Feeling Guilty About Taking Time Off

3093851614_7cf3ca6f24_oOne of the coolest perks about being a freelancer is that there’s absolutely no nine-to-five and no one around to scream at you if you’re late to work. I’m definitely not a morning person, so this was a big factor when I decided to go into business for myself.

The problem with this though is that we’re so ingrained to “work, work, work” that this perk begins to become a liability. You start feeling guilty because you’re at the nail salon on Thursday, playing with your kids at Chucky Cheese’s on Tuesday and hanging with friends on Friday. I mean, everyone else is working, shouldn’t you be too?

I’m Guilty

I’ve always been a bit OCD on organization, but lax about time rules when I had a full-time job. I would get to my job super early, but leave as soon as five to ten minutes before 5:00 p.m. I couldn’t wait to leave and I never had a guilty moment leaving early or calling out sick. And, I would never think twice about refusing to work late or on weekends.

For some odd reason, now that I’m in business for myself, I feel guilty about not working. This whole week I’ve dragged my feet (probably because I worked 15-19 hours every day last week) and haven’t gotten to the office till about 11:00 a.m. or noon.

I actually feel guilty about it because I’ve spent most of this week playing around with some friends and personal projects and I’m planning to take the entire week after next off as well.

The Secret Work Life of a Freelancer

You feel this guilt because your whole life, from the time you began kindergarten until your last full time job, you were put on a schedule. You get up at 6:00 a.m., you get to school or work at 8:00 a.m., you get off at 5:00 p.m., and you come home. But, freelancing is not like that at all.

Sure, you can still work nine-to-five as a freelancer, but it’s all too easy to keep working till 11:00 p.m.; to finish up the last bit of that job on a Saturday; to skip a couple of family functions on the 4th of July for a rush job. Pretty soon, you’re like me and just worked 19 hours straight with a 30 minute break to eat food.

The average freelancer works almost twice as long as the average nine-to-five employee. So, why is it that we feel guilty taking some time off?

The Guilt People

I love my family. But, sometimes family can be hurtful without realizing it. My mom calls in the middle of the work day and I don’t pick up because I’m in the middle of a coding job or talking to a client. She gets angry (and if you know my mom, you wouldn’t like her angry) because she thinks she can call any time and since I’m not at a “job” I should be able to pick up every time.

I have friends who call me too, and if I’m taking some time off, I pick up right away. Their response? “Shouldn’t you be working?”

I’m lucky enough to have a significant other who understands what I do and that it’s real work for real money. But, not everyone else does. My family doesn’t understand that I can’t drop everything right away for them to chat about going to flea markets. My friends don’t understand that I just worked from 10:00 a.m. yesterday to 10:00 a.m. this morning, so I’m taking the day off.

The problem with this, is that every time someone makes a remark about it, it reinforces our guilt thinking. It makes you wonder “Gee, maybe I should be working right now” instead of nodding it off because you know you just worked 12 hours. This is very harmful because it can lead to you never taking the time off and burning out.

Forcing Time Off

If it weren’t for my significant other, I would never take time off. I’d work 24/7 because I feel so guilty. I always wonder what would happen if I worked that weekend and on late nights. Would I make more money? Be more popular? Snag some big name clients?

Thankfully, I’ve got reminders around me that there are more important things than money, work and clients. Besides, what’s the point of making so much money if you never stop to enjoy it?

Stop the Guilt

If you’re feeling guilty about taking time off, don’t. Remind yourself that you work hard and it’s okay to take a couple of hours, days or even weeks off. Nine-to-five employees get at least two weeks of paid vacation, so the least you can do is to give yourself some as well. Don’t let people deter you from taking the time off. Remember, they’re just jealous!

The same goes for taking sick time too. You need that time to heal. Yes, that means you’re going to be behind for a couple of days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch up.

It’s been tough for me, because I’m so busy that I’ve been over-scheduling myself. It’s tough for me to turn down jobs, especially when they’re cool projects, so I almost think about scheduling it for the weekend–but, I don’t. Now that summer’s here, it’s time for you to relax a little bit, take a little less work and enjoy life some. That’s why you really became a freelancer, isn’t it?

