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Chapter
2

Decide what do you want your typical week to look like

In Step One, we set up the foundation of a freelance benefits package. You have thought about what you want your life to look like in one, five, and ten years. Now comes the real work: building a work schedule that lets you focus on those priorities. 

This is where you start to outline what your day-to-day will look like. In the following steps, you’ll add color to that outline with other benefits.

It all starts with setting boundaries 

I struggled to define a typical work week when I started freelancing. A freelancer’s life can vary so much depending on clients, workload, and even season. I found I was experiencing bottlenecks that were out of my control.‍

For example, as a journalist, my time management depends on my editor’s time management. 

Imagine this (common) scenario: I submit a draft to my editor on time, but then I have to wait for the editor to get back to me. In the meantime, I work and submit other projects. Two weeks later, my editor sorts through four drafts at once, and all of a sudden, I’m pulling crazy hours to manage those drafts and finish off other projects I’m working on.‍

Do you know what the problem was? I didn’t set boundaries. I took work as it came and worked on it as hard as I could as soon as I got it. Inevitably, I got burned out and lost control of my time management. A few years ago, I finally had a moment of realization that I didn’t have to live like this. I could control my boundaries, and with it, my life.

Today, I do things a little differently. Here are some boundaries I set: ‍

  • I limit my working hours and only take a maximum of three calls per day. 

  • I schedule at least fifteen minutes between each call. 

  • If I get an email outside my working hours, I don’t answer it – even if the sender considers it “urgent”! 

Tip: Software like Calendly exists that helps me impose those limits easily. I wish it existed earlier in my career.

If you don’t set boundaries, other people will set them for you. You’ll be working at the whim of others, which is a surefire path to burnout. Practice setting boundaries earlier in your career rather than later. ‍

Use “micro-nos” to consistently enforce those boundaries

Depending on your upbringing, previous traumas, or how you were socialized, it may be more natural to please others than to protect and please yourself. If that resonates with you, setting boundaries can feel especially hard because you have to put your needs in front of others and tell them “no.” 

Especially early in freelancing, it feels like you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you tell anyone no. But it’s also the healthiest thing you can do for your ongoing mental health and your long-term freelancing career prospects.

You may wonder what you should do in the scenario of choosing between a huge client or prioritizing your boundaries. The truth is that choice will rarely happen, and respecting your boundaries is more frequently done through smaller decisions. Instead, look for low-hanging opportunities to practice micro-nos.‍

Micro-no: small, low-consequence boundary enforcement. For example, a client asks you to have something done by Friday, but you have a lot of work already. You say you can have it by the Tuesday after. That’s a micro-no.

This lets you develop a consistent behavioral pattern of enforcing your boundaries.‍

Check-in with yourself: what boundaries do you want to have? What is your capacity, and what does a healthy day look like for you? What do you have to decline so you can live that healthy day?

Use the “hamster model” for your human needs

One model I love is what I call the hamster model. It’s a simple concept – just think of how you’d care for a hamster. Then, do the same for yourself. Hamster and human needs are simple! What I’ve learned that I need, similar to a hamster, is:

  • Healthy food

  • Regular water breaks

  • Fresh air

  • Some exercise or movement

  • Socialization

  • Enrichment

Obviously, you don’t have to take the hamster model too far; feel free to go outside for a stroll rather than buy an exercise wheel.

‍To check off every item on that list, what boundaries do you need to set? For example, I take a full day off work every week, usually Fridays. I also prioritize my physical health by clocking off work at 3:00 pm at the latest to make it to the gym by 3:30 pm.

Of course, human needs and responsibilities go a bit beyond hamsters sometimes. For example, freelancer Maliha needs to pick up her kids from soccer practice at 6 pm, and she also likes to go to kickboxing classes at 10 am. One easy boundary she can set is changing her email signature to include her working hours, and proactively blocking off every 10 am on her calendar so there’s never any conflict. 

Turn your typical day into a concrete policy

Ready to start laying down your boundaries? Here’s your exercise for this step: turn your typical day into concrete policies.

This means you don’t just say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll make sure to clock off by 6 pm and take some days off when I’m tired.” It means that you, based on your boundaries and non-work responsibilities and desires, design your ideal day to intentionally include the things that matter to you.

‍Start by writing down what your “hamster model” needs are for your workday policy. If you want regular breaks, incorporate that into your policy. If you want to go to the gym or take certain days off, build that in.

‍Now it’s your turn. Delineate working hours, time off, number of calls, or even screen time. Here are a few examples you can use to draft your workday policy:‍

  • ​​I am available to clients from ____________ to _____________.

  • My in-office hours are __________ to _________ each day.

  • I take off _______ (day).

  • I take ____ calls per day.

  • I don’t take more than ____ back-to-back calls.

  • I respond to emails within ______ hours or days.

Now, take those boundaries and write out your own. Here’s an example workday policy to work off of. There’s also a template in your workbook

Then it’s the hard part: enforce those boundaries. As I mentioned above, there are plenty of tools that can help you do this. Here are a few examples:

  • Use Calendly to set call limits and buffers. 

  • Include your hours and availability in your email signature.

  • Turn off notifications for Slack, email, and other messaging apps after a certain hour.

Here’s an example of an email signature I use:‍

Current hours of work: 8:30am - 3:00pm PT, Monday-Thursdays.

Here’s another template I like:‍

My working day may not be your working day. My current hours of quick-response email availability are X-Y [time zone] on [days]. If you email during another time, please know that I'll do my best to get back to you within 24 hours.

Finally, prepare for the inevitable pushy client. They exist, and they will try to get past your boundaries. You can set yourself up for success by anticipating them. Here are two templates you can use and modify:

Asking to meet outside of working hours: ‍

Please note that my meetings start at ______. I realize this is [late where you are]/[not the most convenient time]/[outside your working hours]. If you let me know which dates you prefer to meet, I can meet as early as [the earliest you can meet] -- I'd prefer we establish this in advance so I can plan accordingly.‍

Asking to meet on vacation/designated day off:

Thanks for letting me know. I don't work on _____ and will be able to attend to this on ______ [morning/afternoon]. How does that sound?

Note: it may be helpful to know you’ve got the law on your side. As an independent contractor, it’s illegal for companies to tell you ​​when, where, and how to perform services or set hours of work. Independent contractors set their own schedules. ‍

Recap

Now you’ve designed your workweek and put structures in place to help you manage your boundaries. Let’s check:

  • What hours did you set?

  • Which template did you choose for your email signature? 

  • What personal needs are you meeting on a day-to-day basis? 

Next, you’ll build in some firebreaks to help prevent burnout – a common freelancer’s affliction.

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