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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Find a Work-Life Balance on the Weekends, Inspired by a True Story

As a self-employed freelancer, my work revolves around deadlines. At cocktail parties and networking events, people sometimes inquire if working remotely means that I get to watch Netflix all day long. To which I respond with a standard refrain of how being able to do your work at 2 AM—so long as it gets done—is a blessing and a curse.

In reality, the fact that I could work anytime, anywhere, really was proving to be a blessing and a curse. It was great that I could frontload tasks on a week when I knew I’d be traveling or not worry if a doctor’s appointment took up my entire morning. However, I was finding that whenever my work depended on others, they took advantage of my flexibility, too.

In other words, clients would ask my feedback by Monday—and send me what they wanted me to work on Saturday morning. Or, they’d request something by noon the next day, and ask if I could hop on a 6 AM call to get started. My unpredictable, always-available schedule was leading me toward one thing: burnout. And so, I took on an experiment. I decided I was going to stop working weekends and see what happened.

Here’s what I learned:

It's Never Too Late to Set Boundaries

...But it’s easier if you set them sooner rather than later.

After working weekends for years, I couldn’t just stop cold turkey. After all, I had clients who expected me to answer emails on a Saturday afternoon. And I’ll admit it: I was scared to say I didn’t want work around the clock when that’s what you’re “supposed to do” as a freelancer. I imagined people shouting “Heresy!” Or, at the very least, thinking I wasn’t hungry enough to be self-employed.

So, I tried different lines. All of the excuses about internet access people saw right through, though they were thoughtful enough not to outright type, “Go to Starbucks, already!” Same with the excuses about family gatherings. I’ve learned saying what you have to do just invites people to give their opinions on how long a wedding will take or how important an anniversary dinner is in the grand scheme of things.

Regardless of their pushback, I just kept providing different reasons why I wasn’t available on the weekends. The good news about learning no excuse is ever good enough is that you stop making them. Instead, I started telling clients that my newfound interest in time off was “an experiment” or “something I was trying, #worklifebalance”—and people were surprisingly receptive.

Even if they weren’t entirely on board with my plan, I eventually trained my clients to send me items during the work week (because that’s when they knew I’d definitely be available).

What’s actually better is that if they wanted something over the weekend, they approached me less like it was expected, and more from a space of truly asking me if I’d mind working on my days off.

But, You Have to Be Realistic About Your Workload

I went into my weekend-off plan with the best of intentions. I was going to relax! But here’s that sad truth: I’m terrible at relaxing. I’m much happier when I’m busy.

Not only that, but my commitment to taking a full weekend had an unintended consequence: It ruined the first part of my week. (No, your crazy boss didn’t pay me to write this, and yes, I swear if you bear with me a few more paragraphs I do find a solution.)

Anyhow, I started getting migraines on Tuesday evenings. Because it’s one thing to say, no, you’re not going to respond to emails on a Saturday—and another thing to stop doing any work during the entire weekend—after clocking in a good six hours or so for the last few years.

Sadly, those hours did not magically disappear, and in turn, my weekends off meant that on both Monday and Tuesday I worked more hours than I used to, I stared at my screen until my eyes hurt, and I felt like I had to scramble to look like I was on top of everything.

So, what was I going to do? How was I going to set boundaries so that my weekends were mine, but I wouldn’t feel like I was paying for it the next week?

I Started Managing My Work (Stealthily)

What was originally driving me crazy wasn’t the idea of being remotely productive on the weekends, it was the idea that I was “reporting” to work when I didn’t feel like being on someone else’s schedule. I wanted to manage my own time, but I also wanted to find a way to feel sane all week.

I remembered a story someone told me a while back that on Sunday evenings she writes most of her emails for the week ahead and saves them in drafts. At the time, I (secretly) regarded this as lunacy. Because what if you, you know, just send the email?

However, I’ve actually found that a version of this advice is exactly what I needed. At whatever point in the weekend I choose—be it Sunday night with a glass of wine or Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, I find tasks that will give me a little jumpstart on the week ahead.

I let myself choose whatever task I want to tackle, and here’s the most important part—I keep that work to myself until Monday morning. If I started sending people emails over the weekend again, I’d start getting emails again (which is not what I’m signing up for). So, I work on whatever I want to and I save it—in my documents, or yes, draft emails.

Here’s another bonus: A productive Sunday night sets me up for success! On Monday morning, I start sending out an hour’s worth of saved drafts and I look like I am starting the week on fire.

In the end, I wasn’t able to find a way to take weekends completely off. But I was able to figure out how to spend them on my own terms, and I no longer feel like I’m headed for burnout. So whether you’re a full-time freelancer or working in the corporate world (or somewhere in between), know that you can find a balance—and that there’s no right way to do it. If working a bit on Sunday means you have time to breathe on Monday, that’s OK, find whatever system works for you.

Photo of a relaxing view courtesy of Shutterstock.