Work-life balance is a problem for many people. Not just freelancers, either—anyone who works in a job that involves some kind of thinking is tempted to take work home with them. I suppose that maintaining a good balance is one of the benefits to menial shift work.
But freelancers have it worst. Without an employer, our income is more dependent on performance than any corporate employee’s income. And for the vast majority of us, there’s no real distinction between our home life and our work life, because our work life happens at home.
Here’s the thing that we lose sight of: becoming a workaholic does not improve your bottom-line or productivity.
When you work every day, all day, with no time set aside for living life, you just get more stressed. You lose sight of reality. You get out of touch with creativity, which is just as important for producing quality work as it is for innovating in business. You take much longer to do things and you get so exhausted that you sit there looking at the screen for hours.
There are no benefits to living a workaholic lifestyle. Let me emphasize that:
I have struggled with this problem for years. I’ve since solved it and struck a balance I’m happy with, but it plagued my family life and my stress levels for much longer than I’m proud to admit.
As you probably know from experience, it can be a hard problem to solve. You try and try, but keep falling back on old habits and working each day until 2am.
How do you solve it? It comes down to firewalling.
Firewall by Time and Day
The first thing you need to do is determine when you will work, and only work during those hours. If work spills over, you need to have the self-discipline to say, “I can pick this up in the morning.”
The most common objection to this idea is that emergencies are constantly coming up. If emergencies are constantly cropping up, you need to do one of two things:
- Improve your personal productivity and get your act together.
- Manage your clients better—emergencies suddenly crop up less often when they know your boundaries.
The truth is that for most people, the first problem is the real problem. Worse still, most people with the first problem use the excuse that it’s the second problem. Next time you find yourself cursing a client for throwing you into a midnight spin, ask yourself: is this really their fault, or did I manage this poorly?
Firewall by Location
When your home and professional life occur in the same place, it is absolutely essential to firewall by location. You need to keep personal and professional locations totally separate.
If you live in a studio apartment or some other one-room accommodation, this isn’t impossible. You just have to learn to firewall without actual walls: pick a corner, stick your desk there, and refuse to go near it when you’re not working.
Similarly, you need to define areas where work can’t take place, such as the living room and the bedroom. Some people say they work best in the bedroom (no, your dirty buggers, I didn’t mean it like that), and that’s fine—just make sure there is somewhere in your home you can be work-free. Though I’m willing to bet people who say they work best in the bedroom have poor work-life balance!
If you feel the need to get away from your desk, don’t take your laptop over to the couch. Go be a hipster and hang out at the café, or if you don’t need free café wifi, go sit on a bench in the park or at the beach.
Just don’t get sand in your keyboard.
Firewall Your Communication
If you’ve read my work for long elsewhere, you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about this. If you need to get work done, I always say, firewall your incoming communication channels.
Well, I’m not talking about that right now; I’m talking about when you don’t want to getanything done! If you’re not working, you still need to firewall your communication lines in case you end up working when you shouldn’t be.
If you have been clever enough to separate your personal and professional communication lines, just turn the business phone and cell off. Sign out of business email. If they’re combined, you may just have to do some dodging and let the phone ring out. I use the same cell for everything, so it can be difficult to do.
Money Isn’t Everything
I know that my problem with work-life balance ultimately came from the desire to earn more income. I loved the fact I could support my family, but I wanted to go further and be able to take them out for the day without worrying about cash, or buy them a plasma TV. Okay, that wasn’t for them.
I recently made a move that significantly reduced my income. But you know what? I’m happier, and I enjoy the money I do have more. And the things I bought when I was making more money? I’m enjoying them more, too!
Be careful of falling into the trap of sacrificing your life for more money. If you want to make more than you’re making, find a way to do it without making that sacrifice or there’s just no point to having the extra cash to begin with.
What Constitutes Balance?
What is balance? How much time needs to be set aside for work and how much time needs to be reserved for yourself?
It’s really an individual thing and it comes down to a variety of factors. How much do you need to rest to become optimally productive for the week that follows? Personally, I need a day. Some need two. Some need a day every two weeks, but don’t ask me how they do it.
There are other factors—how much time does you family need from you? Can you meld your personal relaxation time in with family time, or do you need to separate them? Do you have a choice anyway?
Decide what you need to recharge your batteries, and be honest. The temptation is to underestimate it. But if you underestimate it, you’re not doing your clients a favor, because you’ll just be sending them worse work.