Are you like many of the entrepreneurs I know who struggle with defining personal boundaries? *Texts on the weekend?* Ok. *Demands after hours....* Ok I will do that too... It is up to you to say no. When it comes to business I'm often a lot better at setting boundaries than in my personal life (which is one of my promises to myself this year: "I will get better at boundaries"). The problem with letting people walk all over you is that you are not a pee-on. When you allow your wishes to be walked all over you can find you are filled with resentment towards everyone else ,when it is truly YOU who are to blame. YOU need to define some boundaries.
Have you heard the adage: "You teach people how to treat you"? I believe that is true to an extent. In some cases, you can't "teach" people. You can't teach belligerent, mean people to be kind. You can't teach people who are a bad fit for your business to be ideal clients. I'm a teacher by trade and I used to think this was possible. It isn't always. That's where boundaries come into play.
So, How do I Establish Boundaries For My Business?
1. Think about what you want.
You wouldn't build a house without a blueprint, so how can you expect to have clearly defined boundaries when you don't know what you want? What are you willing to accept? What are you not willing to accept? Write it out and make your vision clear. For example, unless it's networking or I choose to make an exception (like if I can't help myself because I'm having so much fun) I do not work after five. It burns me out, hurts my family, and impacts my mental health. Same on the weekends. It is up to me to be clear about that. I also don't want to be expected to live in my inbox. Productivity coaches actually recommend AGAINST checking your email constantly. It impacts flow, creativity, and productivity as a whole. I have an autoresponder in my email I change up here and there to remind people I'm not living in there.
Thinking about what you want doesn't just have to be when and how you work, it can also have a lot to do with how you get paid. What are your payment terms? How will you protect your clients in that? How will you protect your cash flow?
2. Think about how your boundaries impact both sides.
Boundaries are in place to protect you and to protect your clients. What do you want for them? How can these boundaries impact you both and make for a better overall experience? When you think about boundaries as customer service and not as a way to reject your clients it should allow for enough of a shift in perspective to carve out healthy boundaries. The side effect? It makes you look and feel more knowledgeable, experienced, and trustworthy. Bonus!
Define your boundaries in sales meetings, on terms and conditions pages, in contracts - and have fun putting them in plain English so your clients can experience them as a benefit. I know when my clients can laugh with me and understand how I work they appreciate how upfront I am and can see me as another human doing my best. If I protect other client work, they know I will do the same for them.
3. Think about how you will reinforce your boundaries.
This is not about "punishment", it is about follow-through and coaching. Sometimes clients need you to remind them about the boundaries you have in place. Remind them gently once, a little more clearly a second time, and the third time enforces a consequence.
Here is an example you may use if you are in consulting, and people are reaching out to you after hours:
- "Hey there! Thanks for reaching out to me on Facebook. This looks like it is work related - and I don't check into work in the evenings, so remind me to answer this tomorrow after nine!"
- "Thanks again for the message, do you want to book time with me to discuss this during office hours?"
- "Can we set up a time to talk about this during office hours? Just a quick reminder that consulting is billed at our hourly rate. I'm happy to answer all of your questions but want to remind you that I am tracking my time. I feel you would get a better value if we booked a time to talk. You can call the office tomorrow to make an appointment."
You don't have to give advice, you don't have to get snarky, and you don't have to get annoyed. Just be clear and coach people how you work. I know this is essential for me especially when I have my kids. They need ALL of my attention as a solo parent, and I don't care about work when I'm with those little handsomes. I need boxes to go into, hats to wear if you will. Work hat is off, and I let my clients know it.
4. Know when to walk away.
Like I said before, in some cases, you can't "teach" people. There are some mean, disrespectful people on this planet who won't listen to your kind, funny, and firm boundaries. There are people who don't care and will demand unrealistic things from you. I repeat: you can't teach belligerent, mean people to be kind. The No Asshole Rule is a great resource for figuring out when to fire a client, go "no-contact" with narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.
Likewise, you may have nice people that just don't fit with your business. They don't understand how you work, they can't afford your services, or you get a check in your gut about them. You can't teach people who are a bad fit for your business to be ideal clients. It is ok to say no and to turn away work. I know there is an old-school idea that that is sacrilegious but honestly, do you want to work with people who just can't or don't get it? I've sent my clients elsewhere for their own benefit. It's actually selfish to take on work when you aren't the best fit and trust me - it can be like pulling teeth for everyone involved. Say no, be kind, and establish what you need and want.
Go ahead, draw some boundaries.
Drawing healthy boundaries is more about defining what you need and how you want to be treated than about being rigid. It is saying “I have every right to the space I am taking up” and “I believe we all deserve respect in this situation.”