The Importance of Time Off

Our Wedding

When I got halfway through planning my wedding I had the great idea to take the entirety of September off, as our wedding was on the 10th. That way, I would give myself, and my clients, enough time to prepare for my departure the entirety of September.

The plan, didn’t go to plan, instead I ended up probably the most stressed out I have ever been in my life, I would go as far to say I was on the verge of a meltdown, I wasn’t coping with everyday tasks such as doing the washing or making decisions about dinner, I was crying all the time and simply because my job was causing more stress than I ever imagined possible.

It actually wasn’t my job, it boiled down to two clients, the rest were being absolutely brilliant. My friends Colly and Dan Rubin, gave me some great advice and enabled me to see things a lot clearer, I had to be firmer and perhaps have some awkward conversations with the clients in question, but doing nothing wasn’t an option. I completely played down to everyone at that time just how bad things had got in my head, probably even to Colly and Dan, but at home, my poor husband-to-be had to one day deal with a proper girly meltdown, while I was holding a very large kitchen knife, chopping a carrot, and wailing about an HTML/CSS problem that I was finding hard to solve but normally would have done in two seconds. Looking back on it, it was pretty funny actually but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, after being away for a month with surprisingly little fallout, I thought I’d share a few things that calmed me down and have since sorted me out, being away for a long time gave me real perspective to see what was stressing me out in my work life and what I could do in the future to prevent me from having another meltdown.

  • Tell clients far in advance when you are going away. By far in advance I mean, like by a month, or more if you can. I gave mine 3 weeks notice and was still dealing with tons of last minute requests.
  • Keep a clean and tidy workspace. Seems simple but before the wedding, my workspace was cluttered with various things but “clutter” was just what it was, it’s hard when you work from home to keep that line between the two things clean, but ultimately, it will stress you out if your working environment isn’t in order (which mine still isn’t, a job for tomorrow!)
  • There is such a thing as being too connected. While I was in America I had an AT&T sim, I replaced my o2 sim card with the American one and in an instant, all my ties and worries to England were cut and there was nothing anyone could do about it, it was my honeymoon after all. I then began to realise, back home I have the office line, Skype, Adium, Twitter, my mobile and Facebook chat (in Adium) to contend with, this is far to much distraction in one place. Before I left, my clients had multiple channels upon which to get me, just having the dings, pings and bongs every 5 minutes was stressing me out. I’ll be limiting myself in the future and might even go as far as to change my mobile, as on a personal front, my mobile is now getting spammed with various call centres and SMS’s in the middle of the night.
  • Have the realisation, nothing is that important. I made a deal with myself that nothing and no one was going to ruin the week before my wedding, I plan to be married for life and therefore this would be my only opportunity to enjoy the build up. In my head I went as far as saying I would happily loose the clients that were causing me stress in a barter for one of the most important times of my life. When my Grandfather passed away and I took a week off work (bearing in mind, I normally work 50 weeks a year!) a client decided to tell me exactly what they thought of me taking time off – that person is no longer a client. Realise that some things should always come first and are far more important.
  • Plan and schedule for when you come back. So everyone dreads the post holiday inbox huh? I’ll admit, I had my iPad on me and free Wi-Fi in every hotel we visited, I was checking my emails as I went along but left them all for downloading when I was back. I switched the iMac on and I had 1008 messages from nearly 20 days away, not too bad. Out of that 1008 messages, 71 need responding to. Holiday inboxes are not as bad as you think.Before I left, I also made a note of anyone that contacted me recently and needed responding to when I got back, I had so much faith in myself that “I would remember” but ultimately, now I’m back, I haven’t and it has saved me time and stress trawling back on email conversations. I just made a note in “The Hit List” and now have a tidy list to refer back to, complete with email addresses. I also scheduled all my work in iCal from the 4th of October to give myself two days to readjust to the time difference, sort emails and admin tasks before starting work again.
  • Take time off. If I go downstairs and turn the TV on in the middle of the day, I feel like a naughty school girl bunking off school, I am always at my desk, morning noon and often, nights. Being away for a month has made me realise that as long as I get my work done, I need to give myself more of a normal work/life balance, walk the dog daily, get fresh air and not have a rigid 9-5 timetable when I’m more than likely working 3-4 hours in the evening too, but above all – to not feel guilty about taking time off as in this creative industry, you really do need time away from the screen to find inspiration in everyday life, and also feel like a human being and not a machine.

