing
Setting boundaries early is important, but putting those boundaries and expectations in writing is critical.
Everything covered in this article should be spelled out in your contract with clients, so they’re clear on things like when and how to communicate, when you’re available for calls, and what your expectations for them are. Putting things in writing means creating a contract.
Instead of writing this all by yourself (and potentially missing out on important details), Bonsai has free vetted contract templates for freelancers to use.
Putting these things in writing makes a couple of things clear. First, it makes your actual boundaries clear. Second, and almost more importantly, it also makes it clear that you’re serious about your boundaries and expectations.
7. Be consistent
Setting boundaries is only one part of the equation. It’s also vital that you consistently honor those boundaries.
If you take a call on the weekend for a client once, then they’ll come to expect that you’re available on the weekends. If you do an extra round of revisions once, they’ll expect it on all projects.
It’s up to you to consistently reinforce the boundaries you’ve set. You can do this in a professional and even kind way, reminding clients of when you’re available and for what.
If necessary, refer them back to your contract where your boundaries and expectations are clearly spelled out.
8. Stop feeling guilty
So often, in both our professional and personal lives, we end up feeling guilty for the boundaries we set. But that’s completely unnecessary and at its extreme can even be self-destructive.
There’s no reason for you to feel guilty about setting boundaries that allow you to maintain the kind of work-life balance that you need to operate at peak productivity and creativity.
Your clients want your best work, and to produce your best work, you have to protect your creative abilities.
How to set better boundaries
Setting boundaries in any relationship—whether it be with friends, family, or your freelance clients—can be uncomfortable. But trust us, it’s always worth doing.
In order for you to produce your best work and maintain a healthy work-life balance, it’s crucial to set boundaries with any of your clients. Take this opportunity to use a vetted contract template from Bonsai, outline what your boundaries and terms are, and don’t feel guilty about saying no!
Are you a freelancer looking for work? Be sure to check out Dribbble’s Freelance Project Board to find exciting new project opportunities this year. ■
About the Author — Cameron Chapman: Editor. Blogger. Author. Designer. Copywriter. Marketer. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Consultant. Coach. I wear a lot of hats. What most of them have in common, though, is storytelling.