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Setting boundaries with clients: Why it’s essential for a healthy, happy work-life integration (and how to do it)

As iMarketers, we’re a little less about work-life balance and a little more about work-life integration. After all, integration is really the main reason this whole working-from-home and being-our-own-boss life appeals to us. We want the conference calls and our fuzzy slipper-socks. Simultaneously. We want the mid-afternoon trips to the (practically empty!) grocery store and the networking dinners.

But it can go too far. If we’re not clear with ourselves up front about what boundaries we are comfortable with, then we can’t possibly be clear with our clients. And if we’re not clear with them, we can end up in a situation where we’re getting nightly texts about work at an hour in which we’d much rather be powering down the laptop and powering up the latest episode of This Is Us.

Not that we’re speaking from experience. (Yes, we are. We totally are.)

The great thing about work-life integration is that a lot of times, clients are friends and work doesn’t seem like work. The tough thing about work-life integration — and working from home in general — is that it can be hard to find the “OFF” button when you really need one. There will be times when you don’t want to do anything but focus on your kid’s soccer game or enjoy a quiet dinner with your hubby or get a pedicure without your phone buzzing and flashing with text messages, Facebook messages, Snapchats and notifications from your favorite project management software. Suddenly, that pedicure feels a lot less relaxing.

Plus! Along with the overwhelming feeling that can come with being a little too bombarded 24-7 is also the very real problem of tracking all these conversations happening with different clients over different channels. At some point, you’ll need to go back and search for that great tagline idea you brainstormed, but can’t remember whether it’s buried in a text or an email chain or in the comments of a Facebook post the client randomly tagged you in last week. This isn’t just annoying — it’s also an incredibly inefficient use of your already limited time.

So, start with some basic rules.

Decide what kind of integration limitation will work best for you and your schedule. Maybe, generally speaking, you won’t want to answer client messages after 8 p.m. or at all on Sundays. The best, most effective way to make that clear is to start out that way from the beginning. Simply don’t respond to messages sent on a Sunday or late at night until the following morning.

Sure, there will be times when you’ll still want – or need – to work later than 8 p.m. On those nights, it will be tempting to respond. Resist the urge! The more consistent you are in the timing of your responses, the clearer your schedule will become to the client. You’re conditioning him or her to think, “I’ll send this now while I’m thinking of it, but it’s pretty late, so I’m sure she’ll get back to me in the morning.”

Also, decide which channels you want to use the most for communicating with clients. Maybe you have a separate work email you use only for your clients and subcontractors in order to keep important messages from getting lost among all those spammy-sales emails from Stitch Fix, Groupon and Pottery Barn Kids. Gently direct any outside conversation back to that email address. If you find a conversation is getting too in-depth over text, for instance, send a quick follow-up email that recaps the conversation with a little “P.S. Just sending this here so I can find it later and none of our awesome ideas get lost in the shuffle!”

If it’s gone too far, have a conversation.

Maybe you responded to that late-night text question one too many times at the beginning of your iMarketer-client relationship, and now you feel like you have to respond to them all. If it’s gotten to the point where your phone notifications are subconsciously — or consciously — stressing you out, it’s time to dial it back.

Go ahead and try subtly first: “Sorry I didn’t respond sooner! I’ve been working on untethering myself from my phone in the evenings!” If that doesn’t work and you’re still feeling the pressure to be available at all the times and on all the channels, then go for blunt. “Hey, I know I’ve been available most evenings in the past, but I’m trying out a new schedule. If you contact me after 8, I probably won’t be able to respond until the next day. Just wanted you to be aware!” Chances are, they’ll back right off and your phone will get a little break from all that nightly action.

Remember that the key for long-lasting work-life integration is not to burn yourself out but to keep some healthy boundaries around yourself and your time.

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