Your Thoughts

Do you feel guilty taking time off? How do you combat the guilt?

Image by Evil Erin


  1. says

    Great article, Amber. I used to struggle with this all the time. I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago that until I started allowing myself guilt-free evenings, weekends, and vacations, I would never enjoy my freelance business.

    And you are dead on about giving yourself time to heal when you’re sick. I used to fight through it and it only made me sicker and less productive! Now if I feel under the weather, I take the afternoon off, rest, and come back the next day feeling as good as new.

    Here’s to a healthy freelance-life balance!

  2. says

    More so than office employees, freelancers are sensitive to feedback. Listening well and drawing conclusions from what we hear a client say is one of the big reasons freelancers are successful. Eventually, that gets sucked into personal reactions and when asked why we aren’t working, can’t have houseguests at any time, or don’t respond to requests to be the family taxi, we feel guilty. I’ve gotten comfortable with my guilt. I set a place for it at the table, and give it a big ol’ glass of wine.

  3. says

    I’m absolutely horrible about taking time off. Always have been.

    Even when I worked a “regular job,” I only waited until almost complete burn out to take any sort of time off, and even then it was usually only a long weekend, not an entire week.

    Now, that I’m working for myself, between the sheer amount of hours it takes to launch a freelance business, plus marketing and actual work, I didn’t take a day off for 3 months.

    I’ve since started to ease myself into breaks by taking a morning off here or an afternoon off there. It’s not the ideal, but it is progress.

    Great article. And I hear you on the OCD-type planning.

  4. says

    I lost that guilt very early on in my self-employed career. Working 24/7 was not the reason I became self-employed and knowing that help me set boundaries with myself and my clients. But you have to stick to your guns and treat your “free time” just as preciously as most of your clients treat their own free time. Whenever I provide timelines to clients, weekends and evenings are NEVER included. If someone sends me work late afternoon on a Friday, I will say I will start that first thing Monday morning. Luckily, I also have clients that understand that, so when they DO require something important done over the weekend, I’m generally ok with it, as long as it doesn’t become a reoccurring thing.

    Of course from time to time I have to put in the extra hours to get projects done, but if that started to become the norm, I would have to reevaluate if I’m running my business the way I intended.

    When I might feel guilty is when a project is due and I had plenty of notice, but I chose to put it off by taking a long relaxing lunch when I didn’t necessarily need one. But when its 9:00pm on a Tuesday night and I’m watching Lost with my wife, anybody that expects me to be working should get lost. :)

  5. says

    Hey Amber, really nice post. I feel the exact same way like you describe. It’s amazing how different people can be, but they still act the same way.

    One great tip, what helps me to feel not that guilty about taking time off.
    I say to myself or others: “I don’t take a break, i inspire myself” :)

    And actually its true, because think about it, you often geat great ideas just when you do something different than spending alle the time in front of your computer.

    Anyway, great post Amber!

  6. says

    Great article, Amber……We are not like machines and need time to rest and get interested in th work..

    Its applies on any business and just not on only freelancers

  7. says

    Hi Amber – This is exactly how I feel – it’s great to see so many other freelancers feeling the same (I am not a freak!! – Yay!!) – I constantly feel guilty when I am not sitting at my machine – even when work is slack, I feel as if I should be sat there – This post has helped me to realise that it is a feeling I need to get over and that I am not unique in feeling this way – Thanks – Heres to all us freelancers sitting in a pub garden on a sunny work day (lol)

  8. says

    @Carlos agreed. After a few years of feeling guilty for stopping mid-afternoon to cut the grass (which was the best time for ME to do it), and coming back to 20 emails I could have responded to during “normal business hours”, I realized, “hey, if I were in a 2-hour director meeting at my old job those emails would have gone unchecked too.”

    You have to be disciplined with your time especially when your business revolves around being available for your clients; and if you are, they’ll pick up on the professionalism and disregard the stigma that comes with the home office. But don’t tell them you went to cut the lawn, instead you just had an appointment out of the office. It’s accurate, it’s more professional…and that “appointment” happened to be a personal deadline you needed to commit to, just as you commit to your clients’ deadlines. Clients will respect it as long as you stay professional and get the job done.

