Maintaining Boundaries + Independence as a Creative
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how founders can stop micromanaging their creative employees and instead create the conditions for creators to do their best work.
Today, I want to talk about the other side of the coin - how creators can avoid being micromanaged and build client relationships that allow them to thrive. It’s a mistake to go into any project with the mindset that the employer calls all of the shots, especially when it comes to the creative work that you own the process for.
The better approach, especially if you’re a creator, is to ask the person who’s hired you what you need and then deliver.
If you’re a creative freelancer or contractor, you may be so happy to have creative work that making demands seems unrealistic. You imagine that the best approach is to do exactly what the person who hired you has asked for with no pushback or accommodation for your workstyle.
In the short run, that may be okay, but in the long run it’s bound to leave you burnt out, depleted and exhausted by work you love.
But if you know the warning signs of a poor creator-client relationship, how to right the ship, and, eventually, how to manage your clients effectively from the very beginning, you can do your best work and be the kind of creator-collaborator that clients turn to again and again.
The most common trouble signs I see in creator-client relationships are:
No boundaries. You’re getting pinged at all hours of the day and night via WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and email. The person you’re working with expects an immediate response so that you can never really get into a space for deep work. Even if you ignore the messages, they keep coming…and with more urgency.
Zero independence. You’ve spent years creating a body of work and a certain aesthetic. You assumed your sense of style and taste was one of the reasons you got the job, but now you have no autonomy or agency. The person who hired you doesn’t trust your judgment and wants to sign off on everything…no matter how small. Instead of doing your best, most original work on behalf of this client, you’re second guessing yourself, and it shows.
The hamster wheel. It never feels like things are done. You face down endless client requests for revisions and adjustments that make your creative output different but not necessarily better. There’s no time to celebrate the completion of one project because you’re expected to begin immediately on the next. You need rest and space to be your best, but that’s not built into the timeline or schedule.
So what can you do? How do you navigate clients who micromanage you? And, more importantly, how do you create conditions that make micromanagement unnecessary?
The most important thing you can do from the very beginning is to over-communicate.
Creative work tends to be shrouded in mystery. Even if your clients are creators themselves, no two creatives work in exactly the same way. That’s why it’s up to you to be upfront about when you work, how you work, and what you will deliver by when.
In my piece for founders on working with creatives, I wrote about thrashing, which Seth Godin describes as the time spent upfront working through the project, sharing ideas, getting aligned, really just planning the work that's going to be done.
A key part of thrashing is process - not just the objectives of the project but also the means of arriving at them. Say, for example, that during the first part of any project, you read and research, take lots of walks, and let your subconscious do its thing. In the days before the deadline, you do a 48-hour sprint and then deliver amazing work after an all-nighter.
For a client who’s used to a slow and steady approach, who sees no “progress” in your shared online collaborative space, who hears nothing from you, the way you work could be stressful.
BUT if you share your process upfront and manage expectations from the very beginning, there’s a much better chance that you’ll get the time and space you need to do your best.
Creator, know thyself.
Every creator has a zone of genius: get comfortable talking about and showing the exact kind of work you do best. When you’re starting out, you may be tempted to say yes to everything—you may even have to to make ends meet—but as you go, it’s okay, even preferable, to develop specialized expertise, style, or techniques.
For example, if you’re an illustrator, you may emphasize versatility at the start of your career, but then you notice that clients gravitate toward one style, one technique, one color palette, or something else that is particular to your work. Lean into that one thing and go deep - it’s what makes you and your creations unique. And over time, you will build knowledge and authority such that your client doesn’t need to question every choice you make.
Working within your zone of genius doesn’t mean sticking to one thing and never stretching, learning, or being innovative; it just means being confident about what you do best while also exploring what Cal Newport calls the “adjacent possible,” the space beyond the cutting edge of your field where new combinations of existing ideas live.
To get there, first you have to arrive at the cutting edge, which means becoming the best at what you, and only you, can do.
And finally, protect your boundaries.
A lot of times creative work is just like any other job - you wake up, work on a schedule, send and reply to emails from colleagues and clients, and send deliverables when they’re due. But at the risk of sounding too precious, creative work can also be more draining than other types of work because day in and day out, you’re making something from nothing.
Setting boundaries isn’t just about one project or one client; it’s about sustainability and doing creative work for a lifetime. That’s why it’s so important, from the beginning, to build space and time for rest into your creative life.
Time and space looks different for everyone - it might be three consecutive days off at the end of every project to sleep, exercise, cook, see friends, or do whatever else you love without needing to be online or on deadline. It might mean not responding to messages after 6 PM or on weekends; it might mean one morning per week dedicated to reading or going to a museum; it might mean taking a class that has nothing to do with work.
Whatever it is, it’s about filling yourself back up so that you’re ready to create…again and again and again.
These skills take practice.
At the beginning it may feel risky to talk about your workstyle, specialize, and establish boundaries, but ultimately it’s riskier not to do these things if you want to be a successful creator who works with and not for clients.
Not every client will respect what you’re trying to do; it’s okay to do one project with an individual or organization and then move on. You might even find yourself saying no after an initial conversation in which a client seems unwilling to consider your needs.
But there are many, many clients who will appreciate your work and the clarity you bring to your approach. Stick with those folks, and you’ll go far…together.
If you've got any questions about doing creative work and micromanagement or if there’s something you do that really works to facilitate your creative work and good client relationships, I’d love to know more, hit reply.
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