I Was Self-Employed for 2 Years — Here’s How I Maintained Boundaries at Work

published Mar 30, 2022
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Credit: Elissa Crowe

Along with the pandemic and the subsequent Great Resignation, droves of American professionals entered the world of side hustling. Nearly 70 percent of Americans put in extra work beyond their day jobs. And while the extra cash doesn’t hurt, not having boundaries with work does. Poor work boundaries can result in additional stress, burnout, and resentment toward your work. Trust me, I know from experience. 

I was a full-time freelancer between 2020 and 2022. I recently went back to the corporate world but continue to side hustle after 5 p.m. While it’s far from easy or intuitive to “make it work,” there are boundaries I’ve learned to put in place for my productivity and peace of mind. 

If you’re curious about picking up additional work or becoming self-employed and want to avoid common patterns of burnout and time mismanagement, consider the following tips I’ve sworn by over the last few years.

I had “untouchable” days.

When you’re freelancing or owning your business, it’s natural for every day to turn into a workday. In the first few months of gig work, I worked seven days a week and anywhere between six to 14 hours per day. As one could guess, it led to early burnout in solo entrepreneurship. At the advice of a friend, I began to implement “untouchable days” or “untouchable personal hours.”

The days would vary depending on the season, but I often kept Saturdays and Sunday mornings protected at all costs. For me, protection looked like not responding to texts and emails and communicating such expectations with clients. 

It simplified planning in both my personal and professional life. I knew if I wanted to spend time with a friend or indulge in a self-care day at the spa, I had a block of time in which it could take place. Similarly, I knew the answer if a client asked about availability on an untouchable day. 

I felt more empowered to say “no” when I had clearly defined guardrails around my time and energy. My advice to early entrepreneurs is to choose an untouchable day of the week to disconnect from work. 

I prioritized “life” in work-life balance.

Previous to freelancing, I thought WLB (work-life balance) was a one-size-fits-all solution. You get a couple of hours in the evening and some time on the weekend. And if you miss it or can’t log off, oh well, there’s always next week to try again. But in practice, WLB is much more personal and the stage of life a person is in will determine what they prioritize. 

Learning to redefine work-life balance in a way that was advantageous to my mental health was the key to maintaining healthy work boundaries. I shifted my mindset of seeing life as a reward to work. What I do in my “off hours” is more important than when I’m “on the clock.” Last year, this looked like regular phone dates with out-of-state friends, a personal rule to keep more plans than I canceled, and planning activities I could look forward to during the week. 

Credit: Tara Moore | Getty Images

I kept email off my phone.

Before freelancing, I had an unhealthy relationship with project management tools, my work email, and felt immense pressure to be “on” during off-hours. Being accessible 24 hours a day was partly a result of not wanting to miss anything important, but I believe it was mostly about a deep need for external validation. 

After experiencing a burnout crash in 2020, I learned one of the many things I have control over is who has access to me at any given point. I had to be the guardian of my energy, and I decided, “You get me access to me for about 12 hours a day — I think that’s enough.” (People didn’t always appreciate my boundaries. But I did.) Now that I am back in corporate America, I keep email and work-related tools off my phone.

I was honest about my bandwidth. 

I once heard a friend say, “Deliver or communicate.” They were exhausted from a work project that was stalled due to a lack of transparency, communication, and accountability on a collaborator’s end. The solution? Either deliver what you’ve promised or communicate why you can’t. 

Admittedly, it remains one of the hardest habits to practice. In western culture, there can be a sense of shame in accepting that (gasp!) I can’t do it all. But let’s face it: Clear is kind. Allowing clients and collaborators to know what to expect and when to expect it gives back a sense of control and understanding. I’ve learned that not only is communicating clearly kind to others, but it helps us, too. 

I became more selective with the projects I took on.

When I first began freelancing full-time, I followed the money in every word. I said yes to projects I wasn’t excited about, yes to unrealistic deadlines, and yes to a cycle of burnout for quite some time. I think this is an unavoidable phase of early-stage entrepreneurship, at risk of sounding jaded. However, as my credibility and client load grew, I was able to be more selective with the work I agreed to take on as a freelancer. 

This privileged boundary allows me to do a gut check with myself. I know that if I’m lackluster about a project, it will show in my quality of work or, at times, my professionalism. Learning to say no to projects (and people) has saved me time and emotional labor. Sometimes setting boundaries cost me opportunities, but in hindsight, I believe I was buying something priceless: my peace of mind.