When you’re launching a small business, it’s fairly common to end up with a to-do list that feels like it’s a mile long. And at the beginning, the excitement and adrenaline of building something new can keep you working overtime. In some cases, you might not even realize that your work is slowly taking over—ever looked up from answering emails to see that hours have gone by?
Even if it’s possible to keep an intense schedule for a short period of time, in the long-term, you are going to get burnt out if you work 24/7. That’s a fact. None of us are immune to sleep. None of us can maintain focus over endless days and nights of work without a break. Even the most driven among us (and let’s face it, that describes many entrepreneurs) have to admit that there comes a time when we need to decompress. We can’t give up our nights and weekends forever.
So what’s the catch? Well, setting boundaries is hard. Work piles up. Your inbox fills. Clients have expectations. You have expectations of yourself. You want your business to succeed.
In my experience, setting boundaries will actually help you in the long run—even if it’s hard to implement changes at first. Like so many entrepreneurs, I started my own business so I could live and work on my own terms. In my previous jobs, I always made myself available over the weekends. I responded to every single email no matter how late it was or whether the issue was important or not. Often, it wasn’t urgent, but how could I fault them for emailing me when I had established a pattern of being constantly available and responsive? When I transitioned to entrepreneurship, that wasn’t a dynamic I wanted to replicate. I knew I had to set boundaries.
It didn’t happen overnight. Like everything else in small business, it was a process, and I made mistakes in the beginning. Now, however, I’m happy with the balance in my schedule, and I’ve made it work for both me and my clients.
Here’s how I did it.
I was clear with clients about my hours of operation while still making them feel valued.
My clients are incredibly important to me. I started my coaching business because I wanted to help people, and I truly love the work I do with them. While I want my clients to know that they are the top priority in my business, I know it’s also critical for us to establish guidelines about working together. We’re all our best selves personally and professionally when we’re able to have a life outside of our work, and I’m no exception!
In my experience, the more detailed you can be about limits on your time or communication, the better. If you don’t set the boundary, people won’t know that they’re nudging up against it. Here’s a great example: I had a client who would start tackling her prep for our upcoming session late on Sunday nights because it was the time that worked best for her. As she worked, she would text me questions. While I am certainly available to my clients for questions as they complete the homework we outline together during our sessions, the time and method of communication didn’t work for me. I’m not someone who likes to leave client needs hanging in limbo, but it was outside my working hours and unfair to expect me to respond. When I gently communicated this to my client, she completely understood and respected the boundary going forward. Through this experience, I realized that I could be clearer with clients about preferred methods of communication, and I added language into my contracts about being available over text only in the case of emergencies. This system has worked well for both me and my clients, and most importantly, I didn’t leave them guessing or unsure about what was okay and what wasn’t.
I structure my schedule in a way that works for me and stick to it.
Shortly after starting my business, I decided to establish a practice of taking meetings and client calls on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, which allowed me to spend Mondays and Fridays however I wanted. While the core of my week is heavily structured, the looser schedule at the beginning and end lets me slow down and focus. I might spend a day working on strategy, writing, or brainstorming. Or I might meet up with a friend for lunch, go to a midday yoga class, or spend the day at the beach if it’s summertime.
Ido Leffler, Co-founder of Brandless and Co-founder and CEO of Yoobi, takes a similar approach to boundary setting, choosing not to check emails on Saturdays (even though almost constant attention to email has grown to be expected in the startup world). “My theory is that my mind needs rest, and chances are, Saturday emails will not be exciting emails,” he says. “I prefer to spend time with my family and friends and be focused on them. It was hard at first but it is now second nature.”
Fortunately, because I implemented my schedule early on, it’s second nature to both me and my clients. I didn’t have to backtrack and undo expectations; the boundary was already there (almost) from the very beginning. I also make sure to give my clients an overview of how my business works and how my process is built out to benefit both clients and employees. This helps clients understand the rationale behind everything I do and provides context for my schedule.
For me, the benefits of this boundary are also very tangible. By structuring my time, I work more efficiently and commit fully to my clients while also reserving other time to focus on long-term projects or goals that are important to me. It prioritizes self-care (there’s nothing better than a yoga class on a Monday) and allows me to enjoy the entrepreneurial life I’ve created for myself.
I’m not afraid to adjust as needed.
When I first started my business, some of my clients asked me to hold sessions in their homes. At the time, I didn’t have an office, and I didn’t foresee any immediate problems with this arrangement. Over time, though, I realized that sessions with my clients needed to be held in a neutral space that was dedicated to work and free of distractions. I began to phase out my practice of holding meetings in clients’ homes (where I had little control over the space), and instead began to rent Breather rooms. Unlike in a coffee shop, I didn’t have to worry about how loud the music would be or whether there would be an available table--and there were certainly no more interruptions from the doorbell ringing with a laundry delivery.
As you grow with your business, your processes evolve. You may not have a perfect grasp on how to establish boundaries on day one of your business, and it’s okay to adjust contracts and policies as you learn what works best for you. While it can be hard to adjust expectations, it is possible to do it in a respectful way. We become entrepreneurs so that we have the luxury of doing things the way that works best for our business. If something isn’t working, don’t suffer through it! Speak up, set the boundary, and do things the way that works for you.