• Advice

How to Do Freelance Work on Vacation

Photo by Wojciech Kowalski

You may go on vacation, but do you ever actually turn off?

According to The Boox Report (UK), 24 percent of freelancers take no annual leave compared to only 5 percent of those in employment. 45 percent of self-employed people carry on working on holiday, compared to only 23 percent of employees.

In an ideal world, you would turn off completely when you go on vacation -- unplug, un-3G, and unwind. If this works for you, awesome!

I find it’s actually more stressful to just ignore my inbox and phone completely (my mind creates all sorts of imaginary monsters) than to be smart about how often I check and how I respond to people that do need my attention.

Here’s how to do it:

Plan ahead.

It can be a lot of work to go on vacation.

You have to make sure all of your projects are finished or at a comfortable stand-still point, which could mean weeks of heavy work leading up to your vacation. Expect this and prepare accordingly. The last thing you want is to spend the first couple of days of your vacation preparing for your vacation.

If you get new clients before your vacation that you think will be long-term, let them know (early) about it. Just in case they say, “But that’s the week our newsletter goes to print!”

Don't "hide" your vacation.

Some freelancers try to hide the fact that they’re on vacation because they’re afraid a) they will lose clients, b) they will appear unprofessional, or c) they expect themselves to be superhuman (a fault of many small business owners!). If they promised excellent customer service, they think their clients are justified in expecting constant availability.

In reality, most clients are very understanding about going on vacation -- especially if you are responsible about it.

It’s much better to let them know ahead of time then to make them think you’re ignoring them for several hours at a time when you venture out of a hot spot.

Have a friendly but firm autoresponder -- even if you’re planning on responding to some emails.

So instead of giving a generic, “Hello, I'm on vacation with limited access to e-mail and won't be able to respond to your message,” why not be honest? You probably will have access to e-mail, you just don’t want to access it.

Try this: “Thanks for your email! I’m currently on vacation and trying to get in some quality, technology-free time with my family. If you’re a current client, I’ll get back to you in less than 4 hours. And have no fear -- I’ll be back to giving you 300% of my attention on Thursday, January 2.”

This is the kind of personal, honest email that people will be more likely to respect. (Also, the word “family” normally guilts clients into holding off.)

Schedule when you’ll respond to emails.

Most emails you will not have to respond to -- they already got your auto-responder. But just in case, check your email only once or twice a day for a short period. You may have to get used to this -- sometimes I have this insane urge to check email/social media several times an hour in the beginning of a vacation.

Emails you should respond to:

  • Clients freaking out.
    • Instead of writing back another email, I recommend calling them. Often the client’s problem isn’t clear, and you’ll spend time just responding back and forth (which will make you feel the need to stay close to your email) rather that just getting in figured out in a five minute phone call.
  • New client/project requests.
    • Don’t actually respond in a substantive way. They’ll have already gotten your auto-responder, so just say, “Hi, Thanks for getting in touch! As you saw, I’m on vacation, but I’d love to talk to you about X project when I get back after January 2. I’ll be in touch that week to schedule a phone meeting with you so we can talk. Can’t wait to learn more about what you’re doing and how I can help.”
    • If it’s an emergency new project, email them and recommend another freelancer you know and trust.

Emails you should not respond to:

  • Friends (they can wait)
  • Family (ditto)
  • Clients who are just keeping you in the loop on something

Prepare your family for you working.

Working while on vacation with your family is clearly not ideal. If you’re going to work, you need to let them know in advance. Then be respectful about working in your family’s presence. Perhaps we’ve gotten used to seeing people on their cell phones at holiday dinners, but they should expect that from your 15-year-old niece, not you.

If at all possible, go technology-free for a day.

It is slightly ironic but true that even Silicon Valley execs (including CEO of Pinterest) literally drive far away into the mountains to get into no-service zones, just so that they can take a break from technology. (Clearly they don’t know how to turn their phones off.)

One “tech shabbat” enthusiast told the Harvard Business Review that the days she takes off from technology make her more present and happier, calling it “slow living that we savor like fine wine.” While there’s no study that proves taking a break from technology makes you happier, there is evidence that overuse of technology makes us unhappier.

No vacation is really complete unless it feels substantially different from your everyday life -- and for most of us, a substantial part our everyday lives are spent in front of a TV, on our smartphones, or on our laptops. Make sure that one or more of the days of your vacation are technology-free.

Freelancers, do you work on vacation, or do you try to drop everything?