At the beginning of a new year, it seems most people are focused on being productive. What can I accomplish this year? What changes can I implement to run my business more effectively? It starts with setting new goals and formulating plans for how to achieve them. I think it’s great to do that, not just in January, but throughout the year. I talked about resolutions in episode 34 at the start of 2021. But where I’m at now, and what’s top of mind for me, is the opposite of being more productive. It’s taking more breaks. But how do you do that when YOU are your business?
Being a single-person business has many perks, but it also comes with some challenges. If you need time off for whatever reason, that means your business stops. We don’t really get paid time off or holidays, at least not in the traditional sense. To me, that’s not a big deal because I also don’t have to work 40 hours a week or do anything I don’t want to do, and I can take time whenever I want it without someone else approving. But, when you’re working at a regular job, there are usually other employees there who can handle your work while you’re out. When it’s just you, you don’t always have the luxury of handing it off to someone else.
But it’s necessary to take time off. We can’t work every day without serious repercussions to our mental health. It’s why burnout is so prevalent amongst the self-employed. It’s too easy to get stuck in that that “time is money” mindset and if we’re not working every second, our businesses will fail. And while it is true that if you’re providing a service and don’t necessarily have that passive income, time you’re not working IS time you aren’t earning, that’s not the most important thing. That’s not to say that money isn’t important because we all know it is, but it has to come along with that balance of time, which is equally important.
It doesn’t mean you need to take a 2-week vacation every few months, although if you can do that you absolutely should. Sometimes it just means taking the time where you can find it, even if it’s only an hour a day. It really comes down to time management, which usually isn’t a strength for creatives. But here are some ways you can take time off from your business to take care of yourself.
Outsourcing within Your Business
The obvious solution isn’t always practical, and that’s to outsource. If you have someone else who can handle your tasks, it’s much easier to step away. But many of us are hesitant to do this for a number of reasons. The biggest one for me has always been that it would take me longer to train someone than to just do it myself. It’s true, but that’s also a limiting mindset because it means I’ll always be stuck doing it myself. The other reason for me is that I’ve yet to find anyone I can trust to do what I do at the level it needs to be done for my clients. That’s not meant in an arrogant or condescending way, but there are a lot of nuances to how I do my work and that’s why my clients depend on me. If I were to hand things off to someone else, I’d need to know they’d represent me correctly and that one is tricky. For many others, it feels like paying someone else would be cost-prohibitive and they’d rather just refer the job to someone else.
But in my opinion, the smartest way to outsource is to keep it all under your business. Ideally, you can retain a markup on the labor you outsource. You want to make sure you’re paying fair wages, but it’s standard to mark up your expenses by at least 20% to cover your own admin costs. If you can do that without it being an issue for your client (meaning you don’t have to charge them more), even better. If you typically charge $150/hr for what you do, but can fairly pay someone else $100/hr, you can bill the client the same amount but you keep that extra $50/hr for yourself. It’s probably not going to sustain you long-term, but it keeps a little coming in for you and doesn’t come with the same risks as handing off your client to someone else.
I see that happen more than I’d like to. For example, someone goes on maternity leave and instead of hiring someone to cover her for a few months, she completely turns her client over to a replacement. While I understand that sometimes that’s more convenient because then you can be completely hands-off, you also run the risk of your client not coming back when you do. It’s not always a case of the person you trusted betraying you, but maybe the client found a better rhythm with that person and would like to continue working with them instead. It happens.
There is a lot of debate about whether transparency is necessary when you’re giving tasks to someone else. I believe it is. I think it’s important that if you’re going to be away and letting someone else handle the job, you should tell your client. I don’t think too much detail is necessary, but an introduction via email saying something like, “My team is expanding and I’m excited to have this new person on board. She’ll be helping me on your project so we can give you some extra attention.” Or something positive like that. As always, you want to frame it in a way that’s a benefit to them.
