Freelancing is Taking Over My Life! 7 Ways to Regain a Healthy Work & Life Balance
Career-minded people, especially entrepreneurs and freelancers, love to talk about how hard they’re hustling. There are countless memes about the importance of the hustle, and we often revere those people who seem to fit an impossibly large number of things (Kids! Fitness! Board meetings! Charity work! Date nights! Side projects! Friends!) into each and every day. Finding a work and life balance may not be a priority for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be one for you.
American culture can make us feel like working hard and earning money are the most important things in life — but they aren’t. I recently read about Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old Japanese journalist who was found dead in her bed, holding her phone. She worked more than 159 hours of overtime in the month before she died. Her official cause of death was karoshi, a Japanese word that means “death from overwork.” In black-and-white terms, she worked so hard that it killed her. Sado died in 2013, but her story wasn’t made public until this year, and I can’t get it out of my head. It has forced me to realize that my work and life balance is practically nonexistent.
In the past few months, I’ve noticed that whenever my work assignments start to pile up, I experience physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. Sometimes there’s a tightness in the center of my chest, or my shoulders get so tense that I feel like there are tiny rocks inside of me. I know feeling this way is unhealthy. I’ve found a few ways to lower my stress level, such as going for a walk or a jog, spending time outside, or taking a break from work to meditate.
The whole point of finding a work and life balance is to find an equilibrium between what you do as a job (and this can include unpaid jobs, such as being a mother or charity work), and what you do in your free time to recharge and focus on yourself. Personally, I know that I need to get away from work altogether for a few days each week in order to maintain a balance, but as a freelancer, weekends aren’t built into my work schedule. This means that I often spend weekends catching up on work instead of relaxing. After reading about Miwa Sado’s death, however, I feel more inspired than ever to change this habit and strive for a better work and life balance.
Right now, I have a personal incentive to practice taking breaks from work: I am planning a trip to France next month, and I’ve decided not to bring my laptop.
I haven’t taken a real vacation in several years — for one reason, as a freelancer, I don’t have paid vacation days. Typically when I travel, I bring my laptop and try to get work done on the road, but this time I want to take a real break. I’ll probably check email on my phone while I am away, but without my laptop, I won’t have access to any of the programs I need to do my work. Until I leave for France, my weekends will be my opportunity to test this whole taking-time-off thing before I’m in another country and on another time zone.
Six Strategies for Finding a Sustainable Work & Life Balance
1. Stick to a Schedule
As a freelancer, it’s hard for me to say no to any opportunity to make extra income. However, I know that if I want to commit to having a work schedule that doesn’t overflow into the weekends, this is a very important step. A key part of sticking to a schedule is making sure that everything you’ve committed to fits into your schedule. You can figure this out by blocking off the amount of time you need to spend each day on certain assignments, as well as the time you spend commuting, cooking, working out, walking your dog, taking your kids to school, etc. Make sure to schedule block of time for yourself to do the things that help you recharge, like reading, meditation, outdoor activities, or maybe just a nap!
2. Make the Most of Your Work Hours
Being productive is all about organization and time management. If you work from home, it can be tempting to half-ass your work time because you may have nobody there to shame you about staying in your pajamas or working with the TV on. Once you’ve scheduled in your work time, take it seriously. Shower, get dressed, and keep your appointments with yourself. If you tend to get distracted when you work from home, find a location out of the house with reliable wifi and minimal distractions where you can be productive.
Take a moment each morning to identify your priorities for the day and tackle those things first. Recognize when you’re spending too much time on something that isn’t important, and keep track of how much time you spend on calls and answering emails. Managing correspondence is a common challenge for many people, but especially freelancers. Don’t accept a life spent drowning in emails. Hire a virtual assistant on a site like Upwork or CloudPeeps. Download inbox management tools like Boomerang or Checker Plus. And unsubscribe from all of those mailing lists that clutter up your inbox!
3. Plan Ahead for Work AND Fun
When I have a really busy week, the idea of work and life balance never crosses my mind. I’m too busy working to think about anything else. Sometimes this comes back to haunt me when the weekend rolls around and I have nothing fun planned! If I wait until Friday night to look for something fun to do, many of my friends already have plans. When that happens, I often end up at home, on my laptop, catching up on email and feeling depressed and overwhelmed. I haaate when that happens!
I know that in order to reach a better work and life balance, I need to be more conscious of making plans for fun stuff ahead of time. (Having things I’m looking forward to on my calendar also makes it easier to get through a brutal workweek. I know better days are coming!)
4. Define “Work”
The main reason that I’m a freelance writer is because I love writing. Some of my happiest moments are when I’m thinking up ideas for weird short stories, or working on my young adult novel. Even though those are things that involve writing, I don’t necessarily categorize them as “work”. I’d love to find time to focus on my personal writing projects during the week in addition to my paid writing assignments, but until then, I’m fine with spending some of my weekend hours on non-work-related writing.
Fortunately, I frequently have paid writing assignments about about things that genuinely interest me, but I still think of those writing projects as “work” because I’m doing them for other people. Work projects involve two very important things — income and deadlines — so I need to make that type of writing my first priority.
5. Don’t Overbook the Weekend
Finding a work and life balance isn’t only about balancing work stuff and fun stuff. It’s also about having downtime. Relaxing is good for you, and it can also help you be more creative. I only set an alarm clock on Monday through Friday, because I want my weekend mornings to be relaxed. This past Saturday and Sunday, I didn’t set an alarm on either day and I woke up feeling great. Surprisingly, when I looked at my phone, I realized that I’d woken up even earlier than I do on weekdays! Even though I woke up early, I felt relaxed when I got out of bed because I was doing it by choice, not because I had somewhere to be.
6. Ask for Support
If you’re a freelancer who regularly answers emails from clients over the weekend (or you often agree to work on Saturday or Sunday), let people know that you’re making work-life balance a priority. Chances are they will relate to your struggle and respect your decision, because the people who email you on the weekends are probably working too much, too. Be polite, but firm, and let them know that they’ll get an answer from you on Monday when you’re “back at work”.
Tell your friends and family about it, too, and ask them to help you stay on track. If I answer work email on my phone while I’m out with friends, they’re good about helping me refocus. They’re not mean about it, but they might ask in a silly voice, “Are you working again?” I love that, because it forces me to immediately reassess my priorities. Maintaining friendships is important, and my friends deserve my full attention when we’re together.
7. If you absolutely must work on the weekend, get it done.
I know it’s challenging to transition from being someone who catches up on work over the weekends to someone who takes weekends off, because I’m still struggling with it. The hardest part for me is getting the work out of the way. If I have something urgent on my to-do list as I head into the weekend, it’s easy to put it off until Sunday evening. But if I do that, I can feel it weighing on my Friday night, and all day Saturday, and the weight feels even heavier on Sunday morning. I am always MUCH happier if I finish the project as early in the weekend as possible, because then I don’t have it hanging over me all weekend.
I will admit I did a bit of work this past weekend, but it was less than I’ve done in the past few weekends, so I feel like I’m heading in a good direction. I already have plans with friends next Saturday, so that’ll inspire me to do an even better job this week, right? Forget the hustle memes — I’d rather stick to this slogan:
Work hard and play hard.