I think I’ve just summed it all up myself, I had started to feel like a creative machine rather than Sarah and thankfully had the realisation myself before it got too bad.

I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have a month long holiday, for whatever reason, so I hope me writing down what helped me, will also help you, one day.

NB. I am fully sane, blissfully de-stressed, back to my former self and accepting work from Mid-November January.
(that’s a whole other blog post!)

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  • First off – congrats on getting married!

    Second – great points about taking time off. We all need to recharge our batteries otherwise we are just constantly running low and that affects everything: our work, personal lives etc.

  • Case in point: I was at the doctors today (finally) due to my feeling knackered all the time even when getting 10 hours a sleep at night. The nice Doctor said she’d run blood tests but after talking to me realised I was too stressed, left to little time for exercise and eating properly and I drank to much coffee.

    Work to live and though you love it don’t let it rule you. Remember your health and happiness not only are sacrosanct but also feed back into your work.

    @Prydie

  • Always amazes me how some people think this is a ‘cushy’ job when so many of us are teetering on this kind of meltdown.

    Totally agree that nothing is *that* important that it should come before the people and events in your life that really matter… and feeling guilty about taking half an hour to watch crap on TV in a 10+ hour work day is a feeling I know too well, it’s nuts but that CSS glitch is always nagging at my brain…

  • A few years ago – when the business was just me – a client rang my mobile and proceeded to talk about non-urgent things in the middle of Sunday dinner for half an hour. Since then no client has had my mobile number and we have a PA who is very good at getting the important calls to us by whatever means and taking messages for the not so important ones so we can get back at a more convenient time.

    I also don’t use IM, Skype etc. with clients unless it is an agreed “meeting” when I’m working on their project (and have different IM addresses for that to personal ones), As a developer it completely destroys any hope of productivity to be constantly disturbed and I can’t schedule time on projects accurately if I allow myself to leap into something completely different every time someone wants to ask a question.

    Define with clients how and when you are contactable, as part of the contract if need be. Those that don’t respect you have other clients/a life/need to sleep etc. are probably not great clients to have anyway.

  • Tim

    It’s worth reviewing your clients – typically the ones who produce the most stress and act unreasonably are the ones who pay less and take up more time than the others. It’s a win win situation to ‘remove’ these clients, focus on your others and remove a big part of your stress!

    Providing you give clients notice (i.e. if it’s a vacation), or simply drop them an email if something unexpected has come up (i.e. family bereavement, illness), any reasonable client will be fine with this – after all, we’re only human, and sometimes the unexpected happens.

    If you haven’t already, I’d really recommend taking a read of The Four Hour Work Week – I picked up the tip about clients from that, which has made a *huge* difference to my work. It also taught me that I don’t need to be working 9 – 5 if there’s nothing to do (although when I started freelancing, having a structure certainly helped, I now realise that I can work at certain times and still produce the work required).

  • Rebecca

    Excellent entry. Thanks for this, Sarah.

  • Great article, glad things got sorted in the end. Life really is too short, but it is very hard to strike the balance between working hard and being successful, but also when to let go and be a human being!

    Glad things are back on track.

    Gav

  • Congratulations on getting married Sarah! 🙂

    Really good article too. It feels like you have really poured your heart out. Excellent advice.

  • Great advice Sarah – it’s so important to take some downtime, but it’s incredibly easy to neglect.

    “Nothing is that important” – so true. A little perspective can change your entire outlook. Some things in life are truly important, others not so.

  • It’s a true enough story and one that most people involved in design, it etc could relate to. Change the names and it’s pretty much the same we’ve all experienced at some point.

