taking time off as a freelancer

In the first year of my freelance life, I took maybe five days off.

That’s atrocious, isn’t it?

I hated it and I didn’t want it to be that way, but I didn’t have a plan to help me do anything else. I kept telling myself that I’d take a break in a quiet period, but then constantly chase new work because I was terrified I’d never find another client and it’d all blow up in my face.

I was stuck. I was tired, so tired. I needed things to change.

What's in this post

the old way

When my freelance career started in September 2020, my holiday plan looked something like:

  • Have a few clients and/or projects.
  • Expect a slow down to happen, so I can then take a break.
  • Anxiously look for more work in case nobody ever hires me.
  • Get more work.
  • Ad infinitum.

As I touched on already, this approach delivered an utterly unhealthy ~five days off in a calendar year. Don’t even feel sorry for me, that was all my own miserable doing.

the new way

I knew that I needed change, so I went rummaging behind the sofa cushions. I leaned on my partner’s experience as a freelancer and took inspiration from (copied) her approach to setting holidays.

I’ll share the basic structure below, then get into the details afterwards.

  • I take one week off for every 6-8 weeks that I work.
  • I take two weeks off in the summer and two weeks off at Christmas.
  • I work on Bank Holidays.
  • I plan my holiday schedule a year in advance.
  • My total time off per year is around 45 working days.

I’ve written an accidental manifesto about overwork elsewhere on this website, so if you’re after a little radicalisation, head there.

working out not working

I get this feeling after about five straight weeks of work. Kind of blurry, heavy. My eyes get tired, my brain gets itchy, my soul gets a bit crotchety.

Sure as I’ll ever be, that’s the sign that I need a break.

In full-time work, that would usually mean taking a precious day out of my allotted holiday allowance to make a long weekend. In freelance life, those rules don’t apply. Why bother taking a day off when I can take a week and really, fully, beautifully recharge? The default under somebody else’s rules sucked. Now that I’m the boss, I can rewrite them. So I have.

This schedule keeps me feeling relatively good, happy, and fresh—in myself and in my work. It’s to everybody’s benefit.

On top of these one-week breaks, I take a fortnight summer holiday (usually around my birthday) and the same at Christmas. Mostly because I can and because a longer break feels excellent.

And a quick note on Bank Holidays: I work them. It’s just a personal preference—partly borne from the fact I have a good holiday schedule set up without them and partly because I have international clients for whom they don’t apply.

planning it out in advance

This is the thing that really changed how I handle taking time off.

Every year, usually in November, I plan out every week off for the next calendar year.

It’s worth stating here that I don’t plan what I’m doing at this point. I’m not booking 10 flights and hotels in advance, I’m just blocking out that time in my calendar (literally—with a week-long event). I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I know I won’t be working.

I know that I’ll take two weeks around Christmas off, usually breaking close to the 25th and return later in January. As a result, I know that my first week off for the year should happen around mid- to late-Feb. It all follows sequentially from there.

The weeks end up shifting and changing as I go, depending on what comes up—social events, travel, the great unexpected mush of life.

The dates themselves are flexible, but their existence is not. Planning them out, writing them down, and committing to them is what matters to me.

how it works with clients

I give clients several weeks’ notice ahead of each break and we either front-load some work to cover the break or we just skip a week.

This is pretty client-dependent, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. To set this in a bit of context, at the time of writing, my current client roster and our approach is:

  • Client 1 (podcast repurposing and promotion): double up my workload for the week and get it done in advance.
  • Client 2 (copywriting retainer): variable workload, so I make sure to ask for any time-bound tasks well in advance.
  • Client 3 (content writing retainer): skip a week or double-up the week before if there’s a deadline to meet.
  • Client 4 (ghostwriting): we’re usually a couple of weeks ahead in our planning, so a week off doesn’t cause an issue.

It’s all accounted for in our contracts and my income isn’t affected too much. I’ll only lose income from clients like Client 3, who pay me per day. Otherwise, clients pay me based on outputs rather than time (e.g. Client 1 and 4) or it’s a natural part of our agreement (Client 2).

I share my holiday schedule on my website and link it in my email signature. In my mind, this keeps it top of everybody else’s mind! This keeps me accountable and means there are are fewer surprises when I send the email saying “three weeks from now, I won’t be working.”

ready to take a break?

Then take it, pal. Nobody’s going to do it for you. There’s no HR portal waiting for you, no line manager providing a nudge, no bean counters making sure you take a legally and financially agreeable amount of days off before April.

It’s on you.

You don’t have to do exactly as I’ve done. It might not work for you. That being the case, it’s on you to find a system that works for you.

To summarise all of the above:

  • In November, I work out my holiday schedule for the coming year.
  • As the months go by, dates can move around, but I try to respect the principle that I work no more than 8 weeks without a break.
  • Clients have always been cool with it, partly because I keep them aware of it (regular reminders and repetition) and also because I make sure our work isn’t interrupted.

The important thing is that I make this commitment to myself—publicly and consistently. It’s on my website, in my email signature, in my own calendar. It’s this that has stopped me from pushing my breaks back and back and back for that mystical time in the future when it’s just right.

Want to ask about any specifics or need something clarified? Tap the button below and I’ll try my best to help.

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