From there, it’s up to you how much involvement you want, but you must communicate expectations with your new vendor. Do you want to be copied on all communications with your client? If there are questions and you’re on vacation, do you want an email or a text or are they empowered to make decisions without you? That’s all going to depend on your personal level of comfort, and if you really need to cut yourself off from work completely to get the rest you need or if checking emails once a day is worthwhile. Only you will know what’s right.
You also want to communicate the same with your client. Let them know which dates you’re going to be out of the office and let them know if they should be interacting with your vendor. You want it to be a seamless transition for them so there aren’t any disruptions to the process they’re already used to. But if you decide it’s better for you to completely unplug and step out of the process entirely, that communication becomes important again so you can hopefully minimize the chances of losing the client when you come back.
I know that’s a lot of talk about outsourcing and you might not be at the point where that’s the right option for you, which is fine. But that means when you want to take a break, you will not be available for client work. So many freelancers are afraid to do that because they feel like if they turn down one job, they won’t be called for the next one. It does happen sometimes, but it’s not healthy to be constantly available to everyone but yourself. For me, it often comes down to simply saying no when an offer comes up. I’m really in tune with myself and what I need, and I trust my intuition with those decisions. If I’m already worn out and feel like another day or week or whatever the case may be will be too much, I say I’m not available. If a client doesn’t call me again because I couldn’t take a job, that’s not the right client for me, and that’s okay. It’s better for me to take that risk than to show up when I’m not going to be at my best.
Communication & Planning
Not surprisingly, the key here, as in so many situations, is communication. If you’re planning a trip, check in with your clients when you start planning. See what projects they might have coming up and figure out if you can schedule your part in them before you leave and/or when you return. They will appreciate being included in your process and will feel like you are making them a priority. Clients like that. They’ll also appreciate a heads up about when you’ll be unavailable, especially if they’re used to you being around without much notice.
Vacations & Smaller Breaks
Taking a vacation is one thing, and we should all probably do that a little more often. I know I’m feeling the negative repercussions of not traveling for the last couple of years. I love seeing new places and different parts of the world and this is the longest I’ve been without a proper trip in probably a decade or more. I think it’s so beneficial to get different perspectives, change environments, and really disconnect from your business sometimes so you can come back refreshed and ready to go. But, covid risks aside, I haven’t been able to travel for other reasons as well, so here we are.
There are still other ways to take breaks, even at home. I said before that sometimes you have to take the time when you can find it, and I think that’s really important. It always comes back to balance. So if you know you only have a day or two in between big jobs, make sure to do what you need to do for yourself in those days. I always treat those days similar to a traditional weekend. When I was working in the corporate world, Saturdays were my free days. Sometimes I’d use those to socialize or just veg out on the couch all day. They were screen-free, work-free, do whatever I want to do days. Sundays were my personal productive days, so still no work, but I’d do my food prep and laundry, projects around the house, all that stuff that needed to be done. Then I’d start the week fresh on Monday.
I still follow a pretty similar schedule. I generally don’t work weekends but when that’s unavoidable, I find time during the week where I can. When it’s a full day or more, that’s great. But sometimes it’s only a few hours. It’s all about being intentional with that time and being realistic about how you need to spend it. A lot of it comes down to being organized and planning ahead. If there is work you know you have coming up, but you can get it done early, do that. When I’m really busy, sometimes I’ll work a little longer for a few days so I can free up some time later in the week. I look over what I have to do and make sure I’m making time for what’s important.
Scheduling “Me” Time
If you’re someone who gets wrapped up in what you’re doing and lose track of everything else, you have a different set of challenges. You know who you are, the ones who forget to eat and don’t realize how late it is until your office gets dark because the sun has gone down. For you, scheduling your down time might be the solution. Like, actually put it in your calendar and set alerts so you don’t forget. Again, this could be little bits of time each day. The Apple Watch is nice because it reminds you every hour or so to get up and move around, just for a minute. That’s helpful, but a few minutes walking around the kitchen aren’t going to prevent you from overdoing it. Use your calendar to your benefit and schedule time for yourself just as you would time for a client. Commit to yourself in the same way and it can make a huge difference.
