Career-minded people, especially entrepreneurs and freelancers, are always talking about how hard they’re hustling, and there are countless memes about the importance of the hustle. We tend to treat working hard and earning money as if they’re the only things that matter—but they aren’t. I recently read about Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old Japanese journalist, who was found dead in her bed, holding her phone. She worked more than 159 hours of overtime in the month before she died, and her official cause of death was “karoshi,” a Japanese word that means “death from overwork.” She worked so hard, it killed her. Sado died in 2013, but her story wasn’t made public until this year, and I can’t get it out of my head. It has forced me to realize that my work-life balance is practically nonexistent.
In the past few months, I’ve noticed that whenever my work assignments start to pile up, I experience physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. Sometimes there’s a tightness in the center of my chest, or my shoulders get so tense, I feel like there are rocks under my skin. I know feeling this way is unhealthy, and I’ve found a few ways to lower my stress level, such as taking a walk or a jog, spending time outside, or taking a break to meditate. The whole point of work-life balance is to find balance between what you do for work, and what you do the rest of the time. I know I need to get away from work altogether for a few days every week (such as Saturday and Sunday), but as a freelancer, I don’t have the typical Monday through Friday, nine to five schedule. I often spend weekends catching up on work instead of relaxing, but after reading about Miwa Sado’s death, I feel more inspired than ever to change this habit and strive for actual work-life balance.
Right now, I also have a personal reason to practice taking breaks from work. I am planning a trip to France next month, and I’ve decided not to bring my laptop.
I haven’t taken a real vacation in many years, because as a freelancer, I don’t get vacation days. Typically, when I travel, I bring my laptop and try to get work done on the road—but this time I want a real break. I’ll probably check email on my phone while I am away, but I won’t have any of the programs I need to do my work. My weekends are a chance to test this taking-time-off thing on a trial basis, before I’m in another country and another time zone.
Here’s how I plan to get my weekends back:
Have a detailed schedule.
As a freelancer, it’s always hard for me to say no to things, but if I want to have a work schedule that doesn’t overflow into the weekends, I know this is the first step. I’m going to be especially cautious about what I commit to this month.
Make the most of work days.
On weekdays, I have to be organized, prioritize my projects, and manage my time well. I want to stay focused and take care of everything urgent so that the less urgent stuff can wait for the following week.
Plan ahead—for work AND fun.
When I have a really busy week, the idea of work-life balance never crosses my mind, because I’m too busy working to think about anything else. That only makes the problem worse, because it means that when the weekend rolls around, I have nothing fun planned. If I wait until the last minute (like, Friday night) to look for something fun to do, many of my friends already have plans. When that happens, I often end up at home, on my laptop, catching up on email and feeling depressed and overwhelmed. I haaate when that happens, so I’m trying really hard to make sure that I plan fun stuff ahead of time. (Having fun stuff on my calendar also makes it easier to get through a brutal workweek. I know better days are coming!)
The main reason I’m a freelance writer is because I love writing. Some of my happiest moments are when I’m thinking up ideas for weird short stories, or working on my YA novel—so I don’t necessarily think of those things as work. I’d love to find time to focus on those things during the week, too, but I’m fine with spending weekend hours working on my personal writing projects. Even for work, I often write about things that interest me, but I think of “work” as projects I’m doing for other people. “Work” projects have real deadlines—deadlines I can’t ignore.
Don’t overschedule the weekend.
Work-life balance isn’t just about balancing work stuff and fun stuff. It’s about having downtime. Relaxing is good for you, and it can also help you be more creative. I only set an alarm clock Monday through Friday, because I want to spend my weekend mornings relaxing. This past Saturday and Sunday, I slept in both days and felt great—and when I looked at my phone, I realized that I’d woken up even earlier than I do on weekdays. Even though I woke up early, I still felt good about getting out of bed, because I was doing it on my time, not for someone else.
Ask for support.
If you’re a freelancer who regularly answers emails from clients over the weekend (or you often agree to work on Saturday or Sunday), let people know that you’re making work-life balance a priority. Chance are, they’ll understand and respect your decision, because the people who email you on the weekends are probably working too much, too. Be polite, but firm, and let them know that they’ll get an answer from you on Monday when you’re “back at work.”
Tell your friends and family about it, too, and ask them to help you stay on track. If I answer work email on my phone while I’m out with friends, they’re good about helping me refocus. They’re not mean about it, but they might ask in a silly voice, “Are you working again?” I love that, because it forces me to immediately reassess my priorities. Maintaining friendships is important, and my friends deserve my full attention when we’re together.
If you absolutely must work on the weekend, get it done.
I know it’s challenging to transition from being someone who catches up on work over the weekends to someone who takes weekends off, because I’m still struggling with it. The hardest part for me is getting the work out of the way. If I have something urgent on my to-do list as I head into the weekend, it’s easy to put it off until Sunday evening. But if I do that, I can feel it weighing on my Friday night, and all day Saturday, and the weight feels even heavier on Sunday morning. I am always MUCH happier if I finish the project as early in the weekend as possible, because then I don’t have it hanging over me all weekend.
I will admit I did a bit of work this past weekend, but it was less than I’ve done in the past few weekends, so I feel like I’m heading in a good direction. I already have plans with friends next Saturday, so that’ll inspire me to do an even better job this week, right? Forget the hustle memes. I’d rather focus on a saying with built-in balance:
Work hard and play hard.
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