When work people try to contact you outside of your ‘usual’ toiling hours, do you respond immediately, or do you let them wait until you’re back at your desk?
This is no longer a dilemma solely faced by freelancers. Work had already stolen life’s identity, wearing its clothes and assuming its mannerisms long before 2020 swaggered in and tore up the rule book.
“(Employees) remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down,” said the French politician Benoît Hamon back in 2016, just before his country implemented its national “right to disconnect.”
Said right involves a charter that marks out the hours when employees aren’t supposed to send or answer emails.
It’s an intervention that freelancers (not to mention stressed-out employees who don’t happen to be French) would do well to emulate, if they really want to stop burnout in its tracks.
How do you set boundaries for work, when you’re responsible for everything?
Freelancers tend to be much more flexible about how and when they work – it’s one of the perks that make leaving the traditional 9-5 appear so tempting.
But the 9-5 has an advantage, in that it sets automatic expectations of standard working time. If you contact a 9-5er at 10pm, you know you’re contacting them outside of their ‘official’ hours, so you might apologise for disturbing them, and you might not expect an immediate response.
But if you contact a freelancer at 10pm, that’s fine, isn’t it?
One of my clients is a freelance therapist. During a recent catch-up chat, he told me that one of his clients had casually WhatsApped him at 11:30pm on a Saturday night, to ask a question that could have easily waited until Monday.
“I responded straight away,” he said. “I didn’t want to, but WhatsApp shows the sender that you’ve seen their message, and I didn’t want my client to think I was deliberately ignoring her.”
The other thing about going freelance is, you’re in charge of everything. Not just the day-to-day work, but the finance, the tech, the sales, the marketing, and all the client interaction.
So, if someone complains, there’s nobody else to blame – and that means it’s easy to think you must be available and ‘on’ all the time, just in case.
But you don’t.
First, consider that no good client will expect you to be available 24/7 (do you expect that of the people you work with and buy from yourself?) Second, being in charge of everything also means taking charge of your own free time, because nobody else is going to step in and do that for you.
If you’re wondering how, here are a few ‘time reclaiming’ methods that have worked well for me.
Remove email and social media apps from your phone
If you can only check emails and social media from your laptop or computer, you’ll stop mindlessly picking up your phone in the evenings, seeing a notification, and clicking on it ‘just to see what it is’.
Operate a ‘phone foyer’ system
I learned this simple tip from ‘Life of Focus’, an online course run by the author and productivity expert, Cal Newport.
It’s this: leave your phone by your front door, or in another room. If you need to look something up, or send a message, go and do it there.
The idea of the ‘phone foyer’ system was originally intended to stop distractions (and, as Cal puts it, “retrain yourself that your phone is not with you all the time”.)
But it also stops messages from intruding on your free time, in that you can look at them when you’re ready, rather than immediately as they come in.
(If you’re panicking at the thought of these steps, try them. You’ll learn, as I did, that spending time away from emails and texts won’t bring the world to a juddering halt.)
Be clear about your work boundaries
“Do you work on weekends?” asked a potential client recently.
“No,” I said, politely and unapologetically.
The conversation continued, and I got the job… which I completed on time, during the core working hours I’ve set for myself.
(OK, it’s a boring story, but it makes me happy!)
…bearing in mind that this probably won’t happen overnight.
Most freelancers – most people, in fact – are naturally helpful and obliging, which means saying “no” on occasion may feel awkward.
But being clear about your boundaries not only shows a healthy level of respect for yourself, but it’ll also help others understand the way you’ve chosen to work.
And that can only be a good thing, can’t it?