It’s hard to say no, isn’t it?

For most of us, telling someone we can’t do something just feels awkward. We think we’re letting them down. Or we’re giving up an opportunity for ourselves. 

But the truth is, saying “no,” can be one of the most liberating things you’ll do. And it’s especially true for those who run their own businesses. If you’re not saying no once in a while, you’ll find yourself burnt out, working late nights, and answering emails after hours. 

Not good at setting boundaries for yourself and your work? We’ll help you get started.

We spoke with Fiona Martin, who’s owned marketing co-operative FGM Internet Marketing LLC for 10 years. She has a lot of experience as a solopreneur. And she’s very good at setting boundaries. We wanted to get her insight. 

Setting Boundaries Starts with Yourself 

Fiona said she has firm working days and hours. And she sticks to them. 

“I do not work on weekends, and I usually shut down at 3:00 pm on weekdays,” Fiona said. “I credit my last ‘proper job’ at VisitScotland in Edinburgh, and my managers, for not expecting us to work late or on the weekends.” 

Fiona said she avoids checking emails at night or on the weekends. 

Creating working hours will help you separate yourself from work. And honestly, who only checks one email when they sign-in on the weekends? 

Is It Really Urgent? 

According to Fiona, you need to understand what’s urgent and what is truly urgent. 

“I work very hard in not getting caught up in urgency because honestly, as a digital marketer, I’m not saving lives here. The work will always be there, whether you speed up and get it done at 7:00 pm on a Tuesday or whether you take a moment and complete it in the next few days,” Fiona said.  

Fiona noted urgency could also lead to poor work quality.

“The urgency, I find, also leads to shoddy work. It’s worth approaching your projects with a clear mind, and pushing for speed does not always promote that.”

It’s easy to get caught up in solving an issue immediately. So before responding to an email, or jumping on a project late at night, take a step back and see if the problem is truly urgent. 

Create Boundaries with Clients 

Setting boundaries with yourself is one thing. But how do you create boundaries with clients? Fiona says it starts at the beginning of the relationship. 

“I include a “Rules of Engagement” page in our first contract. In it, I outline our standard working hours, preferred methods of communication, and behaviors that are unacceptable like racism, sexism, or ageism,” she said. 

Fiona outlines working conditions and how she prefers to communicate with clients. 

“I also tend to ask my clients to schedule a time for a call. Everyone is busy, and I want to give my clients my undivided attention, so you won’t find me taking client calls in the car or while I’m grocery shopping. In order to guarantee you have my attention, we need to plan a 30 or 60-minute phone call that works with everyone’s schedule,” Fiona noted. 

If you’re spending time responding to unexpected calls, or texts, you’re giving up the thing most precious to a business owner: time. 

So, what if you set boundaries with clients who aren’t very happy about them? 

Then it’s probably a sign they aren’t the right fit for you. 

Most clients will respect your guidelines and adhere to them. And if they’re not it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship. 

Maintaining Your Boundaries

You can write down and create all the boundaries you want, but they don’t mean much if you don’t enforce them. 

Fiona said if she begins to violate boundaries she’s created for herself, it causes her to step back and see what’s going on in her work life. 

“I’ve found that boundaries are useless if you don’t follow them yourself, so I don’t often violate my own boundaries. If I do, it gives me a sense of unease because ultimately, I’m disrespecting myself, and I have to take a moment to reassess what I’m doing and course correct.”

If clients aren’t respecting boundaries, including your core values, it’s crucial to stand by what you say. 

“For work hours and methods of communication, I simply don’t respond. If a client wants a response, they use the methods clearly outlined. Reinforcing other boundaries like not tolerating racism is usually done with conversation, and I’ve had to terminate contracts over those types of issues, too,” Fiona said. 

Your Boundaries are Valid 

Creating and maintaining boundaries isn’t easy. But it’s essential for everyone, especially those on a self-employment journey. Fiona said the process begins with self-discovery. 

“The key is really to understand what sorts of behavior are acceptable and unacceptable to you,” Fiona emphasized. “Your own boundaries are valid and don’t need outside validation from others. If you have a client that doesn’t accept your boundaries, maybe they shouldn’t be a client.”

And Fiona noted it’s hard when you’re starting out, trying to land clients, to make boundaries a priority. But in her opinion, it’s not worth the money or mental toll to keep a client who doesn’t respect your boundaries. 

Communicate Your Values

Defining your values begins with a bit of self-discovery.  

“It’s important to understand your own boundaries first. What do you want your work-life to look like in a very specific way? This part was the hardest for me,” she said. 

Take time to write out what you want your business to look like. For example, when are your working hours? How do you want clients to communicate with you? And what are unacceptable behaviors you won’t tolerate? 

Fiona said it’s critical to communicate your values to clients and colleagues. It’s like a store posting its hours on the door. Those are their boundaries. So you should do the same, even if you don’t have a physical door. 

Along with her contract, Fiona includes a Rules of Engagement document which outlines how FGM Internet Marketing communicates, their working hours, and expected turnaround times. 

Over time, your boundaries will likely change based on circumstances in your life. And that’s okay. 

“But the hardest part for me was figuring out those boundaries and defining them. And they will likely change every year as you accumulate new experiences, good and bad,” Fiona said. 

For your productivity and health, boundaries are essential. And while they may seem prohibitive, you may find that you’ll do better work for clients you love by setting the proper parameters.