Work-life balance starts with setting boundaries

One of the challenges in managing your own design business is setting boundaries, especially if you work from home. If left unchecked, work has a tendency to overflow into your personal life, which can undermine the benefit of owning a business and having a flexible work environment.

There are many ways to set boundaries, with both yourself and your clients:

  • Work hours. The problem with working all the time is not the work itself; it’s the fact that you’re always thinking about work. When you’re thinking about work, there’s not much attention left for the things that really matter in your life—and it’s a great way to get burned out quickly. You can solve this by setting consistent work hours. For me, this means not working after 6 p.m. (preferably 5), unless a client has an emergency.
  • Work days. The same principle applies to the days you work. Although it’s tempting to work weekends, it’s also incredibly refreshing to go an entire day (or two) without turning on a computer or thinking about work. Sometimes I do a little catch-up work on Saturday mornings, but otherwise, weekends belong to me and not my clients or my work.
  • Phone calls. Phone calls have a tendency to be poorly timed; they either interrupt important work, or catch you on your way out the door. Although it’s often preferable for clients to call if they have an urgent need, and to use email otherwise, it sometimes becomes necessary to limit phone interruptions and to prevent people from abusing your time. Here are a few rules I’ve found to be helpful:
    • Phone conferences should be arranged, and the duration and agenda clarified, in advance.
    • If I don’t recognize the number of the caller, especially if it’s out of town, I don’t answer it.
    • I also don’t answer the phone after hours—but I always listen to voice messages as soon as possible.
    • If a client calls more than twice in a day, and there isn’t an urgent matter at hand, I usually let them leave a message.
  • Email. For many people, email is both the source of most of their work, and their biggest distraction when it comes to getting work done. It’s the professional equivalent of a crying baby, except that the more you care for the baby, the more it cries. Here are a few tips on how to break free and get work done:
    • Whatever you do, don’t check your email automatically, throughout the day. Make it a manual process, and close your email application when you’re done reading and responding to messages.
    • Process your email in batches at specific times of the day. For many people, twice a day is ideal: Once before lunch, and again at the end of the day. This frees up your early morning hours, and the bulk of your afternoon, to get work done, without completely ignoring the outside world.
    • Maintain a task list that’s separate from your inbox, so you don’t have to look at your email to know what to do. There are many task management applications that can convert email messages to tasks, including Remember the Milk and the GTD Outlook Add-In.
    • Don’t respond to people immediately; this encourages them to engage in an ongoing conversation, which is not what email is for. If you happen to send a message and you get an immediate response, consider saving your reply as a draft to send later, unless it’s urgent. (I often do this with all outgoing messages, so that I can send them out at once, at the end of the day.)
    • When you do process your email, empty your inbox completely.

There are many other ways to set boundaries. For freelance designers, this might include controlling changes in scope and dealing with deadbeat clients, but it’s usually best to start with the things that you can most directly control. After all, if you can’t make and follow your own rules, it’s not reasonable to expect clients to do the same. For example, if you regularly respond to email at all hours of the day, you’re essentially telling clients that they’re free to bother you whenever it’s convenient for them.

With today’s technology, and the inherent expectation of always being available, it’s very difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance. However, by setting appropriate boundaries and managing your clients’ expectations, you can keep work in its rightful place, as a means to an enjoyable and rewarding lifestyle, rather than a never-ending consumer of your time.