Finding Your Freelance Down Time

What’s on the iPod: The Woodpile by Frightened Rabbit

Made a lot of headway on three different projects yesterday despite my having a slightly interrupted afternoon thanks to some errands. I have two projects in great shape and the third will be framed in today. I have a few weeks to finish them, but I want them done sooner rather than later. I have a wedding to attend in two weeks and I’d love to have a little R&R before it, you know? I’d love some time when I don’t have to think about incisions or complications or recovery — just space to be in.

Coincidentally, that’s this month’s blog theme — work/life balance. It’s something we self-employed struggle with constantly. How can we build a business and take time off for ourselves? It’s one thing to say “I’m working these hours and these days and no more than that.” It’s entirely another thing to actually stick to it.

Then there’s the guilt. Right now I’m catching up on several weeks of idle time thanks to surgery and recovery. However, I need a vacation badly. I need that time to just chill out and enjoy thinking about nothing in particular. Will I take it? You tell me. Would you?

If your answer is anything but yes, you’re letting guilt get in the way of what you need. Most of your clients don’t know or simply don’t care if you follow an extended absence with a vacation. They’re not your employers, so you don’t have to answer to them unless they’re waiting for a project and you’ve promised to deliver. Even then, as long as they get it when you’ve agreed to deliver it, it’s not a problem.

I say this as I stomp down my own guilt over wanting and needing time off.

So how does a writer strike that delicate balance between work and personal life? How can you as a writer find a happy medium, take that vacation, and maintain a thriving business?

Accept what you cannot change. You won’t be earning while you’re away from the desk. You have to be okay with that. If you take time off regularly, your earnings will reflect that. Perhaps instead of beating yourself up for not pulling down $6K a month, you should adjust your targeted earnings goal to maybe $4K or $5K a month? You’re still earning, but maybe taking one less project a month will give you more personal time.

Larger projects equal more free time. Maybe taking on 15 small projects a month sounds lucrative, but if you add them up, what are you really gaining? What if you took four projects that were larger in scope, but paid more? How would that free up your schedule?

Time off is unpaid, but it doesn’t have to result in bankruptcy. You know you need a break. So why not take one right after you’ve finished that phenomenal month and your bank account is flush with money? There’s no better time to get away than when you have the cash to do so.

Utilize voice mail. It’s 6 pm and you’re making dinner. The phone rings. You recognize the number as a client number. Instead of answering it and letting dinner burn, stop working. Allow the call to go to voice mail. Respect your own needs by not being on call at the drop of a hat. Most clients understand that 6 pm isn’t going to be a good time, but some will call expecting to leave a message for you. Let it happen. Just remember to answer them within 24 hours. That’s just proper business etiquette.

Simplify. How many things are you cramming into a single day? How much of that is necessary to your financial well being? How much of that is what you want to be doing? How much of that is stuff that’s somehow thrust upon you that you really don’t have time for? Trim accordingly.

Do what you love, not just what you must. I’d love to say every project I’ve taken on has been something I love. Not true. However, I make sure that plenty of what I do involves things I really want to do. Sure, we all have to take those projects that dull the senses or suck up a good bit of time and creative energy. Just make sure if you’re taking those types of projects, you’re getting compensated well for them. Otherwise, stop agreeing to them.

Writers, how do you create that space for your own personal down time? When was the last time you had a day off on purpose? What do you find are the obstacles between you and that free time?

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  • Cathy Miller June 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    I feel like the whole purpose of my freelancing career is about work/life balance. It was the terrible imbalance of my corporate life that led me to freelancing.

    That doesn't mean I never struggle with the guilt thing (hey, I'm Catholic ;-)). But, I have gotten better at ignoring that twinge.

    I RARELY work a weekend. In corporate life, I rarely did NOT work a weekend.

    I constantly adjust my schedule for the needs of my 90-year-old mother – doctor's appts (although, thank the Lord, she is extremely healthy), visits to my dad's grave, dealing with some house issue.

    It's all doable. And you nailed one of the adjustments, Lori. A couple of years ago, I stopped taking the small, one-and-done projects. I don't put in near the hours of my writer buds (for a number of reasons), so I need to be as productive as I can when I am writing. So I decided to take fewer, larger, and better-paying projects. It works best for my situation.

    I wish I could convey what an important message the work/life balance is. Intellectually, we know it. Typically, however, it takes some time to recognize the truth of that.

