I’m going to share some of my own boundaries, and some tips to help you set yours!
I’m writing this in September, which often feels more of a ‘new year’ to me than January does… Partly because I’m a mum of school-age kids and an ex-teacher, so I have an internal clock heavily ingrained with school terms and academic years. However, it’s also because for me the Summer holidays are longer and more draining and chaotic than Christmas, so by the end of them I feel much more of a need for a reset.
This Autumn term I feel more than ever that I need to re-establish some healthy routines and boundaries. This Summer seemed to be a killer paradox of whizzing by in a flash so it felt like I haven’t had a break, but also seeming to last forever in terms of lack of being able to maintain any kind of routine and regular self-care. I feel like I’ve not just fallen off the wagon but am lying in the middle of the road covered in dust and rubble, watching the wagon completely disappear into the horizon!
In addition to the Summer chaos, if you’re a chronic people-pleaser like me, you’ll probably find that your boundaries are the first thing to go when pressure hits. We start saying yes to things we really don’t have the capacity for… Being tired makes it even harder than usual to stand our ground and say no… We tend to get consumed by what others need, so when their needs are high, our needs get pushed to the bottom or forgotten about entirely.
In short, if you’re feeling similarly tired, scattered and overstretched, it’s time for a fresh start and to introduce some clear boundaries to help you banish any feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm. Running a business is hard work and can be very stressful – so healthy boundaries are absolutely essential to avoid burnout and to be able to keep building a sustainable, enjoyable business moving forward.
Here are 12 ways you might like to set boundaries for the weeks and months ahead:
1) EDITING TIMES
If you feel it’s always a stretch to deliver your edited images to clients, ease this moving forward and extend the quoted timeframe. You can do this from the start for new clients, and for existing clients, drop them an email and ask them if they would object to receiving their images a week later due to unforeseen time constraints – let them know you will of course honour the original timescales if this is a problem. If they object, you will need to honour what you promised them – but you’re no worse off than you were before. However, most will probably say that’s fine, and that takes off a little bit of pressure for you. Personally I quote 3 weeks for family shoots, as I find this sustainable most of the time. For weddings, I used to quote 6 weeks. You can also have different timescales for peak/off-peak times of the year.
2) OFFICE HOURS
Decide what your office hours are – these are the hours during which people can reasonably expect a response from you. It’s not reasonable in most cases to expect responses on evenings and weekends – although of course your own office hours must align with what’s convenient for you personally – which may possibly be evenings and weekends! The important thing is to be clear about your own, whatever they may be. Personally my office hours are 09:30-15:30, Monday to Thursday. Make these clear to others and manage expectations by putting your office hours on your website contact page, in your email signature, and in welcome materials when you take on new clients. Then, if you do get communication from people outside these hours, you won’t feel obliged to reply, and can direct them to where you clearly stated this if they query a delayed response.
3) RESPONSE TIME
Be clear about how quickly people can expect a response from you. This is closely tied to your office hours above, but goes one step further in terms of how long they should expect to wait to hear back from you. Make sure you don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Whilst it’s of course good practice and advisable to get back to people as soon as possible, it’s far better to underpromise and overdeliver with this – if you feel you’ll struggle to respond within 24 hours, tell people to expect a response within 48 hours. Likewise, if 48 hours is a struggle, make it 72 etc etc. If you’re not going to respond over the weekend, and the hours/days quoted are for working days only, make this clear. Again, clearly state your response times on your website contact page, email signature and in welcome materials.
4) OUT OF OFFICE
Make sure you have one of these. They are not just for holidays – I also use mine at weekends – I put it on on a Thursday afternoon when my office hours end, and turn it off on a Monday morning when I’m back in the office. I put reminders in my calendar to turn it on/off as otherwise I often forget. If you want to, you can also put it on at the end of each working day and turn it off when you’re back the next working day. Its aim is again to manage expectations – so make sure it clearly states your office hours and response times.
Set these up for your contact form if you have one – you can even set one up just for your email if you want to. These work in the same way as out of office notifications, except they are there to manage expectations around response times and office hours at any time, including during working hours. This means that everyone who contacts you gets an immediate acknowledgment and is told what to expect from you. These are especially useful during busy times when people might need to wait a little longer for a response. For example, you could have an autoresponder set up just during peak wedding season, or over the school holidays. It’s not an ‘out of office’ as such, just more a polite notification that helps avert any disappointment or unrealistic expectations.
