Setting boundaries as a freelancer

Last week I wrote about how anxiety can affect freelancers, and in passing I mentioned the need to set boundaries. I thought it might be helpful to say a bit more about that.

For me, one of the most important aspects of building a sustainable freelance career is taking control. Sometimes, especially when we start out, it can feel as if we have no control over our working existence at all. When projects come along, we take them, and we are grateful. Everything we do feels reactive, and it can begin to seem that we are little more than flotsam on the shifting waters of working life, drifting where the currents take us. This is to some extent acceptable in the beginning. It’s necessary to take chances, to trust to fate, to be open to new opportunities. But over time that can’t be the only way we operate. It becomes necessary to be more calculating, more deliberate; to learn to shape our professional lives in the way that we choose.

In turn, key to taking control is setting boundaries. I’m not talking about writing out a list of all the things you will not do under any circumstances, and emailing them to every prospective client, because that would be counterproductive. I’m talking about setting personal boundaries, many of which you might never even say out loud but rather you will feel, and that will govern your approach to everything in the sphere of your business, and help keep it (and you) healthy.

For example:

  • working hours
  • communication
  • what you will charge
  • types of work undertaken
  • collaboration
  • ethics.

When I started freelancing, my concept of boundaries was poor, to say the least. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was still treated like an employee by my most recent employer, and I did nothing to discourage this: I allowed it to happen. Partly I was grateful that I had left on good terms and they were still giving me work. Partly I missed the office and was desperate to maintain the illusion of being part of a larger entity than just me in my room at the foot of my bed on a laptop. Over time, I began to establish boundaries by stealth as my client base grew and I simply couldn’t manage to be at one client’s beck and call any longer. I learned that I needed to protect my own time and apportion it as I saw fit, or I wouldn’t hit all my deadlines. The definitive psychological break came when I physically moved 200 miles away from my old office, and I could no longer walk over in half an hour for an impromptu meeting or to print something out. Slowly my confidence in my ability to survive on my own grew. It became easier to set time boundaries, and not feel that I was working to someone else’s rules.

Boundary maintenance

It’s all very well to set boundaries, but they also need to be rigorously patrolled and maintained. Otherwise, things can slip: you tell yourself that you don’t work weekends any more, but then some months later you need to work a little on a Sunday ‘just to catch up’, and then you fall into a regular habit of using Sunday afternoon as a time for completing overflow work, enabling you to take on that little bit more each week, or to feel a bit more relaxed about getting things done Monday to Friday, until it’s an established routine again and you’ve sacrificed part of your hard-won weekend.

Also: many clients are lovely, but some – unconsciously or not – are more exploitative. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Boundary erosion can be insidious in the same way as any other abusive relationship. You start out with good intentions and healthy self-esteem, but then the client starts asking for little extras, like a second pass of a manuscript, or a late-night Zoom call, or they start drip-feeding you unreasonable criticism or imposing impossible expectations or responsibilities not backed by sufficient resources, until you feel you can’t stand up for yourself or leave. This might sound extreme, but it does happen, and you need to learn to identify when it is going on, and avoid such toxic situations at all costs. Over the years I have learned to trust my gut. If a client relationship worries me before it’s even properly begun, I steer clear. I have never regretted saying no to a prospect, but I have on more than one occasion bitterly regretted saying yes.

Your lowest price

An important area for setting boundaries is pricing and fees. I won’t go into detail here about how to quote and set prices (though I will refer you to Melanie Thompson’s excellent CIEP guide, Pricing a Project). However, what I will say is that in any situation, it helps to have a firm boundary in place, which is a price you won’t go below. This might be the same for every client, or it might vary by type of work or sector. That depends on your personal business model. But when you enter into any discussion or negotiation about price, it’s crucial to have in mind a figure below which you will not go. If you can stick to that (and walk away if it’s not met) you can avoid all sorts of difficult situations in which at best you end up feeling resentful, and at worst you end up unable to meet your own financial commitments. The lowest price will be different for everyone, and yours should change over time, not only to keep up with inflation but to reflect your growing specialist knowledge, expertise and confidence.

Happy boundaries

Not all boundaries are heavy and negative. It’s not purely about resisting the demands of cheeky clients, or upholding an iron resolve to be paid what you’re worth and never less. Some boundaries are more positive than that, and have to do with building the kind of life you really want, with work as a valuable contributing factor but in no way the entire raison d’être. (Well, that’s my preference – yours may differ!) What would you like to do more of, in your working life? Amend your boundaries to encompass it. What would you like to do when you’re not working? Shift your working boundaries to accommodate that. No one can design your freelance existence but you.

My boundaries

Coming back to my earlier list, here’s how my boundaries work in practice. I’m constantly refining these, and some have only come into being relatively recently. They may change as my personal circumstances alter (for example, for now my working hours are heavily influenced by having two primary school children and a partner who works 9 to 5). All of them are always under benign attack.

  • Working hours – At the moment my core working hours are Monday to Friday, 8.45am until 2.45pm. I often work outside these times too, but then I can be a little slower to respond. I try not to work weekends, but sometimes I do. While my children weren’t in school during various lockdowns, I ended up working more at the weekend to make up for lost working hours in the week.
  • Communication – The name of my business refers to my responsiveness, but this doesn’t mean I always feel the need to answer emails immediately. I aim to respond the same day (and much more quickly if the context demands it), or first thing on the next working day if I receive an email late at night or at the weekend. Not responding to things straight away every single time gives me the chance to consider my reply more carefully, and I think also demands a little more respect. My time is as important as my clients’.
  • Rates – I set prices per project, or sometimes per client, to reflect the precise brief and needs. For every negotiation I enter I have a lowest price in mind, but this is a personal figure that helps me gauge whether to take a project or not. It’s not something I share with anyone else.
  • Types of work – One of my favourite things about this job is the variety, and I will work in many areas and most subjects. That said, I would never work on a maths textbook, or a book that glorified violence. I used to work as a freelance project manager, but I found that style of working didn’t suit me (in fact it was what I went freelance to do less of), so now I don’t do it at all.
  • Collaboration – I generally work on projects alone, but I like to share my experience and support other editors where I can. It’s why I blog, why I work on the CIEP’s information team, and why I have worked as a proofreading and copyediting mentor. I passionately believe the openness and sharing that are inherent to the editorial community make us all stronger as individual business owners.
  • Ethics – Editing is still an unregulated profession, but even in the time I’ve been freelancing I’ve seen huge progress made in this area. I’m proud to now be a member of a Chartered Institute. The CIEP sets standards for its members, and we adhere to its Code of Practice. Our membership grades reflect how much training we’ve undertaken, and our actual editorial experience. Independently of this, I see it as my duty to clients to keep learning, to keep trying to do better. I will also never sell a service I don’t feel qualified to provide.

What boundaries do you set for your business? Do you find it helpful to revisit them regularly? Do leave a comment!

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