    Fact is, people expect to leave voicemails and wait a couple of hours for an email response, but because there aren’t any examples of this surrounding us when we work from home it’s easy to get sucked into this guilty feeling of not being available. (Same with vacations: I get more “have fun!” responses to our vacation notices than “aw man, you can’t get XYZ done before you go?”)

  9. says

    My clients also think that since I work at home they can call at 10pm. They think I just work 24 hrs a day. I used to feel guilty and sometimes still do when I don’t answer that call. I no longer feel guilty about taking vacations either. In fact I recently took two weeks off in a row guilt free! Sometimes you have to stop and recompose yourself and clear your mind. Great article Amber!

  10. Kennyh says

    I’ve never felt guilty about taking time off. It occurs often that a few days before a deadline I work about 12 hours a day but as soon as I deliver the project to the client, I just take a day off because I worked late a few days in a row. When I would’ve had a nine-to-five those extra hours would also paid as vacation hours by most company’s.

    Although I think every freelancer get’s the occasional ‘shouldn’t you be working?’. For example I get up in the morning at about 8.30 am, make breakfast and go to the gym till about 10.30 am but I’ve had so many people at the gym asking me, shouldn’t you be working now? But I always think, if they can find the time to go to the gym, call me or you name it why should I feel guilty then. Shouldn’t they be working too?

  11. says

    Great post Amber!
    I deal with the same problem on a consistent basis, although it’s not just about my hours, it’s about my job itself! My mother and father constantly ask me when I’m going to stop playing around and get a job! Thankfully, like you, I have my fiance to remind me how great what I do is, and that I’m great at it!

  12. Cody says

    Stop feeling guilty! It’s the life you have to enjoy without guilt, and ok, take a look at the moneyside ;)

    Thanks Amber.

  13. says

    This is an encouraging article! Thanks. I’m honestly a work-aholic. When I have projects looming and deadlines to meet, I have a hard time not working EXTRA hard. The problem is that those projects never stop, and pretty soon I’m just worn out and get sick… and then I’m forced to take days off.

    I’m committing to myself right now to take it easy(er) and take some much needed breaks.

  14. says

    I used to work myself to death during my first year as a freelancer to the point that I would put more priority on my work than on my studies (yeah, stupid I know). Now that I’m on leave of absence, I would work from Monday to Friday, making sure that weekends are for my family especially my baby girl. It keeps me from getting too burnt out from work and I’m able to do things that I love like take walks around the neighborhood or do some good ol’ online shopping. :)

    Great article Amber. It served as a reminder for me.

  15. says

    Sometimes I find myself working on my free time, since what I enjoy doing on my free time is exactly what I do for a living. So I don’t feel guilty for NOT taking any time off, and getting paid for doing what I love.
    Now, when I am travelling, visiting my family or otherwise not at home, I forget about everything (except for the ocassional Blackberry email) and enjoy the moment.


  16. JV says

    Nice post Amber. Now I realize I am not alone when it comes to feeling guilty when taking time off. But off late I have come to use deadlines as opposed to daily schedules as a yard stick to determine whether or not to feel guilty :-). For instance, there is this great new site called Skillocracy.com for freelancers that has projects with a deadline. So it does not matter if I work today or not as far as I get the project done by the deadline.

  17. says

    I really liked reading your blog. It can be a real challenge taking time for ourselves. I always think that if we want to contribute and help other people, that we need to look after ourselves first. For example, a friend of mine was so stressed working and looking after her family, never taking time off, that she got really ill. Taking time for ourselves is critical so we can really get the most of of life and also be there for other people.

  18. says

    I used to feel that way! That’s particularly the case when my paperwork is a mess and there is a constant need to organize my things. So I’m super glad there are tools like Dropbox and Billing Boss that helps me get organized at the start, rather than as an afterthought.

