Nothing ruins a Fourth of July afternoon at the beach quite like that gnawing feeling you really ought to be at home, at your desk, chipping away at that never-ending to-do list. It’s a familiar dilemma for every freelancer: fit in just a few more billable hours or cut loose with a burger and a beer?
In our 24/7 work culture, the freedom and flexibility promised to independent workers and solopreneurs when you leave the bounds of a corporate work environment can become elusive if you’re not paying attention. The temptation to work ourselves to death is shared by most in the American workforce. Despite research that says overworking is bad for productivity, an annual survey called Project: Time Off (sponsored by a travel industry group) found that 52 percent of workers had vacation time left at the end of 2017.
So, how can you take time off – whether an afternoon, a long weekend, or a year abroad – without panicking? Here are some ideas.
See productivity differently
Maura Koutoujian, a career coach with Jody Michael Associates, says feeling unproductive prevents people from taking the break they need. But productivity is a matter of perception. And perceptions are often wrong.
“People think, ‘The more I work, the harder I work, the more important I am,’” Koutoujian says. “Often, people aren’t working smart. Don’t let peer pressure and the fear of falling behind or missing out keep you from doing what you need to do for yourself. Trust that you’ll know what you need to do. Trust that doing nothing – or what would appear to be doing nothing to some people – for some people is incredibly stimulating.”
She recommends regular breaks for “wandering and pondering.” She likes to sit quietly and watch people walk by, but, really, she recommends any activity that makes a little room for serendipity. Work-unrelated activities often lead to fresh ideas or tap into creativity in ways that will benefit your work, even if not directly.
“It’s about being open without forcing an outcome,” she says.
Take advantage of business holidays
Michael Fellows of Broadway Lab, a software consulting agency, recommends taking time off when the rest of the business world does – over major holidays, like the Fourth of July next week – because it means there is a natural lull in communication, deadlines, and new projects, so there’s less to miss.
“I’m really good at taking time off in short spurts – not multiple weeks off necessarily,” he says.
A long weekend here and there or working half-days while traveling allow independent workers to enjoy flexibility and freedom without being unrealistic. Earning a living and building something new takes consistent time and effort, but indy workers have opportunities to have more control over the where and when. Recognizing that power and using it strategically can make for an enjoyable work experience.
“It’s not a binary thing – either I’m traveling or I’m working,” Fellows says. “There’s a great way to integrate your work day into an awesome life as a freelancer.”
Set expectations for yourself and your clients
As an independent worker, you may feel like they can’t afford to take time off because it could mean losing a client or project.
“It is so sad that we live in a world that so often everything is bigger, better, faster, louder, more. And it can be really hard to say, ‘I just want to take time,’” Koutoujian says. “We’re sometimes shamed if we want to take time. My feeling is there’s no shame. Own it.
“We want to make sure whether you take a day or take a week, that we let go of that idea of being haunted that we should be doing something else.”
She says setting expectations for yourself and your clients can help ease the panic and give you permission to spend time away from work the way you want. Perhaps you decide to check email and other messages during a specific time or two each day.
“I do really think reasonable people are very understanding of people wanting to take time.”
Remember: Time off doesn’t have to mean weeks-long, off-the-grid vacations
Rest is an important part of staying creative, Fellows says. As someone who doesn’t expect to be totally disconnected while traveling, he says avoiding burnout doesn’t demand going off-the-grid. It can be as simple as maintaining good habits, such as working out regularly and getting enough sleep.
Every Wednesday evening, Koutoujian takes a meditation class. Without really realizing it, she’s blocked off the two-hour window as a time each week when she’s not available for clients or other calendar appointments.
She’ll meet clients on weekends or other weekday evenings, but “there’s nothing come up in two years that’s made me take a client after 6 on a Wednesday night,” Koutoujian said.
So, whether you’re toying with taking a break this summer, remember that being your own boss also means being your own employee. Recognize when you need to rest and recharge and give yourself permission to do it.
Your productivity likely will benefit from it.