How I Escaped a Toxic Relationship with Email

In the broadcast industry, communication is key to getting the job done. I was a multimedia journalist fresh out of college, and took pride in my ability to answer emails quickly. Within minutes of receiving a timely message, I would shoot back a reply. In the mornings, when messages flooded my inbox from the night before, I would apologize for not responding sooner.

Although my work hours varied, I never checked my professional email at home.

I was on top of my email. I had it under control.

And then I became a freelance writer.  

The myth of freelancing isn’t all a myth. I have a great deal of control over my schedule. If I want to take a day off in the middle of the week, I’ll spend the following Saturday at my desk. I bring Clive, my black Lab, to the dog park every morning. If I need a break from a grueling project in the afternoon, I’ll hit the gym or a trail. I can always work later to make up for lost time.

That flexibility comes at a price. The less structured my day is, the more I feel compelled to work around the clock. Until recently, I would check my email during every waking hour. I wanted to be available for my clients, many of whom are in Europe or on the West Coast. Different time zones? No problem.

Late one night, I woke up to a thunderstorm and spent the next hour sprawled out in bed with my phone, replying to a work email I’d received. It turned out my client was online too, and we spent the next hour discussing a project while the lightening struck outside.

It was 3 o’clock in the morning.

Professional emails consumed me. I would communicate with clients at the grocery store, at restaurants on special occasions. Once in the dark hallway of a movie theater while a Tom Hanks drama played in the next room. I can tell you which Glacier National Park trails have decent AT&T reception, because I’ve responded to work emails on some of them. I figured that when you work remotely, people tend to think you’re glued to your computer.

I'd convinced myself I needed to be available 24/7.

And I resented it.

Little did I know that I was perpetuating this freelancing myth. No one was forcing me to be responsive at all times — I had put myself in that position. So I decided to leave my toxic relationship with email and start a healthy one. Here’s how I pulled it off:

· I informed my clients that I would check my email sparingly on weekends, if at all.

To be productive, I need to unplug after work hours. Now I only check my email once or twice on weekend days, and rarely respond to messages until Monday. If the request is timely or urgent — or if it’s simple and I’m at my computer anyway — I’ll send a quick reply, and in some cases a reminder that I’ll be available during the workweek if the client needs anything else.

· When I work late, I’ll draft emails that I can send in the morning.

When an idea strikes, or I’ve articulated the perfect reply to an email late at night, I’ll save the message as a draft and send it in the morning. This practice is efficient, and shows clients that I am responsive during work hours in my time zone. Offering a certain degree of flexibility is important, but I no longer feel comfortable putting my sleepless nights on display.

· I am getting over my compulsion to achieve Inbox Zero.

Unplugging for several hours each day is more important to me than achieving Inbox Zero. The term, coined by productivity expert Merlin Mann, refers to the practice of eliminating unread messages from your email. I used to be a big proponent of this, and kept a clutter-free inbox for years.

Eventually, I got overwhelmed and went searching for a new system. I’ve since discovered a happy middle ground where I can check my email periodically throughout the workday. Seeing those red numbers flash on the Mail icon hurts a little bit, but I like to think I’m stronger than my inbox.

Taking Time Off in the Gig Economy

On March 15, I stepped away from my freelance copywriting and editorial business for a full week. I declined new projects, turned off my computer, and took a non-working vacation for the first time since college. On the plane, rather than yanking down my tray table and tracking changes on a client’s manuscript, I flipped through an old paperback and took a nap at 30,000 feet.

I’d forgotten how good it feels to relax on vacation.

Like many of the 55 million freelancers in the U.S., I quit a high-stress job and figured I’d enjoy a few months of self-employment while I looked for my next gig. Then, when the offers came in, I realized that I enjoyed the freelance lifestyle too much to reenter the traditional workforce.

I appreciate the variety of projects that come my way, and am fortunate to have a band of loyal clients whom I can count on for regular work. The problem, for me, is that without a traditional job, I don’t have access to traditional benefits.

When I go on vacation, I don’t get paid time off. Until recently, I wouldn’t even take time off. During my first year as a full-time freelancer, I accepted every project that was offered to me. I ploughed through last-minute weekend requests, and responded to emails within minutes of receipt. (I used to work as a broadcast reporter, and timely communication was crucial to the station’s success.) For a while, I worked through illness as well — until I discovered the quality of my work suffered with a fever. 

Basically, I worried that I would lose my clients if I turned down projects every now and then. In 2015, I spent Christmas Day editing the rough draft of a Russian political document at my parents’ place. Last year, I flew to San Francisco with five deadlines to meet before my return. I’ve worked multiple 14-hour days to tackle expedited turnarounds, and felt my eyes glaze over at my computer. I’m embarrassed to admit that once, while living in Montana, I brought my laptop with me on a short hike, and polished a nurse’s resume in Glacier National Park.

How could I possibly take time off in the gig economy?

Here’s what I’ve found:

Make small changes.

After a series of seven-day workweeks, I told myself I would start taking weekends off. I informed my clients of the change, and the vast majority of them have been very respectful of my need for downtime. They know I’m more productive after a few days of rest, and give me the space I need to recharge. In putting my foot down, I’ve discovered how much happier I am when I separate work from my personal life.

Keep regular hours.

Admittedly, I have yet to master my schedule. Typically, I work Monday through Friday, from about 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. — with plenty of breaks in between. From walking my Labrador puppy, to preparing meals, I balance a number of tasks with my freelance work. Short breaks help me clear my head, and I welcome them when I’m feeling bogged down with projects. In an ideal world, however, I would work six- to eight-hour days (including communication and billing) with about two 30-minute breaks thrown in.

Set aside money.

Freelance work truly is feast or famine. Some weeks I’m overbooked, while others — about once every three months or so — I have maybe 20 percent of what I normally take on. My workload is cyclical, I’ve learned, and I have to accept the unpredictable nature of freelance writing to succeed in my field. To cope with a dry spell, I have funds stashed away so I can spend slow days unwinding instead of worrying about my finances. (This is easier said than done, of course. I’m inherently frugal, however, and very fortunate to have no debt.)

Ultimately, in the gig economy, success shouldn’t drive freelancers to work more. Rather, it should motivate us to work harder, so we can take more time off and become more productive in the long run. I decided to give this a shot when I disconnected for seven days. This non-working vacation brought to mind the things I love about my job, and reminded me of why work-life balance is so important to gig workers’ well-being.