    For those who aren’t familiar with Billing Boss, it is a free online invoicing tool, where I can currently create unlimited invoices for unlimited customers. The best feature I like using is the Payment Plus option that allows me to quickly email invoices to clients, who can pay online directly through the invoice. And I can manage my cash flow by keeping track of who paid me at what time, etc. Accountant instantly has access to my files so i don’t need to send her paperwork each month. http://www.billingboss.com

    As for Dropbox, it’s a file sync, online backup tool that allows you to access all your files synchronously plus share your files. I no longer need to spend that extra time emailing myself files, sending other people files to get organized.

    Please note: This author has been compensated by Sage.

  19. Breanna says

    I hate feeling guilty about taking time off, but that’s just the culture around here. Anything that makes you happy must be bad. Nothing is more stressful than planning time off, getting it approved, and then getting it reapproved when they’ve forgotten that they already approved it and you have already booked the trip. Now I’ve finally gotten it approved (the second time) and it’s not for three months and just thinking about my previously exciting, relaxing vacation plans, I just feel stressed.

  20. Andrew says

    I feel guilty about taking holidays because my boss is too cheap to fully staff my department and we barely get by when we are fully staffed. When someone goes on vacation everyone has to work harder, so even when I do go away I work harder before I leave so my fellow employees won’t have to suffer as much.
    (I work at a newspaper with daily deadlines, so it’s not an option to simply put off the work or schedule less during a holiday – paper must be filled and laid out, no excuses.)

  21. says

    I think many people become self-employed so they can LOSE the guilt, because with freelancing, you only earn from what you put in, and so if you’re slacking you only have to answer to yourself. I definitely agree with you on the fact that Americans feel more guilty about taking time off- but the question is WHY? If we are too guilty to take a break, then why are we working at all? Isn’t the point of working is to have money for the fun things?

  22. Chris says

    I’ve been struggling with this very thing all day.

    I’m not a freelancer but an academic (though I used to do freelance web design in college).

    I’ve been unwell since yesterday evening with headaches and vision problems and felt guilty all day for not getting enough work done.

    I’ve been working non-stop for the past few years. This year, I moved house twice, got my PhD, first full-time (I think it’s called tenured in the US) job in another country.

    I can’t switch off the guilt for only doing *some* work, even though I feel ill. I know I should slow down, but I seem to have lost my natural barrier, the ‘stop sign’ that used to kick in, either when I had done enough for the day, or just needed a break.

    Any advice?

  23. says

    I on the other hand never felt the least bit guilty for taking time off from work when I was sick or when I had vacation time coming. Employers have done a good job of making people feel guilty for taking legitimate time off and it really is a shame. I have always thought that there ought to be laws like sexual harassment laws concerning remarks about people taking the time they have coming off. If you have vacation time and sick days you should not feel the least bit guilty about taking them.

  24. says

    I lost that guilt very early on in my self-employed career. Working 24/7 was not the reason I became self-employed and knowing that help me set boundaries with myself and my clients. But you have to stick to your guns and treat your “free time” just as preciously as most of your clients treat their own free time.

    I on the other hand never felt the least bit guilty for taking time off from work when I was sick or when I had vacation time coming

  25. says

    I have owned my oun business for 11 yrs. This current 3 months have been slow phones not ringing no hits on the website but we have work still behind on a few things but it always picks up ! So I have gone home @ 5…..omg I’m in @ 8-7ish 6-7 days a week so why doi I feel soooo guilty when I leave, my mind starts going could I have got somthing done ???? Money money money??? I have come to the thinking of ill deal with it tomorrow and go??? Am I wrong???

  26. says

    Thanks for this article! I used to work constantly, then had a baby in March, and now I’m strictly 9-5, Monday through Friday. Compounding the guilt, we have a nanny that comes to the house to watch our baby, so I’m paying someone to be here 9-5. So every hour that I’m not working, I’m watching money go down the drain. And talk about guilt for slacking off during the work day… I catch myself closing my Facebook window if I hear our nanny entering the room, like she’s my boss or something! Then there’s mommy guilt… I’m paying someone else to watch my son so I can work, so I should really be working! So what am I doing reading this blog…. ;) Back to work!


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