One of the biggest challenges when you run a business based on providing services is ensuring you have strong business boundaries. When your whole business is built upon being of service to others, it’s really easy for the lines to get blurry and to find yourself doing far more than you should be.
What I’ve learned from doing this dance within my own business is that having those business boundaries in place is the best path to sustainable success.
Having proper boundaries in place makes such a huge difference in life, in business, and with our happiness. Although many of us know this logically, boundaries are often challenging to enforce, so we let them go when we’re too tired, too stressed, too busy, or too whatever.
Suffering from business burnout is a real issue experienced by so many business owners, and when we’re feeling drained, our boundaries are often the first thing to go.
You may think the challenges within your business can be solved by being more productive, or adding someone to your team and sure, maybe your business DOES need you to make those changes. But the reality is that any solution you’re looking towards needs to have a foundation built on good business boundaries otherwise you’re still going to struggle.
It’s Okay to Be “Selfish”
Something I often hear from my clients when we’re discussing creating business boundaries is the idea that they feel selfish. As humans, we’re trained to equate the idea of putting ourselves first as selfishness, but it’s really not.
Think of what they tell us when we’re on an airplane — put on your own oxygen mask FIRST. They tell us that because you can’t help anyone else if you’re not taken care of.
This is challenging for many of us (especially as women) as it goes against so much of what we learn from a young age. We remind ourselves that we need to give and give — to our clients, our families, our partners, and our friends — so we’re not seen as selfish.
Then, we end up carrying the load of emotional labor, on top of our “true” labor, which crushes us. In fact, we’re often drowning in a sea of responsibilities we don’t even remember signing up for.
What if we stood up and said ENOUGH?!? What if we instead said, “I’m going to stop treating being selfish like it’s a crime and start doing things for me”?
Would the world as we know it crumble? Probably not. The laundry may take a little longer, and the house may get a little messier. The unreasonable deadlines we set for ourselves (or let clients set for us) may get softer, but the work will still get done.
On the flip side, we’ll likely find ourselves happier, more content, and even more ready to conquer our goals than ever before. That’s why setting business boundaries is a kindness for everyone involved.
Reclaim Your Schedule
This first step to establishing boundaries is reclaiming your time. One of the advantages of running your own business is that you get to control your own hours, so take advantage of it!
Start by identifying your ideal work hours. Consider what time of day you’re most productive as well as any outside factors, like your children’s daycare or school hours.
Once you’ve identified your ideal work hours, it’s time to think about how you want your days and weeks to flow. As tempting as it can be to take client appointments any time, that may not lead to productive days. I often counsel my clients to restrict client appointments to certain days of the week or specific windows of time each day.
Constantly going back and forth between client meetings and everything else on your to-do list has a significant impact on your productivity, so having boundaries on your daily schedule will help free up bigger pockets of time to get your work done.
Consider things like how many calls or appointments can you reasonably have in a day or within a block of time? How many can you do in a row without a substantial break? And, what buffer do you want between back-to-back calls?
Also, think about how you want to handle action items coming out of meetings or calls, as this may impact your scheduling. Do you want to handle those items immediately after the call? Or would you prefer to do it all at once at the end of the day or at the start of the next day?
As part of this exercise, you should also be looking at what parts of any of this process (like call notes or following up with clients) can be delegated to someone on your team.
When I look back at my calendar and see weeks where I didn’t get much accomplished, there’s one common theme — my schedule was out of control. I started to get lax with my boundaries, adding in extra meetings and instead of talking to clients three days a week I had calls every day.
That scenario is exactly why business boundaries matter.
What About Scheduling Exceptions?
Here’s the thing about systems, they aren’t meant to be inflexible little prisons. Even a type-A gal like me knows there are exceptions to every rule, so spend time considering what you’re willing to bend on. For example, will you take a call from a potential dream client who can only talk on your “no appointment” days?
Working in Germany, I sometimes have to be flexible when I do client calls but I’ve established a hard rule of no calls after 10 p.m. my time. Deciding on both of these business boundaries ahead of time makes it easier to apply when they come up.
While exceptions are going to happen, what you want to do is set yourself up for success by establishing healthy, supportive scheduling guidelines that allow adequate time for business development and client work!
I challenge you to spend 30 minutes this week evaluating your current schedule.
Ask yourself a few key questions:
- Am I setting aside any time to work on my business?
- Am I setting aside enough time to work on my business?
- What does my client schedule look like for calls and for actual client work?
- Does my schedule support or hinder my overall business goals?
If you’re not satisfied with the answers, take some time to do something about it!
