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.