What are you planning to do over the holiday period? Does it involve lots of drinking whilst desperately trying to still keep on top of your inbox?
For freelancers, the holiday period can be a difficult thing to navigate. You probably can’t pass your entire business over to someone else, and virtual assistants who are willing to work the whole period are hard to find (but not impossible, so that’s something to consider).
In this post I thought we’d talk about why it’s so hard to deal with the holidays as a freelancer or small business owner, and what you can do about it.
Firstly, decide whether you want to take the time off or not. Some people like to chill out throughout the festive season; others prefer to do a little work but not as much as normal; still others prefer to work through the whole thing, seeing it as a good opportunity to catch up on admin.
I’ve been freelancing for sixteen years, and in that time I’ve been all three of the above. Let’s take them one by one.
The ‘Work Through It All’ Person
If you’re one of these, you probably don’t care much about Christmas (or whichever holiday the people around you celebrate in December). However, the quiet period doesn’t need to go to waste, so instead you decide to use it to do all the stuff you’ve been putting off all year, like your accounts, and get a bit of a headstart on next year’s tasks, like your tax returns.
There are a couple of things to think about here. Firstly, make sure you’re taking some time off at some point. When I used to work through Christmas and New Year it was because I never took any time off at all, and I was desperately overworked and constantly exhausted, although I’d never have admitted that. It’s absolutely fine not to take time off when everyone else is, but do ensure that you’re looking after yourself.
Secondly, bear in mind that at some point you might want to take time off, and if your clients aren’t used to that then you may come up against some negativity. I know right now you might be thinking “What does she know? I love my job! I’ll never want a day off again!”, but trust me, it can happen. Over the years I’d become such a go-to reliable person that I felt terrible taking the shortest amount of time away from my emails until about five years ago. Nowadays I’m still reliable, but I’m also sensible. What does that mean? It means I respond to emails within a working day, but I only check my emails once per working day, and not at all at the weekends. It also means that if I am taking time off, I take the steps detailed in the final part of this article to make sure I’m being a responsible business owner but also a responsible owner of a body.
The ‘Just Do A Little Bit’ Person
This will be me over Xmas this year, because my grandparents are moving house and I want to go help them, which won’t be particularly relaxing anyway so I might as well do a bit of work while I’m there. I’m not planning on doing full eight-hour days or anything, but I am planning to do an hour or so in the morning, and to check my emails daily to see if there’s anything that needs to be attended to. I’ll also have my business phone with me in case of emergencies.
Just doing a little bit feels like a good compromise, but it’s still not really taking time off. While you may be able to drink mulled wine and sing along with The Sound of Music in the evenings, you’ll still have the knowledge that you need to work in the morning lurking in the back of your mind. It’s like that sinking feeling you get sometimes on a Sunday when you realise the next day is no longer a weekend. Do you really want that throughout the whole holiday period?
The ‘Chilling Out The Whole Time’ Person
The reason I’m working over Xmas this year is because I’m going away for a week in January. I won’t be checking emails and I won’t be doing any work at all. However, I do still run a business that doesn’t have a second-in-command, so I do need a contingency plan in case any of my clients have genuine emergencies.
There are a few things I’ll be doing to make sure things can run smoothly while I’m away.
Talk to clients upfront.
For clients I’ve been working with for a long time, I feel a level of professional courtesy is required. Although ultimately it’s my decision when I go away and for how long, and they’re not my bosses so don’t technically have a say in this, I feel it’s a nice gesture to let them know well in advance and check I’m not accidentally planning a trip away during their busiest week.
Recently acquired clients are a different ballgame, because they tend to be a bit more demanding until they’ve worked out that they can feel secure. So I don’t ask them if they mind if I can take X week off, but I do tell them well in advance. All my clients know I’m going away in mid-January already. They also know what will happen with their projects while I’m away, and what to do if something goes wrong.
Set an auto-responder.
Obviously. Remember to include the dates you’ll be away, and what you’ll be doing with your emails upon your return. In mine, I ask people to resend any important emails with the word ‘IMPORTANT’ in the subject line, so I know to deal with them straight away when I’m back.
Although you might not have a second-in-command who can do all your work for you and deal with your clients’ questions while you’re away, you probably know at least one or two people in your industry whom you’d trust to do a good job. Stick their names in your auto-responder with a recommendation that new clients should go to them with urgent business. My catsitter did this a couple of years ago and I was so grateful. The easiest way is to write something like this:
I will be out of the office from [day / month] until [day / month] and will not have access to emails. If your query is important, please resend your message with this clearly marked in the subject line and I will prioritise it when I return.
If you require [proofreading / graphic design / whatever it is you do] services urgently, I recommend My Friend (firstname.lastname@example.org) or personimetatanetworkingeventlastyear .com.
For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT PUT A CONTACT NUMBER IN YOUR AUTO-RESPONDER.
By all means give your number to your most trusted clients who pay your rent the most frequently, and tell them they can contact you in a genuine emergency. Hopefully you’ll have been working together long enough that they won’t abuse this privilege. I’ve been lucky with this so far.
Your other clients – the ones with those little projects for which they never quite manage to pay you on time, or the potential future ones – aren’t going to treat you with the same respect. A lot of them will decide their question is urgent and does need your full attention even when you’re trying to chill out on a beach in Malaga.
Well, fuck that shit.
Freelancing is hard. It’s hard because it feels like you can’t take time off, because whatifwhatifwhatif. And it’s true that you need to be fairly dedicated in order to run your own business, but that doesn’t mean you need to put your health and wellbeing in danger. So talk to your clients, set your auto-responder, leave your laptop at home, and go chill out.
Do you have any tips for other freelancers? How do you ensure you take enough time off? Leave a comment below!