6) CLIENT CALLS
Decide when you’re happy to offer clients calls, and only offer slots during these times that are convenient for you. You don’t have to have these dictated to you by clients. Some people are happy to do client calls in the evenings; others are not. There is no right and wrong – only what works for you. Offer specific time-slots that work with your own schedule rather than asking open-ended “When works for you?” type questions. Similarly, if you feel obliged to offer evening client calls for people who work during the daytime, it’s totally fine to only do these on certain day(s) of the week of your choosing. This will stop them bleeding into your personal time and you can plan around them. Likewise, decide how long these calls will be, and confirm the call length with your clients beforehand. You can also decide whether or not you want to offer client calls at all. Often these can be replaced by other channels of communication such as WhatsApp voice notes, questionnaires, Voxer, welcome materials etc.
7) EMAILS AND SOCIAL MEDIA
These are two of the biggest time and energy drains. For me, if I do these in the morning, they tend to bleed into the rest of the day and before I know it, that’s most of the day eaten up and I’m unable to achieve any demanding or growth tasks that I’d planned for that day. Personally, moving forward, I’m committing to not opening email or social media until after midday. This means that I will always have the morning (when I’m at my most alert) to complete any more demanding or creative tasks such as writing, marketing etc. Map your energy (an article to help you do this here) to decide on your own time-slots for specific tasks. Decide at what point in the day you will tackle emails and/or social media so it doesn’t pull you away from important growth tasks.
8) ‘BACK OFFICE’ DAYS
These are days you try to protect so you can work uninterrupted, in peace. We need these days to recharge energetically and maintain focus on key tasks without getting distracted. Ideally you won’t book in shoots, client calls etc on these days, so you can get on with whatever tasks you need and want to do, without feeling harrassed by other people’s demands. I try to protect Thursdays wherever possible (unless it’s a shoot that can’t be done on any other day).
9) COMMUNICATION CHANNELS
Decide which communication channels you’re happy to use for work. Personally, I try to keep everything via email (or text if time is of the essence or it’s urgent). As well as it feeling overwhelming having messages coming at me from many different places, I find it most efficient and professional to keep all communication in one place where I can easily keep track of it all. Therefore, when clients message me via social media DM or WhatsApp, I always direct them back to email. I keep WhatsApp for friends and family only. You don’t have to do the same – you might prefer WhatsApp or DMs for clients and this is totally fine. The key is to choose just one or two key channels that work for you, and let clients know this is where they can reach you. If they then contact you elsewhere, you can just redirect them back to your chosen channel(s).
Decide in advance when you will be taking your holidays (even if you haven’t booked anything yet and don’t know exactly where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing), and let clients know about this as soon as possible. Block them out in your diary so your own time off is protected above anything else and work will fit around it, rather than the other way round.
11) CALLS FROM FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Well-meaning family and friends often like to call or message self-employed folk during the daytime because they know we’re often at home. However, if this infringes on your ability to get your work done, they do need reminding that these are your working hours. Let them know if you’d rather they text if it’s urgent. That way, you can decide yourself how ‘urgent’ it is before you call them back – I’ve had many an ‘urgent’ phone call that turned out to be something that wasn’t remotely urgent! 🙂 Let them know what your working hours are, and what times of the day it’s ok to call you, unless it’s an emergency.
12) MAKE A YES/NO LIST
Have a really good think about which types of jobs, services, clients, products, activities and tasks in your business drain or displease you, and which ones nurture/energise you. Make the 4 lists below and keep them in a prominent place next to your desk or on your desktop. Then, when opportunities or requests to do these things arise, you can refer to your list and know you’re making the decision that’s right for you as it’s been thought out carefully in advance, rather than it being a knee-jerk decision when you’re put on the spot or pressed for time. If you’re still offering anything in the ‘hard no’ list, take it off your website/brochure and stop offering it! If you’re not doing much of any items in the ‘hard yes’ list, look at ways to build these more into your business.
HARD NO – things you absolutely don’t want to do – things that will drain you
SOFT NO – things you’d rather not do but could live with if there are enough other benefits
SOFT YES – things you’d ideally like but could live without if there are enough other benefits
HARD YES – things you definitely want to do – things that energise and nourish you
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