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Freelancers: Stop Feeling Guilty For Not Working!

It’s easier said than done, we know. But being self-employed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy some downtime. Here’s how to reframe the idea of “time off” to find balance.

When was your last vacation? When was your last weekday off? And did you actually allow yourself to enjoy that time away from your desk?

If you’re self-employed, chances are you’ve struggled with letting yourself take time off. It’s understandable! Time is money, after all, and when your income depends on having clients, it’s hard not to feel like there’s always something to do: if you’re not working on an assignment, you should be hustling for more work. Even when you’re operating at full bandwidth (maybe even above full bandwidth; more on that below), the pressure to “keep up” with industry news, opportunities, and your peers is real—and so is guilt of taking time off.

That guilt really has two sources. First, there’s the sense of doom that always seems to sneak into the back of any freelancer’s mind: “This could all be over at any minute!” Second, there’s the idea that just because you can be working, you should be working—a notion that’s especially prevalent in our always-on society. 

But the same guilt that’s preventing you from backing away from the computer is  also likely preventing you from doing your best work.

“You’re like a cell phone that needs to get charged up,” explains Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and New York Times best-selling author. “That’s what time off is for. It’s in the interest of your business to rest. It’ll make you a much better, more creative, smarter freelancer.”

With that said, let’s unpack some ways to re-think where this nagging, problematic feeling comes from—and how to avoid it.


Re-Frame The Idea Of ‘Time Off’

Morgenstern’s suggestion of reframing time off is incredibly powerful. So many independent workers see time off as a personal comfort of sorts—as a “gift” you give yourself at the detriment of your business and your bank account. But that’s just not true. “Don’t think of taking time off as choosing between yourself and your work,” Morgenstern reinforces. “Rather, it’s your responsibility to your business—to your clients—to take time off. You need to recharge to be successful in your work.”

Consider this: Research has proven that productivity falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and that time spent working past 55 hours per week is essentially useless, to the point that there’s no difference in output between a 70-hour work week and a 55-hour one. And it’s not just about productivity. Regularly pulling ten-plus hour days has been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular issues, cause relationship problems, and can mess with your hormones (more work = more stress = higher cortisol rate, which can cause a whole host of issues with your sleep schedule, immune system, and more).

There’s a Reason Companies Provide PTO

“Taking vacations away from work means you come back rejuvenated, relaxed, and ready to take on anything coming your way,” explains Courtney Glashow, LCSW and psychotherapist at Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, NJ. “That’s why most companies give their workers paid time off and sick time off—they want you to take a break from work and come back as your best self.”

“Knowing you’ve planned for time off can help ease the mental anguish of unplugging for chunks of time.”

As a self-employed worker, the idea of giving yourself PTO can be a tough pill to swallow. But Glashow has a helpful strategy: figure out your target annual income, and decide on how much vacation time you’d like per year. Divide your annual target income by the balance of weeks in the year after your ideal vacation time. “I try to really take off six weeks over a calendar year,” she explains. “So when I calculate the money I want to make in a year, I’m counting the year as having 46 weeks.” Knowing you’ve planned for time off can help ease the mental anguish of unplugging for chunks of time. 

Treat Your Work Like a Job, Even If You Love What You Do

Freelancers, especially creatives, often derive much of their personal identity from their work. So there’s not only a sense of guilt that comes from not working around the clock, but sometimes a crisis of self as well.

“This is a common mindset for freelancers, but not a healthy one,” explains Glashow. “Usually, as an entrepreneur, you’re a naturally hard worker and most likely love what you do, so it could feel like working outside of ‘work hours’ is not like work at all. But everyone needs work-life balance.”

“When you’re a freelancer, there’s no one telling you when you’re working too much. You need to realize it for yourself and set your own boundaries.”

On a similar note, it’s important to recognize the difference between self-doubt and feeling guilty for not working “enough.”  “Anyone can get down on themselves and feel like they’re not being the best worker. But for freelancers, this feeling can manifest as a sense of guilt if it comes across as feeling like you’re not doing enough. “This self-doubt could feel more like guilt in which you push yourself to want to do more,” explains Glashow. “When you’re a freelancer, there’s no one telling you when you’re working too much. You need to realize it for yourself and set your own boundaries.”

To combat this, look at your work patterns and how you’re getting stuff done. Are you just in a rough patch or are you truly not managing your time well?

Make Your Work Day Work For You

Relatedly, many of these guilty feelings stem from feeling unproductive because you haven’t properly managed your time. If that sounds familiar, try rethinking your idea of time management. “I define time management as managing your energy and brain power for peak performance in everything you do,” explains Morgenstern. “The best time managers are super tuned into their energy cycles: how long they can concentrate before they glaze over, what times of day they’re best at certain tasks, that sort of thing.”

“Your value is not in the number of hours you’re willing to work, it’s in the quality of the work you create.”

For example, you might know that if you sit down to write, anything over two hours is a waste of time because you’ll lose focus, and that writing first thing in the morning is when the words flow most easily. Or maybe you know that you need to start your day with a barrage of menial but necessary tasks while you listen to the news and run some errands before sitting down to create in the afternoon. If your natural sense of productivity doesn’t align with a traditional 9-5 work day, so be it. “That’s why you became a freelancer in the first place!” reminds Morgenstern. No need to feel bad that you’re not working the standard eight to nine hours a day. “Remember: your value is not in the number of hours you’re willing to work, it’s in the quality of the work you create. That’s what’s going to keep you in business.” 

More Posts by Erin Scottberg

Erin Scottberg writes about sustainability, food, and culture. Erin’s work has appeared in Modern FarmerPopular MechanicsEsquire and more. 

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