Converting time into money is a good thing, right? That is, after all, the basic premise of a job?
Unfortunately, it comes with a few complications. I am writing this article on a vacation where I promised myself I would go offline. However, it’s also a stressful vacation for a variety of reasons (well, just one—family), and I thought I would ease my anxiety by generating some income to show for an overall tough experience. My reasoning was this: if I’m not going to have fun, I may as well be productive.
Our Overworked Nation
None of that is unique to freelancing, and it’s far more representative of my own workaholism. Or our culture’s—61% of all Americans feel guilty taking time off work. Furthermore, 52% of Americans report working over 40 hours per week, which is horrifying, because even 40 hours seems like 38 hours too many.
What is unique to freelancing is the idea that every hour you work connects directly to a dollar earned. On this particular vacation, I figured that I’d make up for my aunt informing me about my waning fertility (I’m a woman in my thirties…bummer no one ever mentioned that to me before…) by making some money to put into a nice massage after. It wasn’t a bad idea, all things considered. The issue becomes when every hour of non-work becomes a negotiation—when I can’t stop mentally calculating how much my free time is costing me.
Of course, I don’t have an infinite ability to convert hours to money. Still, during boom periods, I often have clients who would like me to bill more hours. I’m very grateful, of course—this is something I worked towards for years, the ability to make money when I need it. But it wreaks havoc on my mental health when I can’t enjoy time off because I’m considering how much income I’m missing out on.
Many freelancers agreed with me. According to an informal Twitter poll of 473 people, 54% of freelancers often mentally convert their free time into dollars lost, and only 23% never did. Freelancers said they think of big expenses in terms of day rate, and use these calculations to decide if they should pay someone to do other tasks for them. I understand the efficiency gains, but to be honest, it makes my head spin.
To combat this, I set specific hours. I’ve recommended this many times before, and I think it’s so key. Freelancers don’t need to work standard 9-5 hours, but I strongly recommend they work hours they choose in advance. Hours can be chosen even just the day before—it’s okay to take advantage of the flexibility freelance offers. But if you never choose your work hours, all your hours become work hours. It’s okay to commit to 12-hour days during a heavy week, but don’t let those turn into sixteen hour days.
Focusing on the positives can help freelancers keep to their set hours. “Instead of focusing on the lost hours, focus on the ‘return on investment”’for taking a day or two away,” says Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.”Time away from the job pays off in a clearer head, a renewed sense of purpose, and better overall wellbeing. Working 24/7 nonstop, even when you’re your own boss, takes a toll on your health, your stress tolerance, and your perspective.”
I also try not to be too hard on myself for breaking my own rules. This cuts both ways—sometimes I’m burnt out and only have a few hours in me on any given day, before I need to cash in on that massage. Other times, I’m feeling a financial crunch and want to take on extra hours. I bought a condo this past year, and it feels like everything inside of it broke. Everything. Every single thing. In reality, two things broke, and the total cost was well within the range of what people told me to expect out of a new apartment, but I accidentally spent all my money on the apartment itself (oops). It was nice to be able to take on new projects to pay for repairs, which is what I needed to relax. So, when I can’t work the hours I set , I cut myself a break. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…
Cutting Yourself A Break
Setting hours is only one hack that doesn’t solve the larger problem: associating yourself with your productivity. Any time I’m lazy for an entire afternoon, I congratulate myself on breaking my capitalistic addiction to productivity. But that doesn’t always keep the guilt at bay. It’s the nature of our over-connected world that there’s always more you can do. Even if you don’t have a job right now, you can always find a potential client to email. There’s always someone else to email. The number of total email addresses is infinite. This is a fact.
I probably can’t convince you in this short column that you don’t need to be productive every second of every day. And I can’t compel you to remember that “life is short,” because that’s relatively useless advice—life is also the longest thing any of us have ever personally experienced. All I can remind you to do is give yourself a break sometimes. And I don’t mean a vacation with a prying aunt—I mean an actual break.