The freelancer's guide to taking vacation time

Apr 12, 2021

Unlike salaried employees, freelancers get to choose how many days of vacation they get each year. Time off is essential to our overall well-being, though the right amount of time varies based on workload, financial goals, and personal ethos. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you start planning for a reset.

Reject rigidity

Sure, a salaried job offers health insurance, 401k plans, and at least a few weeks of paid time off. But one of the numerous perks of freelancing is getting out of that 9-to-5 box. Depending on your type of work and your industry, plus your own values and needs, the flexibility you have with taking time off is going to range. And it’s OK, you don’t have to feel guilty if your out-of-pocket times don’t align with a traditional work calendar. Freelancing means you have the freedom to create your own schedules for work and vacation. Of course, finding the systems that work best for you is key, whether you take one or eight weeks off each year.

Banff-based writer Meghan J. Ward says she rarely takes conventional vacations and opts for trips where she can work from the road. However, she does observe Canada’s statutory holidays because her kids are often home. “As an outdoor, adventure, and travel writer I can often turn my leisure time into stories,” she says. That includes trips longer than three weeks as well as shorter trips into the backcountry to unwind and get away from her computer.

Structure vacation around your slower seasons

This may not be obvious right away, but as your freelance years add up, you’ll start to notice patterns in the busy and slow times. Patrice and Justin La Vigne have been freelancers for 10 years now — as outdoor gear testers and writers, and as property caretakers — and they’ve learned that the bulk of their work comes between March and October.

During the slower months, they take trips, visit family, honor holidays, and mull over pitches and new projects. And because they live in Alaska where it’s darker during the winter months, they also catch up on sleep. “It’s not to say we’re not doing projects, because it’s ever-evolving for us,” Patrice says. “But it feels more balanced.”

Set boundaries with clients, colleagues, and yourself

With looser schedules, it’s easier for freelancers to blur the lines between work and down time. That’s where boundaries come in to help you set expectations for the people you work with and for yourself. For your clients and colleagues, it could be as simple as putting your out-of-office message up and giving them a heads up that you’ll be off the grid for a little bit.

Copywriter and brand strategist Margaret Kerr-Jarrett, who’s based in Jerusalem, Israel, says she lets her clients know if there will be any interruptions in her work flow since she observes every Jewish holiday. “I let clients know far in advance when I will be back in action and at what capacity,” she says.

For setting your own boundaries, it could mean not responding to emails to give your mind a rest. Ward says she actually finds it more stressful not to look at emails for a week or more. She says, “I prefer to check in, even if I have an away notice on, and archive/delete unnecessary emails and keep others organized for when I get home.”

Know what you need financially

One barrier for freelancers taking time off is the thought of sacrificing an unpaid week — aka the opportunity to land new clients and commissions. A way around this is to charge enough for your paid work. “Your fees should be accounting for your time off,” Ward says. “If your rates are high enough, you can take on fewer gigs and take the foot off the gas from time to time.”

Patrice La Vigne thinks in terms of what do we need for the month? Because clients pay inconsistently and sometimes months after a project wraps up, she says they ensure they save every time a new paycheck rolls in. When they enter their slow season, they can truly rest and not fret about money.

Take smaller breaks to prevent burnout

If you’re feeling anxious or unproductive, be a good boss to yourself. Spend that day away from your desk so you feel refreshed once you return. No matter if work is piling up or not, Patrice La Vigne forces herself to take at least 20 minutes a day for a walk or activity outdoors to let her mind wander. And every week, Ward takes one weekday off — a whole or half day — with her husband, Paul Zizka, a freelance photographer. Together, they think about new ideas they could potentially monetize.

In Jerusalem, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, Kerr-Jarrett observes the Jewish sabbath. During these regularly scheduled breaks, she is completely offline, spending time with loved ones, resting, or getting outdoors. “It's the best day of the week and if I did not consider it mandatory, I don't think I could ever manage it,” she says.

Every freelancer’s rest schedule differs. Keep in mind, how much time during the week and throughout the year do you need to feel rested? That way, you’re not rolling into your big vacation without any energy to spend on the fun stuff you’ve planned.

Amelia Arvesen

Amelia is a journalist currently based in Flagstaff, Arizona. She writes most often about people, the outdoors, and the environment for outlets like Backpacker, Outside, and Via magazines.