  • Devon Ellington June 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    As long as I'm on top of my deadlines, and it won't hurt the work, I'll take the time I need when I need it. This week's been tricky — I came back from NY sick — I knew NY was going to cost money & I wouldn't be earning short-term while I was there, although I kept up with stuff and had meetings on long-term projects that will pay off down the road. I expected to jump back into the saddle on some projects to make up the cash I'd spent and hadn't earned while in NY.

    But I've been sick. And, the client whose job I planned to start on Monday, which I could have done while sick, flaked on me, so my cushion is gone.

    On the up side, a project landed on my agent's desk she thinks I'm perfect for — and it pays well. Now that I'm feeling better and had a week full of 2-3 hours where I could work because I was sick, I'll work through the weekend on the proposal for her, and to finish up a couple of articles, and to do a paper for a class that, past class, will probably be published in a journal.

    I'd love a vacation, but it's not financially feasible right now. But if my agent's big project hits, I'll take a nice chunk as soon as I've finished that one for her.

    So it will all work out — the next couple of weeks are a little dicey, because I didn't expect to come back sick and be as under the weather as I've been.

    I don't have to worry about the phone ringing while cooking dinner and it being a client, since I've now implemented the charging-for-phone-calls-like-a-lawyer policy, and ALL phone calls must be set up by appointment. Everything else– email me. Don't leave it on the message machine.

    I worked in theatre — I never had a "weekend" like other people — I worked weekends, that was the gig. I still tend to take floating days off as I need them during the week, but I have starting unplugging on Sundays, which I really like.

  • Susan Johnston June 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Lori, hope your recovery is going well. Sorry I'm a little behind on blog posts.

    Although our clients don't pay us when we're not working, passive income projects like ebooks (I believe you have one too?) can help smooth out the money during downtimes. My ebook is far from a bestseller but I love waking up to an email that I've sold a few copies while I was asleep because it's basically found money. Not a lot of money, mind you, but every little bit helps.

  • Lori June 7, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Cathy, exactly. We went into this profession for the balance. There's no sense in letting it drive us into an unhealthy state.

    I won't work weekends, either. If the clients aren't in the office, they shouldn't expect me to be, either. And getting over the guilt was easy after a few clients soured me to the request — one in particular would come at it sideways and say things like "Are you working over the holiday?" She knew not to ask outright, but her answer was in the pairing of the words "work" and "holiday." No f-ing way.

    Devon, when are your "weekends"? You do take time off midweek, right? Sunday and Monday? Or Sunday and another day?

    It's those short-term breaks that turn longer term that hit the bank account, huh? I'm hoping to weather this one myself, and thankfully the work is coming in again.

  • Paula June 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    If I were bringing in a steady $4K a month it would easy to take a week off since I would have a much larger savings cushion.

    I'm not bad at taking off for a day or half day here or there. After turning in two articles and a column on Monday, I took Tuesday off. Yes, I spent half the day doing yard work, but it needed to be done.

    Once in a while I'll plan a day off – sometimes to have a learning adventure with my niece and nephew. But I usually make the time up on a weekend if I need to.

    For me, putting in a couple of hours over a weekend can be the difference between a stressful, time-crunched week and a balanced daily workload.

    As for actually going somewhere for a vacation – it sounds good in theory but the stress of having to pay for it would be anything but relaxing. Even in a pretty setting, stress is still stress.

  • Gabriella F. June 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Lori.

    Take the time off!

    I say this as the girl who's been struggling since my April vacation with motivation and guilt over that lack of motivation.

    My May was a very bad month work wise, but for some reason, I couldn't make myself push too hard to make it much better. I think my vacation really made it sink in that I need to do that stuff more often–and I want to do it NOW!

    Luckily, my June will be much more productive.

    Anyway, the point is that you have to know yourself and respond appropriately. If you need time off, take it. I've found there are rarely times when I can't finesse a little time off when I really need it.

    Maybe that means working a weekend day. (I hate it, but I'll do it on the rare occasions there's no other way to meet a deadline.) Maybe it means asking an editor for a few extra days. (Again, I don't like to do it, but when I know the deadline isn't really drop dead and it's a long-time client who knows and trusts me, I've asked, and they've always been laid back about it.)

    As Tim Gunn says, "Make it work!"

