I’ve always admired Robert Frost’s work. One of my favorite quotes is “good fences make good neighbors” from his poem “Mending Wall.”
Building a wall is often interpreted as a means to shut something out, or alienate others. However, I’ve always thought that the idea of putting up a fence was crucial for creating boundaries designed to manage expectations with clients while maintaining balance in my own life.
As freelancers, we often forget to differentiate between work life and home life because it all can easily blend together. We may work at home. We may have unconventional schedules to accommodate needs at home. Our personal time and our work time may have to change from one day to the next. This can become overwhelming, quickly.
Without clear boundaries (or fences in this case), you may find yourself answering emails at dinner or taking conference calls during carpool (pointing at self right here). Your work environment suddenly becomes the opposite of what is needed to focus, and do your job well. This can leave you feeling like you are swimming against a current, a lot of work but little progress or productivity in any one direction.
Now back to the fence. Think about it: People fence in their yards not only to keep others out, but also to protect what’s inside. Without a clear fence, neighbors, the Amazon delivery guy, and neighborhood dogs would be trampling your flowers and ringing your doorbell at all hours. It wouldn’t be out of malicious intent, but rather because a boundary to show where the outside must stop, and where your personal space begins wouldn’t exist. This concept should be established, and enacted as early in your career as possible. It’s your job to protect your personal life, and equally your job to protect your work & career. And an added benefit? While many may fear the contrary, setting clear expectations with everyone around you leads to respected, trusted relationships.
The first thing to do is to truly reflect on what is most important to you. Make a plan, write out your ideal day with the boundaries you want to establish. What times of day are you comfortable answering emails? Which days of the week are you able to attend meetings? Do you want to work through lunch or set aside a half hour to unplug and enjoy your meal? Once you design how your work week will function, then you are prepared to communicate that clearly to your coworkers and clients. This exercise is so incredibly helpful and you can revisit it throughout different points in your life, and your career as I have.
Next is the expectation setting. Make sure that all collaborators on a project know what to expect when they are working with you. If you like to work out in the morning, tell them that you don’t check email until 9:00 am so they don’t expect you to respond immediately to the email they fired off at 7:30 am . If you have to pick up your kids from the bus stop at 3:00 pm , make sure they know that all meetings need to conclude by 2:30 pm. Make these expectations clear upfront; then, stick to it. I even recommend putting into writing a response policy. We like to include this upfront with our clients that we will respond within at most 48 hours during the week.
Write it down. Make it law. Uphold the law.
Now, say that aloud three times.
Communicate it clearly. Use tools like Out of Office messages or your voicemail to remind folks of your fences.
Now, I’m going to say it again: stick to your own rules. If you establish that you won’t be available to return a phone call after 5:00 pm, then don’t make just this one at 6:00. You’ve left the gate to your fence unlocked, and now people will think they can come in when they really need – or want to. Too rigid? Maybe. Are there some exceptions? Certainly. But start out with your law and stick to it 99.9% of the time, especially when you are working with a new client and still training them in working with you.
Situations will arise that threaten to attack your established fence; find a way to offer an alternative that is reasonable for both parties.
Here are some examples you can start using in real life:
Establish Fence: I’m on vacation and not responding to email.
Attack: You typically receive calls and emails while you are out on vacation.
Expectation Setting: Make sure your out of office is on, acknowledges the receipt of said email / voicemail, and reinforces that you are unavailable until a specific date when you return. Give them an alternative contact if the matter is truly urgent while you’re out. Lastly, give a timeframe post-vacation when they can expect to hear from you (e.g. I will be responding to all emails within 72 hours upon returning on X day). Then turn-off your email. Check in with your office if you need to quiet your anxiety, but really try to relax because you deserve a vacation just like everyone else.
Established Fence: I’m done with work at 5:00 pm so I can cook dinner and focus on my family.
Attack: You get continual alerts because the client continues to email you all hours of the night.
Proactively Maintain the Fence: Hide/turn off email alerts between 5:00 pm and 8:00 am so that you are not tempted to check them, or worse, respond to them. Don’t violate your own rule, because once you respond beyond 5:00 pm , the client will expect you to do that all the time. Make sure you have an Out of Office message set up as well so that the client is reminded that you won’t be checking emails until the next morning.
Established Fence: Each Wednesday night is date night and I’m done by 5:00 pm to spend dinner with my spouse.
Attack: The client calls you and calls you from 5:45-6:15 pm because you don’t respond to his emails.
Diplomatically Reinforce your Fence: Email him (the next morning) with something like “I know how important this project is and that the first deadline is right around the corner. Let’s set up a designated time when I’ll be away from my family and able to focus solely on our conversation? Does [insert day/time] work well for your schedule? If we need to plan a meeting, I am available this week [insert days and times].” It’s good to acknowledge that they are important and you value their email as well as create a solution that works within your fenced time. It’s all about communication and managing expectations.
Fences separate your personal life from your professional life. They are monumentally important in the long-term success of your business and your overall health and happiness. Determine what’s most important to you, establish it early, and defend it with your life. Take it from me; you’ll be so grateful you did.
To make sure you’re equipped to build your fences, download our professional boundaries worksheet that we swear by, it’s yours for the taking!