Web Worker 101: Setting Limits

A new career of web work can feel like a fragile thing – and no wonder. If you’ve gone out on your own for the first time, you’re now boss and staff and salesforce and secretary and bookkeeper and janitor and everything else, all rolled into one. Plus, you probably no longer have the security of regular paychecks whether you accomplish anything or not. It’s understandable to feel that you must spend every waking hour either working or chasing down more work to do tomorrow.

But there’s a problem with this approach to web work: for most people, working every waking hour is unsustainable. Put in too much time at the virtual office and you’ll start making mistakes, stop enjoying your work, alienate your friends and family, and ultimately burn out. While we’re passed along tips on recovering from burnout in the past, a better idea is to avoid it in the first place. With that in mind, here are five ideas on setting reasonable limits as you launch your new web-working career.

1. Manage client expectations. If you tell your customers that you’re available 24×7 by cell phone and Blackberry, they’re going to take advantage of your connectivity. Ask yourself whether this sort of responsiveness is really necessary to earn their business and their trust. If you’re only trying to imitate a larger business, you can probably get by with a more honest service level. Promising a 1-day turnaround on non-urgent emails and putting in a separate business phone line that you only answer between 9AM and 6PM can go a long way towards easing the pressure.

2. Take days off to recharge. Some people apparently thrive on working every day, but most of us seem to need about two days in seven to ourselves. It’s unlikely that your customers are counting on you working every weekend to get things done for them, so unless you’re feeling especially harried by a particular deadline, take the time off. If you want to feel like you’re taking advantage of your newfound web worker freedom, experiment with a midweekend.

3. Have a place for work. Just because you can work anywhere doesn’t mean you have to work everywhere. One of the easiest ways to have web work take over your entire life is to cart the laptop (or smartphone) along with you to every social event and to answer email every time you get a cell signal. It’s unlikely that the fate of empires depends on your quick response, so try to have some perspective. You can do this by putting the laptop in a home office and closing the door behind it, by taking it down to a coworking facility every day, or by working at client sites, but in any case set yourself some physical limits on what you consider an acceptable workplace.

4. Find your own rhythms. You’re a web worker, with the ability to plan your own day: use it! As long as you deliver high-quality work on time and in budget, clients won’t care (or for the most part even know) whether you start your day at 6AM or 2PM, or take a siesta in the middle of it, or do your best work at the neighborhood coffee shop or under a tree in the park. Some web workers seem to do fine setting themselves traditional 9 to 5 hours, but if you’re not one of them, give yourself permission to experiment until you figure out what works for you.

5. Plan a vacation. It may seem absurd to plan a vacation when you’re just getting started, but one of the secrets of taking time off in a one-person shop is to plan it well in advance so that you don’t surprise any clients. Pick a holiday weekend months in advance, and add a few days at one end or the other. As the time approaches, postpone potentially tricky work until after the holiday, and set up a way for clients to contact you in case of a real emergency; most will be happy that you take the time to do this, and won’t take advantage.


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