Clients Not Respecting Your Time? Sorry. That’s Your Fault

couple arguing over overtime

A dramatic reenactment of my marriage, by a woman way cuter than me, and a man not nearly as cute as my husband.

My husband and I are incredibly different people. I’m an antisocial introvert; he’s a social butterfly. I love fresh eggplant and tomatoes; he loves Slim Jims and energy drinks. I love cheesy dance music; he loves slacker rock. One thing we do have in common? We’re both ambitious workaholics.

What this means is that we often put our work before our relationship, and that’s a dangerous thing. I’m always working through the weekend, loath to do dinner with his family or go on day-long outings. I have a neverending to-do list, and leaving work behind for an exercise class or friendly happy hour makes me anxious. I also hate low-key, “relaxing” vacations. If I’m not doing something action-packed or hands-on, I’d rather be spending my time being productive.

Michael, meanwhile, is one of those insufferably rude smartphone addicts. He checks his e-mail and answers texts and phone calls when we’re out to dinner together… when we’re watching TV together… when we have company over. He lets both his employer and his clients walk all over him, responding to messages immediately, and working in his off hours (without additional pay). One time, while on a weekend trip in celebration of our three-year anniversary, he popped open his laptop and started doing some work for his full-time employer. Despite the fact that he had taken a vacation day. Despite the fact that he was supposed to be celebrating with me. I was livid.

Because — while I do find it difficult to step away — I force myself to do it way more than he does, for the sake of our relationship, and for the sake of my sanity. I don’t want to be perpetually connected. I don’t want to be held captive by my clients’ every whim (though I do all that I can to take care of them during my working hours). I want a healthy work/life balance, and I want my family to come first.

Deb Ng — a blogger I truly admire — once wrote a post titled Dear Freelance Writer: While You Were Partying, I Stole Your Client. In it, she wrote about how she made time during the holidays, and while on vacation, to continue working and, because of that, she never lost work to other eager beaver freelancers. Kudos to her but, if a client is so quick to drop me because I took time for myself and my family, I don’t want ’em.

Here’s the thing: If you don’t respect yourself and your time, no one else will either.

Going further with this, my career coaching mentor — Valerie Plis — taught me this: Your perceived value will go through the roof the more unavailable you are. It’s that old rule of supply and demand.

Not to say that you should only make yourself available several afternoon hours a day, or that you should wait a week to respond to e-mails. There are less insane ways to set boundaries:

First of all, you should set some work hours, despite that freewheeling, freelance lifestyle of yours. I’m not suggesting that you stick to a strict, 9-to-5 work schedule. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons you left the life of the corporate staffer? Because the 9-to-5 chafed? But it does make sense to make yourself available when everyone else on the planet is also getting work done, at least to some extent. Whatever schedule you do decide upon, the point is to stick with it. Make sure that clients are aware of your work hours. That way, they won’t expect you to answer the phone at 1:26 a.m., or to do a rush job without some extra compensation.

Extra compensation? Yes. Set some rush work rates, and by god stick to them. If a client balks, let them know that you have other projects on your plate, and other limits on your time, and that being able to deliver what they want when they want will require some extra effort on your part. Effort that should be duly compensated.

Going back to boundaries, allow phone calls to go to voice mail when you’re otherwise occupied, and respond to them later. And you don’t have to respond to texts and e-mails immediately either. (Do be sure, however, to respond to them within 24 hours; taking any longer would show a lack of professionalism.) Being constantly available could set up unrealistic expectations with your clients.

If you are going to be unavailable for more than one business day, do warn regular clients beforehand. Also, set up an out-of-the-office auto-response e-mail, so that new prospects are aware that your response time may be a little longer than usual. And for the love of god, don’t schedule vacations that interfere with your already-existing workload, or take on additional projects that would require you to work at a time you know might be impossible. Like Christmas Eve.

Of course, all of this boundary-setting will be way easier if you’ve been working smarter, rather than harder (and Deb Ng happened to write a fabulous post on this as well).

What this means is that you’ve been charging rates that reflect your actual value, and creating sources of passive income. It means that you’ve been up-selling existing clients, and landing more work via word of mouth than through aggressive marketing.

It means that you’re less frantic and, when you’re less frantic, you don’t have to jump through hoops to bring in the dough.

It means that you have more time to spend with your lovely wife, or your darling husband.

Or your cats.

So. Are your clients walking all over you?

I’m sorry. That’s your fault. It means you’ve been setting them up with unrealistic expectations, and failing to create boundaries.

So yeah. Do something about that.

Related: Career Stalled? What You’re Doing Wrong, Why Write? It Could Save Your Marriage, Coffee Break: Working on the Weekend


  1. I am a firm believer in boundaries. I do tend to have clients who become friends, but I still do not return calls on weekends. I do sometimes work on weekends, but I do not return calls and emails. People need to know where the line is–and the only way they will know where the line is is by me drawing it for them.

  2. I think this is very good advice. I don’t work on weekends. Period. And that’s that. I have turned down a couple of book contracts because the turn around time was ridiculously short.

  3. Great ideas here, Steph. I also think that a more balanced life, with time away from work, refreshes you and makes your work better. For me, new ideas come when I’m taking a shower or driving a car — not when I’m on an eternal treadmill.

  4. My worst moment like this came at 8 am the day after Christmas, when a client called and wanted to go over some edits. I’d just gotten up. I was making breakfast for our family house guests. Without looking at the caller ID, my husband answered the phone … after all, only family would call at 8 am the day after X-mas. Right? Wrong.

