Business and boundaries (and why women with daddy issues make the hardest-working staff)

DO NOT CROSS © by Marcin Wichary, used under Creative Commons license.

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 networking

Kelli and I at the Shindig Events Cinefresco launch party
Yes, 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.

In closing

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.

  1. I have a traditional office job in marketing/publishing. I had to tell my boss point blank "I am not a networker."
    He wants his staff to attend these networking functions (many of which are entirely or partially outside of normal office hours.) Introducing myself and passing out my business card just isn't me. I might be missing out on potential freelance work, but I know I'm not missing out on MY time. And I'm certainly not spending my evenings sulking around weird mixer-type parties where I know no one, being confused for a totally different local publishing girl.

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  2. Is… is it really a daddy issue if I can't say no to my dad!? I was unaware … T__T Now I feel awkward.

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    • … maybe it is… I have a hard time saying no to my dad too but he doesn't usually ask me to do unreasonable things. ._.

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  3. Ok Ariel, I'm asking about your stalkers!! That's nuts.
    Great read, I'm one of those with the weak boundries… Having to say 'No' to someone sometimes makes me sweat.

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    • Seconded! Tell us about the stalkers. Can't just leave a comment like that hanging…

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    • I've had two:

      1. An angry one who's followed me around the web for 6 years telling me how unattractive and irritating I am. She's not especially threatening, but has tracked me across a dozen websites and platforms to dish out harassment, so it's more than just common trolling.

      2. A sad one who was disturbingly obsessed with my life ("Your house pictures are making me cry because I want your life so badly…") and when I didn't respond to her comments appropriately, started doing things like emailing my husband telling him I was cheating on him. Given the particulars of my marriage, this was comedy gold — but definitely started getting into "scary/this person is really unwell" territory.

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  4. Oh HELL yes. I had to decide that I wanted to cut way the hell down on freelance work because it was too much like my day job and it made my life way too narrow. My income took a hell of a hit (which….probably not the best call, but a nervous breakdown from stress would also be expensive!), but I think I am a healthier person.

    And I'm dying of laughter over your daddy issues comment, because my daddy issues are being completely estranged from my biological father. And at work, I am always the person to say NO too fast.

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  5. I have sort of the opposite problem. I work full time and use some of my evening/weekend time to make extra cash doing freelance. I make it 100% clear to my clients that I cannot work on their projects during my full-time hours, that way if they need someone at their beck and call during specific hours, they can find someone else. I'll often answer their e-mails on breaks or work on a project over lunch, but I don't think it's fair to my full-time employer to be making money on the side while I'm on their time. It's worked out fairly well because I make it VERY clear when I will be working on their stuff and when I won't. I don't have a ton of clients, but the ones I do have didn't ditch me for setting boundaries. Though if they had, I would completely understand. Being firm about it up front sets a good pace for the relationship.

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  6. A great post.
    You've given me a lot to think about…

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  7. I think you are awesome and I have a lot to learn from you. I went totally insane when I tried to start my own business for all the reasons you listed.

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  8. Very interesting. My job is cool beans, so I generally say yes because I need more to do, but I definitely have/had trouble saying 'no' when it comes to friends or family. I even got ripped off by a 'friend' who used me for wedding photography and then never paid me OR spoke to me again. From that point on I have been more vigilant and have expressed my boundaries very firmly. Thanks for writing this because it's something that I still struggle with internally, reading this really helps break it down for me.

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  9. Fantastic. Good for you for setting boundaries. I think it is extremely important and, sadly, ignored so often. While I don't have a huge concern with working after hours (I can, but I don't), I find myself setting boundaries in social situations. I hate the "what do you do for your job" question. I don't have a good short answer and I don't want to spend my family/friend/acquaintance time explaining my field and hashing out my job description. I like my job, but I already do it 40 hours a week, ya know?

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    • Hahaha. I'm glad I'm not the only one in the "I CAN work longer, but I don't" camp.

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  10. Oh gawd.

    "(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!)"

    This is probably the ONLY thing my fiance and I have left to fight about in our relationship. NOTHING kills the mood faster than that one last post-bed email check.

    I'm still learning. Hooray for boundaries!

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  11. LOTS to think about.
    STILL working on "hours" part of myself…it is so easy for me to get caught up in connecting…i forget to unplug…and reconnect with the home life and hubby. :)

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  12. Great post! I don't work from home, but as a carpenter and hobby photographer there is an endless string of people who want the "friends discount" on having a floor put in or their wedding photographed. It's been a hard lesson to learn to say no. If a simple "no" fails, quoting an insanely high price works. (Actually, usually I quote them a fair price and those who expect me to work for free suddenly aren't so interested.)

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  13. This was exactly what I had to read … Thank you – you might have just saved my marriage! ;-) Pinned this to my inspiration board – lest I forget.

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