  • Jake Poinier June 7, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I met with a group of local freelancers last night, and one of the newer people asked around the table how many hours we average working. I was absolutely floored when one of the women said 16 hours a day! (First of all, I wanted to call B.S., but bit my tongue. Now I'm tempted to email her your link from an anonymous gmail account.)

    I simply don't like to work that hard.

    And I do love long weekends and vacations. My wife has been at her job long enough that she has 4 weeks of time off, so it's incumbent on me to figure out how to make it work for my biz. Twist. My. Arm!

  • Cathy Miller June 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Funny, Jake. I read that as 16 hours a week. I think my mind now automatically rejects the idea of 16 hours per day. 😉

    P.S. I don't believe it either.

  • Lori June 7, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Paula, even you, the hardest working freelancer, deserve a vacation. 🙂 I get the stress. I have to work hard, save, and plan my budget for two months around a vacation. But it's totally worth it to walk away from the desk. I find my creativity actually increases the minute I'm on vacation.

    Gabriella, I love that you quoted Tim Gunn! Make it work indeed. 🙂 Hey, if working weekends helps you get time off, go for it, I say! And if you decide to put your weekend in the middle of the week, again, go for it. It's up to every writer to make these decisions for themselves, in my opinion.

    Jake, I'm not buying it, either. No way you can work 16-hour days. You have to sleep. If you're really, truly working that long, you have time management or pricing issues.

    Twisting. Your. Arm. 🙂

  • Paula June 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Unfortunately, every penny I manage to save has to go to home repairs – the chimney needs work from top to bottom, the exterior trim still needs painting, every faucet needs replacing (thanks to the corrosive effect of very hard water), and the garage needs serious work. I can't justify any frivolities over, say $20 until at least some of those things have been paid for.

    Sometimes I hate being responsible, but I couldn't enjoy splurging on any non-essentials while my house turns into the 21st Century version of Gray Gardens.

  • Jenn Mattern June 10, 2013 at 4:07 am

    Paula — I feel for you. The house expenses keep piling up here too — from the $4-5k fireplace fix to yet another leaking pipe, it can feel impossible to stay on top of sometimes. But even if you can only spend the occasional $20 on yourself and a bit of fun, it's well worth it if it keeps us happy and focused on work to bring in money for all the rest. 🙂

    Jake & Lori — Not 16 hours, but I have three 13 hour days scheduled this week. And I worked from the time I got up until the time I went to bed when I first started my business. So it's definitely possible. In my case, I usually only sleep around 6 hours (7 on a good night). It's just what works for me. So maybe that other writer is similar in that sense and going through a workaholic phase.

    I'm not usually like that anymore. In fact I can be a bit of a stickler about my super-lean schedule (I used to easily work 60-80 hours per week, now I earn more working only 28 in a normal week). But right now it's crunch time before a big site launch. I'd never pull these kinds of hours for a client project. But for my own, I'm happy to make the exception once in a while.

    That said, I have no qualms about taking vaca time when I want to, and I take more than my fair share of days off on a whim. When work is wearing you down, it's time to stop working for a while. When I feel guilty about it, I nip that by reminding myself that I'm only good to my clients if I'm first good to myself.

  • Lori June 10, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Jenn, no surprise you worked that hard at the beginning — it shows in what you've built. 🙂

    My husband asked me if I'd ever considered taking a part-time job just for the social aspect. I had to laugh, because with the socializing comes the gossip, politics, ladder-climbing behavior that used to drive me nuts. Do I miss any of that? Hell no. But the point I'm trying to make is I told him I work harder for myself than I ever did for a client. I may be able to work six solid hours here, whereas in an office I was required to work eight hours. Try looking busy when you've finished the job. Right. Now when I finish, I look for more work.

    Much more productive.

  • Devon Ellington June 10, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I don't have set days off. I take whatever works that particular week.

    I don't deal with business clients over the weekend, although sometimes I will deal with fiction clients – and I am ALWAYS available to my agent! 😉

    When I script doctor, I'm on call — I've fed pages in LA to a live, shooting set from NY at 1 AM eastern time, rewriting as they shoot — but the money on that tends to more than cover any inconvenience.

    If you work in the entertainment field, you can't expect business hours.

  • Lori June 10, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I don't handle client stuff on weekends, either. It's enough to juggle the requests during the week without the weekend being full of the same.