Are You An Accidental Workaholic?

Ah, the joys of being a freelancer: You choose the projects you take on; you demand a fair market price for your work; and you’ve grown your business to the point where you don’t worry about the word “downtime.” What’s the result of all this good news? You have no personal life. In fact, because you’re available to turn a project around on a dime, you don’t have a minute to spare—for your significant other, best friend or pet iguana. What’s a successful consultant to do?

It’s time to set boundaries between your work and home—the sort that will still bring in business but also convince your friends and family you have a life. This type of transition doesn’t happen overnight—you’ll have to take baby steps, especially if you frequently hear your name and “workaholic” together in the same sentence.

The first step for many creatives may be the most difficult: You need to get over yourself. Yes, you are the “wonderman” or “wonderwoman” of your particular trade, but if you turn down a project or refuse to take a 10 p.m. call, no one’s business is going to go under, including your own. You’ll need to reset your attitude about your importance on any given assignment.

You also must establish regular working hours—and stick to them. The latter part of this equation may be the most difficult. After all, it’s one thing to tell clients you’re available from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but quite another to actually turn down a client when she calls at 5:10 p.m. Friday evening with an urgent project. However, if other firms can keep regular hours and stay in business, so can you. You’ll likely find that clients are more respectful of your time once you establish boundaries because they know when you are available to them and when you’re not. If they’re uncertain about when they can reach you, they’re more likely to call at all hours.

Setting parameters also may force you and your clients to plan further in advance. Once you’ve set a schedule, send an e-mail or letter to each one advising them of your new hours and when you plan to implement them. Tell clients when exceptions are warranted, if at all, and be sure you follow up with a phone call to answer their concerns or questions about your new hours.

Sticking to an established schedule may require that you operate in a more organized fashion. So, once you’ve set your hours, start planning your projects accordingly. If one of your clients is always handing you tasks at the last minute, let him know that you require at least a few days’ warning to give his project proper care and attention. You might even have to refuse a few last-minute assignments before he understands your new way of working. If you don’t, it won’t be long before he expects you to be available 24/7 like before. Remember, no one will respect your schedule until you respect it yourself.

To help keep you honest in your new life, elicit the support of friends and family. If they see you slipping back into old patterns, such as taking late-night calls from clients or working during family functions, ask them to point it out to you. Be clear about the instructions you’ve given clients and your own expectations of your behavior. This way, friends and family know when it’s appropriate to say something and when you’re simply doing an emergency favor for an old client.

Last, but certainly not least, move away from your computer, phone and Blackberry when you’re with family and friends. If you need to have these devices with you, at least keep them turned off so you’re not tempted to answer “important” calls every five minutes. Once you’ve established your hours and planned in advance, no client should be surprised by the fact that you’re unavailable. Leave a message on both your phone and e-mail with your hours of availability as a reminder to those who may not be aware of your schedule.

Once you’ve set your boundaries, stick to them. If you don’t, you’ll be back to taking late-night conference calls and missing important birthdays. Balancing work and personal obligations is no easy feat—for you or your clients. However, with clear communication, a little planning and the support of family and friends, the next time you show up at a niece’s graduation celebration, no one will be surprised to see a slice of cake rather than a cell phone in your hand.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.