    As I recall, I scribbled a few notes about her feedback, asked her to email the rest, and told her that I was still on holiday.

    I’m actually pretty good at setting boundaries, but that particular call really took the cake.

  5. You are absolutely right. If you are available every second 24/7, you sure don’t look like you are busy! Make ’em miss you.

  6. Great advice. Just last week I decided to turn off the email notification function on my phone so that it wasn’t constantly buzzing when things came in. I noticed my stress level went down and I was actually able to concentrate more with it off. I’m still working on balance in so many other ways, but small steps, right?

  7. Dr. Phil often states, “We teach people how to treat us by the things we accept.” I think this is by and large very true. But I also think that by and large behavior is dictated by personality, value system, maturity, and degree of professionalism. As such, some folks will always be inconsiderate of others’ time–whether it’s through attending meetings late, holding you hostage over the phone, etc. We just need to be wiser about identifying them and dealing with them accordingly. I enjoyed reading your post.

  8. The boundaries are an extension of self care. I’m realizing (again, and more) that’s something that everything, it seems, comes back to.

  9. Excellent advice – and yes, if a client leaves me because I took personal time (seriously, Roxanne, who NEEDS edits at 8 am on December 26?), then we weren’t meant to work together in the first place.

  10. Wow, you and I have a lot in common in our work styles! How funny.

    And I’m right there with you. I can even go two days without replying if it’s on the weekend, because I sure as hell don’t want to be working on a Sunday if I finally find a way to chill out and unplug (not a common occurrence, so I try to take advantage when I actually shill out for a while!).

    As for Deb Ng, wow. I’m glad I’m not married to her and that she’s not my mom.

  11. My husband’s like that actually! But instead of calls and text messages about work, it was his favorite news sites like NBA or CNN and this awful online game. Even if it’s already the weekend (which is family time for us) he’d still try to make excuses to go online. It drives me insane. 😐

    But anyway, you’re right. In order for clients to respect your time you should be the one to set the boundaries. I used to be very responsive that whenever a client emails me I’d reply even if it was past my work hours. But now I make sure to keep from replying emails received past 5:00 PM so that there won’t be any expectations with regards to my availability.

  12. This is great advice. When you’re available via technology anywhere, anytime, it gets hard to say no. As Stephanie mentioned, sometimes you have to let it go to voice mail or go unanswered, if only to keep from setting expectations that you’re on call 24/7.

  13. Good advice, but I totally understand the fear that your client might find someone else. Even if you’re good at what you do and even if they value your work, they may get frustrated if you’re on vacation and they need something “now”. It seems like whenever I schedule weekdays off, I inevitably end up spending time answering emails or catering to client’s needs. Not the whole time, mind you, but some of the time. The first time I took a trip with my last boyfriend, I got an email on day 2 from a big women’s magazine that they wanted to assign me something. Had I waited until I returned 10 days later to respond, it may have been too late, so my boyfriend said, “do what you gotta do to nail down that assignment – I’m proud of you!” So, while I wouldn’t intentionally schedule work during a vacation, I usually end up checking email or writing something anyway.

  14. Love, love, love this post! I just got back from vacation and actually stopped my work emails from coming into my phone and did not log onto my computer. (Ok, I did one work-related thing 😉 but it was from my Blackberry and really short and was a good way to kill time on a 4-hour bus tour I took to the Grand Canyon. And I was happy to do it!)

    But it’s so true that you have to set those boundaries. I once had a prospective client call me on the weekend to talk about working for him. This was after he’d been late to an interview he’d scheduled with me earlier in the week. I already knew this wasn’t the type of client I wanted to be working for. If he was already calling on weekends before I was even working with him, he’d probably think he owned my time once he started paying me. So I politely told him, “Can we talk about this on Monday? I’m in the middle of breakfast with my family.”

  15. Solid advice! And I just love the package you put it in. You make reading this so fun! I totally agree that you need to set boundaries. So far, I’ve been lucky in having awesome clients that really understand the “free” (freedom) in freelance. Thanks for this awesome post

  16. Amy Lynn Smith says:

    Excellent advice – and I can attest to the fact that setting limits is well worth it. I will sometimes choose to work evenings and weekends (emphasis on the word “choice”), but I won’t allow myself to be bullied into it. When a client asked me to edit a 40,000-word manuscript in 3 days – over a holiday weekend, requested via email at 10 pm Friday night – I said I was unavailable but offered to find someone else who might be interested. No one was because it was an absurd turnaround. Will that client call again? No, probably not. But I’m not going hungry. I’d much rather have the client (one of my faves) who emailed me saying, “Stop working! :-)” when I forwarded an email I received while on vacation that I knew she was waiting for. Forwarding the email took me 15 seconds, but her response let me know she’s someone who will always value my time.

  17. This was a fantastic post. So much I can relate to. I think setting boundaries is just so important! My husband has no boundaries between work and home life, thanks to his blackberry, and it is definitely a source of tension in our family! Like others have said here, ideas come to me when I’m doing other things, not sitting in front of the computer. Life makes things fresh and I think helps me to problem solve better or come up with new angles on things.

  18. I have good boundaries with clients (not so good with the door to my office and my kids). I respect their time and they respect mine — because I charge for it.


  1. […] boundaries — especially when both your work and your life are based at home — but sticking to a schedule, and cutting yourself off from work at a certain hour, can help you compartmentalize things a bit […]

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