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Top six (guilt-free) ways to set boundaries as a contractor

Heard the one about the client who emails on a Saturday at 11 o’clock at night?  If you’re on the receiving end, and it comes with a big red exclamation mark, it’s no joke! In fact, navigating the intricacies of client relationships and working out how contractors can set boundaries is a big piece of where I fit into the lives of professional contractors, writes life coach Shwezin Win, founder of Win At Life.

Why you need ‘Do Not Cross’ lines in your life

Contractors need ‘Do Not Cross’ lines in their personal and professional life to stop feeling overstretched. Otherwise you end up trying to please everyone from stakeholders to someone you love dearly, at the same time as managing contracted deliverables and remembering to put the bins out on a Tuesday!  We all love to help others and especially so when you build great friendships and professional connections. However, one of the most crucial skills you can develop (partly to avoid disappointing people you value), is the ability to set boundaries effectively. Without clear boundaries, you risk burnout, dissatisfaction, and ultimately in the contractor setting, a decline in the quality of your work and reputation.

How to set boundaries isn’t always easy

But it’s not always easy to just ‘set’ the boundary itself. To put it in place. We might be impacted by our culture, our background, even our upbringing. This is ‘you’ if you’ve even felt uncomfortable saying “No,” or, at work, been conflicted about turning away opportunities. Here are my top six guilt-free ways to set boundaries – my recommended ‘no shame’ practical strategies to help establish and maintain healthy boundaries in your contractor business. 

Top 6 (guilt-free) ways to set boundaries as a contractor

1. Know your limits

Before you can effectively communicate your boundaries to clients, you need to truly understand them yourself! Take some time to home in on what you’re comfortable with offering, doing or supplying in terms of workload; communication-frequency, working hours, and so on. Who knows; maybe Saturday night at 2300 is your calm and serene place when you WANT to be emailed! Regardless of your individual preferences around these areas, be honest with yourself about what you can both execute professionally and handle realistically, without sacrificing your reputation and wellbeing.  The aim at this stage is to work out where you want to place, precisely, your very own ‘You Shall Not Pass’ sign!

2. Communicate clearly

Once you’ve identified your boundaries, it’s essential to communicate them clearly to clients. Don’t assume that they will intuitively understand your needs. Instead, take proactive steps to refer to and then discuss your boundaries upfront. This might involve setting expectations regarding response times to emails or phone calls, outlining your availability for meetings, or establishing project milestones and deadlines.

3. Be politely firm

When setting and even enforcing boundaries, it’s crucial to strike a balance between politeness and assertiveness. You don’t want to come across as overly aggressive, but you also don’t want to be a pushover. Practise assertive communication techniques, such as using “I” statements to express your needs without placing blame on the client. For example, instead of saying, “You’re always requesting last-minute changes,” try saying, “I prefer to receive change-requests with ample notice to ensure I can accommodate them effectively.”

4. Set realistic expectations

Managing client expectations is key to avoiding boundary breaches! Be transparent about what you can deliver within the agreed-upon timeframe and budget. For example, if a client requests additional work outside the scope of the original agreement, discuss the potential implications on the project timeline and budget before proceeding. Setting realistic expectations from the outset can help prevent misunderstandings and frustration down the line.  Also, remember that you need to be consistent, if you want a boundary to stick, don’t flex and change depending upon who’s asking or the situation you’re in.

5. Learn to say ‘No’ (or a form of ‘No’)

Saying ‘No’ can be challenging, especially when you’re eager to please your clients and grow your business.  However, it’s essential to recognise when taking on additional work would compromise your boundaries or stretch you too thin. It doesn’t have to be an  explicit “No”, try different routes, like “I could do the extra work by…” or “The length would differ from last time by…” If not, consider clarifying its level of importance. For example “Would this be a higher priority than X?” Politely decline requests that don’t align with your standards, values, priorities, or capacity. Remember that saying ‘No’ (in some form) allows you to focus on projects that are the best fit for your skills and expertise. Politely declining can also be the lesser evil, because taking something on because you felt obliged and doing a mediocre job is going to please nobody!

6. Seek support when needed

Setting and enforcing boundaries can be an ongoing process, and it’s okay to seek support when you need it. Reach out to fellow contractors, mentors, or a coach for advice and guidance. Surround yourself with a supportive network of professionals who understand the challenges you face and can offer perspective and encouragement. By proactively setting and enforcing boundaries in and around your contracting business, you can maintain a healthier, more balanced approach to your work while fostering stronger, more respectful, even more professional, client relationships. When it comes to how contractors can set boundaries, try not to think of boundaries as rigid rules to be guilty about! Rather, think of them more like traffic cone-type markers, or lines in the sand, designed and drawn to protect your wellbeing and ensure your continued success, with minimal disappointment for all those people and parties around you, who you value. If you would like some support in clarifying what’s important to you and developing your own ‘Do Not Cross’ signs, come and have a chat with me by booking your free call here.

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