When Ed Takes a Vacation*

* From the 1988 track by the Swirling Eddies

It’s summertime and that means vacation. In fact, I’m heading out on one tomorrow, so this week’s article may be a bit shorter than usual—still gotta pack! If you’re a freelance solopreneur, taking a vacation can be tricky with nobody back at the office to hold down the fort. And, if you’re still billing by the hour, every day you take off bears huge opportunity costs (in addition to whatever you spend on vacation). Taking time off as a freelancer is challenging, but everyone needs to recharge their batteries now and then. Here are a couple ideas that can help you enjoy your time off.

Bake Time Off Into Your Utilization Target

I address utilization targets frequently because it’s the number one reason creative entrepreneurs struggle with profitability. Every business carries overhead. The biggest overhead category for creative entrepreneurs is unutilized time. If you fail to account for your downtime you will find yourself overworked and underpaid.

Of all your working hours only 60% on average will be available for productive, billable work. Marketing, managing money, meetings, communication, and other unbillable administrative overhead take up a much of the remaining 40% of your time. But it’s not just admin, planned time off factors significantly into your overhead. Nobody works steadily 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Holidays, and other unpaid sick time and vacations also contribute to that 40% overhead threshold. When planning your schedule and your target hourly rate I recommend adjusting your total available hours in a year to no more than 46 weeks or less.

If you don’t, taking vacations will be doubly costly. But if you do, then taking time off will not be a problem—at least from a financial standpoint

But Who’ll Answer the Phone?

Taking time off is not just a question of having sufficient cash flow. It can also be a struggle to manage your client’s needs while you’re away.

The 60% target can help with this challenge too, albeit somewhat indirectly. If you bake your utilization target into your project schedules, as well as your financial targets, then you should be able to open up time in those schedules to take a vacation. But some client needs don’t obediently stick to a project’s Gantt chart. While creative entrepreneurship is not a life or death business, clients do sometimes have urgent, time sensitive needs.

One way to minimize the tyranny of the urgent while you’re at the beach is to communicate your planned time off, to active clients, well ahead of time. Then send a reminder a couple days before you head out. At the very least, this communication will ensure that if a client has an urgent matter, they’ll know they’re interrupting your vacation. If you do decide to help out, you’ll have at least bought some solid goodwill.

To Check, or Not Check Your Email…

If you’ve chosen to be in business for yourself, it might not be possible to entirely check out for weeks at a time. Personally, I do check my email a few times a day while on vacation, and briefly reply to time sensitive communications. But as I do I always indicate that I’m on vacation, so that my clients can adjust their expectations for any further response. I’ve found that for me, I am less stressed if I keep my hand lightly on the pulse of my business while on vacation, rather than anticipating a massive inbox when I return.

Taking time off is important. But if you don’t set the stage by implementing realistic standards from the top down, vacations will become rare and costly. And burnout is sure to follow. So manage your business with time off baked in, and then get out there and enjoy the sun!

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?