I think the most important time to schedule is your workout. Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health, both of which contribute to running a healthy business by yourself. The right time depends on you. I’ve gone back and forth between morning and evening. For a while, I preferred to go to my pilates classes at 5pm because it gave me a good time stop working and was a nice delineation between my workday and my personal time. That’s also when the classes I wanted were available. But when covid came around and I had to shift to home workouts, and I started getting really busy, I reverted back to mornings. In my line of work, as I’m sure it is with you, every day can be unpredictable. I might start off the day with one plan, but other things come up and I have to pivot and figure it out as I go. Those disruptions usually don’t happen too early in the morning, so I like to get my workouts in at the start of the day to minimize the chance of not getting around to it later because something came up, or I’m tired, or I just don’t feel like it. If it’s a particularly busy day, I might only do 30 minutes, or sometimes even less, but it’s important to me to do something.
Exercise aside, it’s good to make time for other self-care, too. Maybe it’s going for a massage or a facial or pedicure or something that helps you feel good. Maybe it’s going to the batting cages or one of those places where you get to smash old stuff to let out some aggression. Whatever it is that you need, commit to yourself for that time and trust that nothing is going to irreparably fall apart while you’re gone. If something happens, you can tend to it when you’re done, but at least you’ll be starting from a healthier place. Every little bit of “me time” helps. It’s so easy to get stuck in that feeling of “I can’t do anything because I have too much work to do,” but if you never make the time for yourself, it’s only going to get worse.
Never Work So Hard That it’s a Detriment to Your Health
I’ll let you in on a little secret here. I rarely work 40 hours or more in a week. There have been some stretches of time in the last few months where I’m close to that and occasionally more, but most of the time, I don’t take on that much. I’m not interested in working myself to death. From the time I was a teenager, I said I was working hard then so I wouldn’t have to when I got older. And I’m not sure where 40 lies in the grand scheme of older, but I think it’s the perfect time to stop working so much. My goal as a business owner has always been to make more and work less. I take no pride in busyness, as you’ve probably heard me say a number of times at this point.
All of my years of experience have brought me to a place where I am efficient with my time and can get a lot done more quickly without sacrificing quality. That’s why my rates are where they are and why I maintain control of my schedule – I take the jobs I want and am not afraid to say no when I just don’t have the time or energy to do something. I work hard and am proud of that, but I won’t work to the detriment of my health. Nothing is that important.
You Owe it to Yourself to Prioritize Your Well-Being
When you own your own business and you ARE your own business, taking time off can feel overwhelmingly impossible. But you owe it to yourself to prioritize your own well-being and taking breaks is a big part of that. Whether it’s a few weeks away to the exotic country of your dreams, an hour in the morning to do your favorite activity, meeting a good friend for lunch and laughs, a quick pause to listen to some music and get away from the screen, 30 minutes at the end of the day to meditate, or whatever you need, the time away from work is good for you. If you’re constantly in a place where you feel you can’t stop, it might be time to outsource or even hire an employee. If that doesn’t seem like the right move for you, just be mindful with the time you have. Find ways to regularly build some down time into your schedule and get away from work when you can.
Never Feel Guilty for Taking Time Off
And most importantly, never feel guilty for taking a break. Honoring yourself and what you need is an important strength, especially when you’re self-employed. The work will always be there, but you’re no good to anyone if you’re completely burned out. Make yourself a priority and take that time off when you need it because when you are your business, taking care of yourself is a huge part of being successful in that business.
What are some ways you give yourself time off? Do you generally go for the big blocks of time, more consistent smaller actions, or somewhere in between? I’d love to hear how you prioritize yourself and make time to take breaks in your business. Post your thoughts on social and tag me, or send me a message to keep this conversation going. You can find me @aardvarkgirl or email firstname.lastname@example.org.