    One thing about working in our industry is we’re not taught how to manage these things, i.e everyday life – working stupid hours seems like the norm but really it creates a viscous circle: work a 14 hour day + tired the next day = working an even longer day. Repeat. We only deal with it when the s**t hits the fan and we’re at the crisis point (well that’s what I found anyway!). Think the most important point of what you covered “Have the realisation, nothing is that important” That’s so true, but generally you only remember that when something amazing happens like getting married (well it did for me) or something bad happens that doesn’t involve work. Having other interests outside of work help me to achieve the balance, in my case walking mountains which is so far removed from my everyday work life (and there’s usually no internet / phone signal which is fantastic).

  • Raised some really good and important points here. I’m not a freelancer or have my own clients, but working full time as a designer I’ve been on the brink of meltdown a few times and regularly get pretty badly ill because of stress!

    Nothing is more important than your own wellbeing and we all need to learn to take better care of ourselves.

    Congrats on the wedding too!

  • So much respect to you for baring all about the meltdown. I think you’ve probably comforted a lot of us who often feel the same.

    It’s hard to schedule work in as a freelancer, I think there’s very few of us that haven’t had some meltdown moments and your tips are really good advice.

    Totally agree with Rachel on not using Skype or any kind of IM. I try to make my clients put all requests through e-mail so I have an easily-found written record. This stops the annoying phone calls when you’re trying to concentrate on something else and the mindless weather chat that seems to come with Skype and other IMs!

  • Sarah,

    Congratulations on getting married!

    I admire most of you who keep all channels open for communication (email, phone, mobile, Skype, Twitter, etc.) and still get the work done. How do you do it? I couldn’t achieve a thing if I were to respond to them all immediately. My clients contact me by email or leave messages on my answering machine. My mornings are the most productive as I check my email during/after lunch. When the stress caused by multi-tasking is down to near zero, the productivity is at its peak.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, Sarah. Congrats on the wedding too.

  • Hey Sarah,

    Congrats on the wedding!

    My favourite from the post was

    1. tidy desk space
    2. plan for when you return – that way your not planning in your head while your away

    I also recognise another face in that pic 🙂

  • John

    Hi, great post.

    I had a holiday recently and being a freelancer it caused unimaginable stress before setting off. The problem I have is that I am always trying to please clients and very rarely say no (even if I know I will regret saying yes!).

    If worked for an agency I would have to give at least a months notice to have some leave so your completely right when you say give as much notice to clients as possible.

    As for nightmare clients, I had one client who kept calling me whilst I was away, in the end I told them where to get off. If there worth anything they will understand.

    Take it easy.

  • Hi Sarah,

    First of all, so nice to find you! I was looking at my site analytics and noticed I was featured in a purple site gallery along with yours (well, your old site).

    Sounds like I could of written this post. I was also married Sep 1st – and also took a month off for for an American road trip honeymoon.

    I totally underestimated the time that would go into the wedding planning, and because I was planning to not work for about 2 months, I took more work than usual to earn enough to afford the break. Turns out it was futile.

    EVERYTHING went wrong (with those clients). I was so stressed and overwhelmed. 2 of my clients didn’t pay the final deposit despite a signed contract – which usually is enough to protect me – and despite me fulfilling my obligation and also haunted me with antics during the honeymoon.

    I came to all the same conclusions. I had to let it go and enjoy MY TIME. It’s hard to let go of the emotional upset they gave me, but I’m working on rising above it.

    Thankfully our wedding was beyond my expectations and was absolutely perfect 🙂

    I came back to reality Oct 12th and still haven’t taken a new project yet. And seriously re-thinking and re-vamping my business.

    I’m looking to learn more about iPhone / iPad app design. If you have a moment, maybe you could just email a few good resources where I should get started. I’m all the way in Israel, so I feel a bit isolated from the good conferences.

    Also need to learn mobile versions of sites, I thought of using mobify.me for that?

    Keep up the great work!

  • Hiep

    The groom is a lucky guy. 🙂