When you're self-employed, taking time off can be an unusual experience - on the one hand, you've effectively got 'unlimited' time off, being able to take a break whenever you wish, however on the other - none of that time is paid and when you can take that time off is often driven by others: when projects are finishing, when clients are away, when school holidays happen.
Despite the top reason for people choosing to go freelance being more control, it's not uncommon for people to feel out of control at times, especially when trying to take much needed rest.
One of the techniques we recommend is writing a Holiday Policy.
A Holiday Policy comes in four parts:
1/ Minimum Time Off
2/ Maximum Time Working
3/ Boundary Setting
4/ Holiday Support
Minimum Time Off
23% of us took less than a week off work during 2021. That's not going to help your mental or physical health, or your ability to continue doing great work. The first section of your Holiday Policy should outline how many day you are going to take off from work over the year, at least. In employment, often you'll ask "how many days do I get for holiday?", and strategically work out how to use up your holiday to maximise it over the year. Some employers offer unlimited vacation, which oddly enough, on average means people take less time off - perhaps because there's no "use it or lose it" pressure.
The self-employed, in theory, have unlimited time off too, but in reality, find it harder to take time off - there's always a reason you might just do that extra day, or can't justify taking some time away from income or client emails. Setting a minimum time off number helps you to recognise that vacation is important, and helps you to ensure you're taking time off across the year. If you get to the end of the year, and you've only taken four days away from work - something has gone wrong.
Choose a minimum number of days you want to take off in the next calendar year, and write it out as a statement: "I will take at least N days away from work for rest this year".
Start with however many days you took last year, and add 20% (or start at 15 days if you're any lower than that threshold).
Keep track of each day you take off, and try and spread the time over the year, not just all in one go.
Remember it's a MINIMUM, not all you're allowed.
Maximum Time Working
Long two-week vacations don't work for everyone, and can be hard when you're running a business to entirely switch off, so sometimes, getting positive time off can be about frequency more than volume. Whilst there's no reason to adhere to things like a Monday-Friday, there are plenty of established patterns which can help break up your weeks and months, and encourage higher frequency of rest, even if you're not taking a huge amount of time off each time.
Setting a 'maximum time working without rest' threshold can help you set up a healthy habit of resting frequently, i.e. "I will not work for longer than two weeks without one solid day away from work", or "i will not work for longer than six weeks without a three day break from work". These 'maximum time working' statements can help you to establish both short-term and long-term rests from work, and most importantly, help you to take a break if you've been running for a long time without any rest, as can so often happen when our business is running successfully.
Write a short term maximum time working statement, i.e. to give you weekly breaks.
Write a long term maximum time working statement, i.e. to give you quarterly holidays.
Be kind to yourself and don't set unhelpful statements, like six months without a break.
Taking time off is only part of the challenge - you also need to protect that time for yourself, in both ensuring it happens and when it happens, you're able to switch off. Not everyone is going to be able to fully leave their laptop at home, some people might relish having a total detox from work - but setting your own boundaries for protecting your time off really helps.
Again, use a series of statements to help you establish these boundaries, such as "Once time off is booked in my calendar, I will not cancel it, even if a super exciting project comes along", "The only reason I'm willing to move my booked time off will be if ..." or "When I'm off, I will allow myself ten minutes to check my email each morning, and nothing more" or "When I'm off, I am totally unavailable and will communicate to my clients as such".
Write a statement about how you'll protect your planned time off before it happens.
Write a statement about how you'll protect your rest during your time off.
Write what you are willing to 'be available' for (and implicitly what you aren't!).
Finally, this might not be relevant to everyone, but having plans and people in place to help you cover you whilst you're away can really lighten the load. In normal employment, you'd have a handover and someone else would pick up your work, but in self-employment - this can be incredibly hard. Yet, there are always possibilities to buddy up with someone you trust as a point of contact or support structure whilst you're away, who perhaps can answer emergency emails, reassure your clients whilst you're away, check-in on any critical tasks, and only call you if something is really going wrong. You might return the favour for them when they're away too.
Use a series of statements to identify who your support buddies are, and how you'll help them help you take time off, for example. "When I'm not working, my colleague Jo will be covering the critical aspects of the business, so that I can rest", or "When I'm not working, I've given a handover guide to my virtual assistant to respond to any critical emails".
Write a statement about who you can ask to support you whilst you're away, and what critical tasks you can offload.
Write a statement about whether they're able to contact you, and under which circumstances.
Finalising your Holiday Policy
Once you have your series of statements, you've got your Holiday Policy: listing your minimums, your maximums, your boundaries and your support structures. Pin it up on your wall, and refer to it when needed, or add a quarterly reminder to check-in on how you're progressing.
You can include your Holiday Policy as a chapter in your Working Wellbeing plan - which is a larger collection of statements like this, which builds into an integrated plan for establish and maintain healthy habits for your self-employment.