Oh, personal boundaries. You are one of my favorite things. I've written about bridal boundaries of Offbeat Bride, but what about business boundaries? Especially when you're self-employed, I feel like having firm boundaries with yourself and your work is key. Here are a few of the lessons I've learned:
Set clear "off-limits" hours
For those of us who do our work on the internet and work from home, the temptation is there to just always be working. Maybe you're not working hard, but you're glancing at your emails at 10pm before you go to bed and you're checking your smartphone while you're out with friends, and really: you're kind of always working.
I set a new rule for myself that, unless it feels urgent (advertising client freaking out, real-time moderation disaster unfolding) I do not answer work emails after 8pm, or on Saturdays. Part of how I convinced myself this was ok was by deciding that I was actually making myself look like an amateur by answering work emails at 9pm on a Friday night. The Empire is my day job. Answering emails late at night could imply that I'm moonlighting. Also, answering emails at 9pm on a Friday night implies I have no life, and I like to cultivate an air of mystery around my Very Exciting Life.
(Oh, and speaking of which: you only have to have ONE session of Marital Relations killed by a late-night email glance to know it's not worth it. Never again will I glance at my phone on the way to bed!)
Take real vacations
Both Megan (my associate publisher) and I took very real "I will not be checking my email" vacations last month. Even though both of us were in places that had wifi, it felt critically important to have an entire week when my mental real estate wasn't taken up by server meltdowns or commentroveries or advertiser questions or people-management. I knew I could check my email and not respond to messages, but it'd still be eating brainpower.
Instead, I set an autoresponder to tell emailers who to contact if they had an urgent question. Then I checked in twice with those contacts to say "Have any urgent questions come in?" A couple had, and I gave answers in about five minutes and then got back to relaxing.
Know your lines with personal and professional networkingYes, networking is awesome! I love a good industry party where I can go and gobble popcorn and gossip about work stuff and meet new people and pass out my asshole business cards. But if I'm hanging out with friends, and someone tries to introduce me to their wedding planner friend? They get SHUT DOWN with an "Email me on Monday, thanks!" I'm a stone-cold bitch about meeting up with people one-on-one, and I pretty much refuse meet-ups with folks who ask to "pick my brain." You can pick my brain if we run into each other at an industry party or via email — I'm not going to cut into my personal life to sit and be picked over.
In this particular area, it could be argued that my boundaries are too firm. But I have longstanding issues with both internet privacy (ask me about my stalkers!) and feeling like my personal time gets exploited by people with professional interests (back when I worked for a music magazine, there was nothing worse than word getting out at a party about who I was — suddenly, all dancing was replaced by dudes shoving CDs in my face asking me to listen to their latest mix). It's easy for me to get triggered when it comes to this stuff.
Know when to say you're not good at something (and be willing to pay the price)
Back when I worked at Microsoft, my manager started asking me in every meeting to maintain these large, unweildy spreadsheets of marketing deliverables.
"Look," I told her. "I was hired to produce content and drive creative marketing strategies. It's just not a good use of my skills to have me shuffling cells around in a spreadsheet. Honestly, I'm not very good at it, and you'll get way more out of my salary if you use me for content creation."
Now, don't start cheering yet. The result of being clear about this boundary was that I got laid off six months later. It wasn't like I didn't know it was coming: I'd much rather be laid off than find myself drifting into a job description that I hated. For me, it felt important to be clear about my skills, and I had pretty strong boundaries about what clusters of skills I had no interest in developing. Spreadsheet management? Not something I want to get better at because it's not anything I want to get paid to do.
Yes, I paid the price by being excused from that job, but ultimately the position was shifting from a job I was well-suited for (marketing content creation) into something I hated (marketing spreadsheet management). By being clear about my skill boundaries, I made it clear to management that I wouldn't be a good fit for the new job that my old job had become.
Again, I can be a little overly draconian with my boundaries, so I'm not sure I'd fully recommend anyone follow in my footsteps. That said, I feel like female entrepreneurs in general have issues with their boundaries — too many of my fellow business bitches are secretly yes men, and I've seen too many women drive themselves FUCKING INSANE because they don't know how to say no. So it feels important to be the change I want to see.
It's worth noting that, as a boss, I know for a fact that my hardest workers are the ladies with daddy issues and boundary problems. If you can't say no to your dad, you probably won't say no to me either. (YES, I TOTALLY WENT THERE, and yes, this is something I've talked to my staff about.)
For me, saying NO is an issue of work/life happiness: I don't want to do work that feels shitty to me. I don't want work that takes over my entire life (hence "off-limits" times and real vacations). I don't want work that encroaches on my sense of personal safety and autonomy (hence limits on networking). And I don't want work that makes me feel dead inside (hence saying no to work I'm not interested in).
As with all boundaries, business boundaries come with risks. You may lose a client or alienate a colleague. For me, the trade-off of sanity and happiness is completely worth it. I'm not going to say that my boundaries make me easy to work with, but they do keep make me sane.