Freelancers often see setting boundaries as being a bit ‘mean’, creating walls and barriers between themselves and their clients, when their goal should be to be as helpful as possible.

This is reinforced by the fact that, as a result of not wanting to be ‘mean’, most people don’t try to set out their boundaries until they have already reached the limit of their patience and flexibility. That student has cancelled last minute for the fourth time in a row, and you’re at boiling point.

But boundary setting isn’t about shutting (slamming?) the stable door after the horse has bolted. Instead, it’s about making it really clear from the outset of the client relationship, how you want to be treated. And ultimately that leads to better working relationships. As Brene Brown says, ‘clear is kind’.

So, here are nine ways to set better boundaries in your online freelance teaching, coaching, or training business.

1. Declare Your Working Days and Hours

It’s easy to assume that it’s obvious what your working hours are. But, imagine a shop that didn’t actually tell you this, and had customers turning up at all hours of the day. To ensure that your business runs smoothly, it’s crucial to display clear “opening hours”. This might be in your clients’ contracts and/or on your website or Google Business Profile, but your clients need to know when you’re available for meetings, lessons, or consultations. This not only makes your life easier, and avoids some awkward questions, but also communicates professionalism.

Technology can be your ally here. If you use a client management system like Dubsado (my choice), or a scheduling app, you can easily block off unavailable times, and set it up so that appointments can’t be made or cancelled within a 24 hour window.

2. Create and share your cancellations policy

Remembering that setting better boundaries is about how you would like people to treat you, you can decide how fierce you want to be about cancellations. Some people hold firmly to full payment unless 24 hours notice is given, others may allow some leeway, such as allowing 1 ‘free pass’ late cancellation within a three month course.

What is certain is that people will quickly pick up on the subliminal messages in your cancellation policy (or lack of one). If you don’t have one or never enforce it or refer to it, then you will attract and encourage clients who tend to take a very casual approach.

And, while you may like to see yourself as laid back, that will probably melt away when you realise that you are working far more hours than you should be, and can never rely on having a block of uninterrupted time.

3. Define your offer clearly

Ambiguity can lead to misunderstandings and dissatisfaction. When offering your services, be explicit about what is and isn’t included in the package. Detail the scope of lessons, coaching sessions, or training programs. If there are any extra services available for an additional fee, make sure your clients are aware. Transparency fosters trust and ensures that everyone is on the same page, and so it will not just help you get fewer complaints, it will also help your clients to feel confident in the service you are providing.

4. Let your clients know how to contact you and set clear response times.

Effective communication is at the core of setting better boundaries. Let your clients and colleagues know how often you check your email and when they can expect a response. You can even put this into an auto-responder message, letting people know that you have received the message and that you check and reply to emails twice a day, at 10 AM and 4 PM. This clarity prevents unrealistic expectations and reduces the pressure to respond immediately.

You could also think about specifying where to contact you. For example, on my group programme I ask clients to exclusively contact me through Slack, as I have found that otherwise messages get missed, as I can’t remember where I saw them (was it an email, or a FB message or….?)

5. Set clear payment terms

Financial boundaries are just as important as time boundaries. Clearly define your payment terms, including rates, due dates, and accepted payment methods. Having a written agreement or contract can eliminate any potential misunderstandings and ensure that you’re compensated fairly for your services.

I also find that having an automated system for sending invoices and payment reminder messages both helps to keep me on top of my invoicing, and removes any personal embarrassment on my part of that of my clients.

6. Say no to ‘brain picking’

A friend of mine recently described how she was taken out for lunch by an acquaintance and over lunch was exhaustively mined for advice. At least her lunch was paid, but in fact, the advice she gave was probably worth several hundred pounds. Of course, it’s fine to help people for nothing if that’s what you choose to do, but there’s a big difference between a quick bit of free advice and something which should actually be a paid service. Too many of these, and your day disappears and so does your bank balance.

If this happens to you a lot, there are two things to consider. Firstly, are you making it sufficiently clear that your discovery calls are actually to talk about whether your paid service is right for them, and not a free service to the community? Secondly, maybe you should actually be offering a paid ‘power hour’ service, where people can ask for any help they need?

7. Create a ‘dedicated workspace in your home.

Many people started working from home in lockdown, on the kitchen table or in a corner of the living room. But if you’re STILL doing that, it’s past time to think about how you could carve out some dedicated space, however small. Having a physical boundary can help you mentally switch between work mode and relaxation mode.

It’s also vital to inform your household about your workspace boundaries to minimize interruptions during working hours. I have a closed/open shop sign on my office door.

8. Learn to Say, “I Don’t Do That Anymore”

As your career evolves, you may find that certain tasks or services no longer align with your goals or expertise. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t do that anymore.” You can’t be all things to all people. The same thing applies to your prices. Just because you charged a particular client a certain price two years ago, doesn’t mean that you have to always stick to the same price when they come back to you two years later.

You need to set better boundaries so that you can focus on what you do best, and stop spreading yourself too thin so that you can deliver top-notch quality.

9. Practice Self-Care and Recharge

Setting boundaries also means prioritizing your well-being. Regularly allocate time for self-care and relaxation. Whether it’s taking breaks between teaching sessions, going for a walk, or practicing mindfulness, nurturing your mental and physical health is essential to sustain your business in the long run.

It’s also often the best way to break through a knotty problem, or mental block, rather than continuining to bang your head against a brick wall.

Feeling better now about setting some better boundaries? By clearly communicating your availability, service offerings, and expectations, you’ll foster professionalism, reduce stress, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Boundaries are not about saying no to opportunities but about creating a framework that allows you to thrive in your freelance career while still nurturing your personal life.