How to Tell When It’s Time to Take a Break

sick-dayI threw my neck out something fierce not long ago. I don’t know how it happened. I must have been fighting this big monster in my sleep, rolled over so I could grab a rock to clonk him over the head with, and was suddenly awake, clutching my neck in pain. Either the monster got me or I twisted my head so fast in my sleep that I pulled a muscle.

Either way, I was in serious pain. And I had work to do the next morning.

I had clients to call and clients to email. I had to delegate some work to my assistants. I had to manage my team. I had to be there, damn it. Without me, my business grinds to a halt. It’s the siren song of the freelancer: if I go away, even for a minute, my business goes up in smoke.

Guess what? It’s not true.

Why Freelancers Need a Break

Freelancers need a break just as much as any nine-to-five person punching a clock. That nine-to-fiver gets a certain number of vacation days a year, and he often gets sick days too. If he doesn’t, he can use up one of his vacation days to stay home and tend his cold or his injury.

You don’t have that problem. You get to say when you get to take a break.

The problem is allowing yourself to say it.

I know this problem all too well. Here are a few moments when you really need to stop and say, “You know what? I’m taking a sick day.”

1. When You’re Injured

When I hurt my neck, I was putting strain on that injured muscle every minute I spent out of bed. Your head weighs around eight pounds. When your arm is injured and you try to pick up eight pounds, it’s painful. You might even make the injury worse. The same goes for your neck, only it can’t possibly avoid picking up your heavy head.

I should have spent the day on my back, napping a lot and letting the injury heal so that I could be back on my feet the next day. Instead, I kept laying down and getting back up again to try to get some work done and stay on top of things.

The injury lingered and didn’t heal as quickly as it could have, because I didn’t take a full day or two off to give it a fighting chance.

What happened during that time? Well, I definitely didn’t do my best work. I was distracted, and I was in pain. I was cranky every now and then because my neck hurt. I wasn’t available as much as I usually was because I had to keep taking breaks. Even the most minor thing, like cradling the phone between my shoulder and ear, was impossible for me.

And every time I forgot my limitations, I hurt myself more.

I should have taken the day off. So should you. If you’re injured in any way that affects your ability to work–back, neck, tendonitis, RSI–take the time to let your body heal fully so you can go back to work at full strength, instead of hobbling along at a fraction of your ability for weeks.

2. When You’re Sick

Most of us remember working nine-to-five and having those days where you’d call in sick just because you couldn’t face going in that day. We’d fake the cough and weary voice, and we’d try to sound sincere when we said we were so sorry, but we just felt too terrible to show up.

Now you’re a freelancer. The only person you can lie to in order to get out of work is yourself. That’s kind of too bad, because it means you probably don’t pretend you’re sick anymore. You work even when you don’t feel like working, because after all, you don’t have any excuse not to.

But when you’re really sick, you still work. Even when you have the excuse. That’s not good.

If you work through sickness, you’re going to put out low-quality work. No one’s brain functions well when illness chunks it up with snot and you have that blurry-vision, itchy-eye thing going on. Clients are going to be less than pleased if you sniffle your way through it and deliver a project on time but below your usual standard.

They may even wonder if your previous good work was a fluke.

Don’t make clients question your skills. Call them up or email them, explain that you’re very sick, and ask if it would be possible to extend your deadline. Make sure they understand this is optional: you’re willing to deliver on time if they need you to. However, you want to make sure they get your very best work, and you’re afraid they won’t get that if you work through the illness.

Nine times out of ten, your client will choose to wait until you’re well again. That one time out of ten? You can take care of him because you’ll have cleared the rest of your plate. Try to wait until you have at least one day of feeling not so bad, and knock it out of the park.

Then you can catch up on your nicer, more sympathetic clients at your leisure once you’re all better.

3. When You’re Burned Out

It happens to all freelancers. Every single one of us. You simply run out of juice. You stare at the screen for hours, trying to summon the strength to be creative. You know you’re never going to get there. You want to run away from everything. You want to quit.

And you know what? Sometimes you should do just that.

Quit for a day. Just one. If you can manage it, try for a long weekend. Then leave your laptop behind with a nice autoresponder for anyone who sends an email: “I’ll be out of touch until Monday. I’ll get back to you promptly first thing Monday morning.”

If you have an assistant, ask him or her to take messages and send any urgent clients to peers of yours whose work you can vouch for. Odds are slim that you’ll get a last-minute rush client during the very weekend you’re taking off, but if you do, don’t stress. He’ll get taken care of by your colleague. You’re having a break, a mini-vacation, getting over your burnout.

Forget about everything. Go someplace you enjoy, or just hole up in your own house. Banish the computer and the phone to the basement or a dark closet. Read a book you’ve been meaning to read. Spend time with your significant other or your kids or some friends. Just relax.

When you get back, you’ll be recharged, ready to take on anything, and a whole lot happier with your job.

Your Turn

Can you think of other times you need to take a break? Have there been times you’ve pushed through it and regretted not taking a break? Let’s hear it!

Image by danielfoster