Arkham (Staying Sane)

Writing R&R

Tonks in a suitcase

When was the last time you took time off from work? Not a sick day or a quick run to an appointment, either. And I don’t count lounging around the house (staycations may be in vogue due to the pandemic, but I’m leaving them out of the mix) I’m talking about something involving a packed bag and leaving the house; arrangements for someone to scoop up your mail. THAT kind of time off. The sort of vacation (or mini vacation, even) people usually live for – if you believe the hype, anyway.

So, again, when was that last time off from work?

If you work a standard 9-5 job, possibly whenever the last national holiday offered a three-day weekend. Since offices close, it’s easy to make arrangements to jaunt SOMEWHERE. You and everyone else who enjoys that kind of regimented schedule. Calendars come pre-printed with the notice that you can expect such time off. Maybe you even start to count down in anticipation of making a break for the mountains or beach.

But freelancers don’t have that schedule. Not unless we decide to set it up, anyway. While clients frequently take those holidays, they don’t always assume WE will. (And if you’re behind on your work, you probably won’t get the luxury) It’s the catch-22 of managing your own schedule. You CAN decide to work whatever days and hours you want. But if you aren’t accomplishing what you need to, you’ll find yourself putting in weekends and evenings. (Or mornings – whatever happens to be the OPPOSITE of your chosen system) And if you’re not careful, you’ll turn into a slave to your work.

“Time off” goes out the window.

Or you could approach things the way I did and really land yourself in hot water. In my previous positions, “holidays” were nebulous concepts. Sure, they showed up on the calendar: as special shifts. Our names went into a hat and were drawn to work. And we DID receive time-and-a-half, but that’s all that stood out. We still reported for work while other people made plans for their time off. My brain held this hard-wiring that work happens – regardless of what the calendar says. So when I started freelancing, I didn’t change my thinking.

Talk about a BAD idea. I sat down to churn out words while everyone else enjoyed a break from their duties. Churning out research and articles, I drained my energy over and over again. My husband would raise an eyebrow and ask why I wasn’t taking the day off. All I could say was I needed to work. Except I didn’t – not really. I wasn’t behind on any assignments. It was nothing more than old programming, encouraging me to sit at the desk and “knuckle down.”

I was convinced I couldn’t take time off.

The thing with writing, though, is no one will GIVE you a break. That falls on your shoulders. And if you don’t sit down with your calendar and build in your vacations and “lazy days,” you don’t get them. You can literally end up working 365 days if you’re not careful. (Or even 260 days) Admirable, maybe, but no one’s going to sign a contract for “holiday pay.” You’re going to invest all of that extra time and effort for…well, a lot of exhaustion. And that’s NOT worth it. (Trust me on that score)

About mid-way through last year (okay, this year), I realized I needed to learn the “time off” concept. I started small: whenever my husband had a day off, I took the same day. (For the record, there are an INSANE number of federal holidays…at least to someone who’s never taken a holiday before) We didn’t usually go anywhere, but stepping away from my desk gave me a chance to relax. And it meant time to get yardwork finished, focus on projects around the house, or fall asleep on the couch. Then came that monumental vacation this summer.

An entire FIVE DAYS without work?!

I thought he’d lost his mind for the suggestion. Except my brain and body appreciated the time off. I returned to work energized and ready to tackle my stack of projects. I had a pile of new ideas to implement. And I felt like a new person. All from setting an Out of Office message and refusing to touch my work email. Why in the world had I felt so queasy about the concept? And when could I schedule the next break?

Of course, I then proceeded to fall “off the wagon” within a month. Work took the wheel. When I wrote out my schedule for this month, I forgot to block off time for our mini vacation. Then I left out time off for Thanksgiving. I had to backtrack and fill in the gaps – and feel stressed about redoing my work schedule. It’s not something you want to do to yourself. So planning ahead for your time away, when you’re a freelancer, is key. It helps YOUR life run smoothly. (Not to mention keeping your clients in the loop)

So I made myself sit down with December’s calendar and have a long conversation. It’s a big holiday time. No, we didn’t have any plans. But did it make sense for me to pile on work up to the “final countdown?” Not really. I talked with my mentor, and – as it turns out – most companies don’t work down to the wire. They start to relax as the calendar year winds down. So why shouldn’t I do the same? I could spend time with my family, start thinking of my OTHER writing, or simply veg out on the couch with towering pile of books.

Much as my hand shook, I blocked the final week off my schedule.

Time off is crucial to EVERY aspect of your health. It keeps you sane (always important). But it also enhances your physical well-being. Writers need time AWAY from the keyboard. Even if it’s a brief three-day trip somewhere. Stretch your arms and legs and look at something besides the monitor. It’ll do your brain (and eyeballs) some good. Besides, you never know what new ideas you might stumble on while you’re sitting on a porch with tea (or coffee) or strolling through falling leaves. Time off doesn’t mean your creative brain suddenly turns itself off!

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