The Importance of Time off to Your Contracting Life

Contracting

When we ask our clients what they love about contracting, the top answer is control over when and where they work. This is supported by research conducted by LinkedIn, which suggests that work-life balance is more important than pay to some 58% of contractors.

Articles about the advantages of contracting often suggest you’ll be clocking out early every other afternoon and taking month-long holidays in between contracts.

It might seem odd, then, that for many contracting involves working longer hours than when they were employees. This is understandable, for a number of reasons.

You’re responsible for generating your own income, and you only get paid when you’re working. You have additional non-paying work to do, like keeping your books, undertaking marketing activity and sourcing new contracts. The line between “work time” and “home time” can become blurred because you often work from home and use your personal laptop and phone for work.

It’s worth noting that many contractors say they don’t mind working longer. It’s easier to find the motivation when it’s your business you’re building, but it’s also easy for this to get out of control. We often hear reports of late evenings working at home followed by early starts the next day and “holidays” where you’re simply working from a more exotic location. Time off - as in time spent not working rather than time “away from work” – is a vital part of your contracting life.

Why is work-life balance important?

Search the internet for “work-life balance” and you’ll quickly get the idea that most people are working too much and storing up difficulties for themselves in the form of work-related stress, and indeed stress-related illness. Your health has to be the most important consideration.

But work is important too. Your career, your business, your livelihood, deserves your time and attention. The goal, then, is not to simply to minimise the amount of time spent working, but to achieve balance.

For most, and certainly for many contractors, the main issue is that work encroaches into “personal time” until it seems that you never get a break even when you planned to take one. When this happens, you’re clearly not “in control of when and where you work” which is why many of you started contracting in the first place. 

By taking steps to prevent this incursion of work into the rest of your life, you can take back that control. The amount of time you spend working will become a matter of deliberate choice, and that all-important balance will be easier to arrange.

Separate “work time” and “down time”

It can be difficult to avoid the feeling that you’re “always on duty”, particularly if you often work from home. It takes discipline to stop working when you’re supposed to, but there are some things you can do to help you keep your work and home life separate.

  • Set your working hours, and make sure your clients are aware of them. That way they’ll understand why you didn’t pick up their email or answer their query until the following morning. This won’t work unless you stick to it; if your clients get used to you always being available, they’ll think something’s wrong when you’re not. 
  • Have a separate mobile phone that you use only for business and switch it off when you finish work. If your role requires you to check your emails in the evening, do so at set times and keep it turned off or silent in between.
  • If you work from a home office, leave the room when you finish work and don’t go back until the morning. If you don’t have a dedicated space, pack your laptop away and store it out of sight until it’s time to go back to work.

Make your work time more productive

It can be even harder to switch off at the end of the day if you’re falling behind or you’re otherwise not happy with what you achieved that day. Use these tips to kill it while you’re working, so you can relax in confidence when you’re not.

  • Make a clear plan for what you want to achieve each day. If possible break this down into a series of smaller tasks - the psychological value of ticking things off your to do list should not be underestimated.
  • Try to focus on one task at once. While multitasking can make you feel like you’ve achieved a lot, failure to focus can hurt your performance. If you keep getting broken off to answer the phone or respond to emails, try planning a few hours each day when you “unplug” and work distraction-free.
  • Productivity tools like Trello and Zoho can help keep you on track, while time tracking software like Toggl helps you stay focused and tracks how long you’re spending on particular tasks. Have a look at this comprehensive Toggl review.

Make the most of your time off

When you do take time off, you want to return to work feeling refreshed. That means using the time to recharge your batteries. Make the most of your time off, so it feels like you’ve really had a holiday.

“Recharging” doesn’t mean “catching up”

If you’re busy most of the time, it can be tempting to use your time off to catch up on all the things you don’t usually have time for. While “clearing the decks” can make a difference, particularly if all those unfinished tasks play on your mind, try not to make your entire holiday about running errands and doing housework. If you do have things you need to get done, plan to resolve them early so you can relax for the rest of your holiday.

Do something different

The other side of that coin is the temptation to indulge in an X-Box marathon or zone-out in front of the TV all day. Aside from the terrible things daytime TV can do to your mind, if you work in front of a computer screen this will do nothing to restore your mojo. Make an effort to do something else, preferably something you don’t often get the chance to do.

Do something active

Exercise has a well-documented power to reduce your stress levels. We’re not suggesting that you spend all day in the gym or do a triathlon, unless that’s your thing, but finding the time for some kind of physical activity will give you a real boost. Even a 20-minute walk will make a difference.

Keep your routine

The chance to stay up late and sleep in longer can be hard to resist, but in reality, it will just delay all the positive things you could do during your time off, and mean you have to readjust when you go back to work. The last thing you want is to return to work sleepless, drained or hung-over.  

Control your commute

One of the most important things contracting gives you is the ability to set your own conditions. If you don’t want to spend four hours in the car every day, don’t accept a contract that’s two hours’ drive from your home. Likewise, if spending nights away from home is an issue for you, don’t feel you have to accept work at the other side of the country.

This is sometimes a matter of finding the right balance between your earnings and your time, as “casting a wider net” can give you more options and increase your earning power. The trick is to decide what you’re happy with, and whether you’re prepared to make exceptions if the rate or other conditions are just right.

Remember why you started contracting

If you’re one of the 58% who started contracting to take control of their working life, try not to lose sight of that goal. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the challenge of building your business, particularly if you chose your field wisely and you’re doing something you love. Remember, if you’re always working then you’re not in control and the balance needs some work.

Contracting

 

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