Setting Expectations with Clients
Setting business boundaries with clients can feel a bit daunting, especially if you’ve been operating under a model where you’ve been accessible to them 24/7. In order for your business to thrive and you to keep your sanity, saying no is going to become an integral part of this process.
As service providers, we’re very focused on serving clients and over-delivering on our promises that we forget to stop and ask ourselves whether or not we should be doing what we’re doing.
Saying no can actually help you earn more in your business.
Consider how your business would be impacted by:
- Saying goodbye to clients who are less-than-ideal and suck up too much of your time.
- Saying no to clients who don’t want to follow your processes.
- Saying no to potential clients you know aren’t a good fit.
- Saying no to projects you aren’t interested in or excited about.
Doing things like taking on less than ideal clients results drains your energy and impacts your bottom line. However, when you say no, you’re opening yourself up to having the space to say YES to better opportunities.
I know that making changes in your business can feel next to impossible when you’re overwhelmed by the things you don’t want to be doing. By saying no, you’re shifting the balance in a more positive direction, and opening yourself up new opportunities.
Ask yourself — what can I say no to that isn’t helping me achieve my goals?
Shoring up your business boundaries with clients may feel uncomfortable to start, but you’ll be glad you made the effort to do it in the long run.
Establishing Clear Deliverables and Deadlines
When you run a business that involves juggling multiple clients, having basic deadlines for common deliverables is important. You may be thinking that deadlines and business boundaries aren’t the same thing, but in essence, they are.
By not having any boundaries that you adhere to for completing your work, you leave yourself vulnerable to repeatedly being in a position where you’re always scrambling to get things done at the last minute. Working in this way can cause you to end up burnt out, while impacting your team’s stress levels and ability to do their jobs effectively.
Step one for getting this under control is creating a deliverables and deadlines list. With this list, you’ll need to get clear on what common deliverables you have, and then decide on a reasonable turnaround time. This isn’t only about how long the task will take to complete, but also how long it’ll take from start to finish.
Once you know how long each deliverable will take, you’ll need to determine how much lead time you require from your clients to meet the turnaround times they’re expecting. While some things may need minimal client input, others will require information from the client weeks in advance to meet the deadlines.
When you’re establishing a list of deliverables and deadlines, identify exactly who on your team can complete each of the tasks that commonly require support.
Next, find a way that works well for you and your team to track the progress of tasks and deadlines so you can effectively manage projects. Email likely won’t be sufficient so consider a project management software like Basecamp, Trello, or Asana.
Once everything is established (and of course, documented), your next step will be communicating these processes with both your team and clients.
This may feel challenging, but you need to enforce the boundaries you’ve set, otherwise, those business boundaries won’t have much of an impact. To ensure you’re able to stick to your boundaries, decide ahead of time on any exceptions you’re prepared to make and how you’ll handle clients that repeatedly ignore your boundaries. Similarly, you want to think about how you want to handle any team members that continuously work outside of your established processes.
Know Your Deal Breakers
When you’re establishing business boundaries, it’s important to make some decisions about what your deal breakers are and how you’ll handle them when they occur.
Let’s use the example of one of my deal breakers — respecting my expertise.
When clients hire me, they do so for my knowledge and skills. So when I have a client that consistently ignores my advice or is resistant to all my suggestions, I know it’s time to end the relationship. I certainly don’t expect any client to just blindly do what I suggest at every turn. Far from it! But, when I have a client that just wants to do everything their own way without any regard for the plans we crafted together, it shows a lack of value for the support I provide.
One of my other deal breakers is people disrespecting my team. I know that everyone gets busy and overwhelmed from time to time and that can result in people being short-tempered. However, it’s my job to protect my team and if a client starts consistently being rude, it’s a red flag. If the client cannot adjust their behavior then I let them go.
I know thinking about this can feel uncomfortable, but it’s always better to decide what your deal breakers are BEFORE a problem arises. Having decisions made ahead of time also helps reduce the chance you’ll have a knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment.
Also remember, deal breakers don’t just apply to clients. Your team is integral to the success of your business, so knowing what you will and won’t accept will help you set clear business boundaries with them as well.
A Final Thought About Personal Boundaries
Your business boundaries can have a profound impact on your personal life. If you’re working crazy hours, taking client calls at any time and in a perpetual state of worry about your business, it bleeds into your personal life. Not to mention you’re at high risk of business burnout.
Having said that, when you’re looking at the boundaries for your business, it’s also a good time to take a look at the boundaries you keep in your personal life.
Why? Because they’re intrinsically related to your business success and overall health and happiness.
By tackling your business boundaries (and maybe some personal ones too) you’re setting yourself up for continued success and a business that feels less like work and more like the adventure you’d thought it would be when you first started.