Sunday, October 24, 2021

Time in the balance – how freelancers can create a sustainable work schedule


[lit lighter*]

Entrepreneurs, especially freelancers, lack an external framework to limit hours. Employers have legal limits in determining the number of hours they can make their employees work with most companies restricting the amount of overtime any employee can take on. Store owners may work long hours but most non-chains are not open 24 hours a day or even 7 days a week. Germany probably has the most extreme restrictions with the vast majority of stores closed in the early evening and generally on Sunday. Freelancers, solely responsible for their own success and generally highly motivated to work, often equate downtime with reduced income, ignoring the short- and long-term effects of overwork. However, by creating some consistent limits on daily and weekly work hours and proper management of workloads, freelancers can sustain a high level of productivity and enjoy life.

[character lifting weights]

First, it is necessary to define work. Judaism, due its Shabbat laws, has quite a volume of writings on this subject but instead I will use a Jewish joke to provide a workable definition. The story goes that two priests were discussing whether sex was work or pleasure and decided to consult their rabbi colleague, who had much more practical experience in the matter. Upon hearing the question, he immediately and unhesitatingly stated that sex was pleasure. When pressed for an explanation, he simply noted that if sex were work, his wife would have the maid do it for her. Consistent with that definition, work is any task that a person would have no issue having somebody else do in his/her stead while pleasure is a task that a person saves for him/herself. For example, while I do not translate on Saturday, I do write posts because I enjoy, even relish, the process of writing. Thus, on Shabbat, I do what pleases me, which happens to include writing posts. Therefore, for the purpose of this article, work is any task that you would not choose to do on a day off.

[up and down graph]

While at the surface it would be logical to think that more hours lead to more income, at a certain stage, the returns not only diminish but also decline. The first sign of overwork is reduced productivity and increased errors. Over time, it requires longer time to produce the same quantity of work, accompanied by every increasing number of errors. Reasons for this decline include reduced patience and increased mental fatigue.  Fortunately, a nice evening out generally recharges the battery. If a person ignores this overload for too long, burnout begins to develop, often expressed in less enthusiasm to start the day or a reluctance to take on challenges. When the brain goes on strike, it becomes necessary to take a few days off. Complete denial of overwork can lead to mental and/or physical collapse. The cost is heavy as many writing in Mental Health Week posts noted. The financial loss from the complete inability to function is much heavier than any associated with a short break from work, not to mention the harm caused to the relations with family and friends. In short, overwork is a preventable issue that is ignored at one’s peril.

[international clocks]
The first element of proper work management is the length of the work day. It is clear that the vast majority of entrepreneurs do not work from 9-5 or even 8-6. There are simply too many tasks to accomplish on most days. Freelancers working with customers with multiple time zones find themselves connected almost 24 hours a day. In practice, aside from being physically impossible over an extended time, such dedication to work turns a person into a robot, with no time or energy for family and friends. In order to balance the need for mental and physical health with the requirements of running of business, it is first necessary to identify and set hours for full business activity and those for monitoring communication. Specifically, as each person has individual peak times for thinking, such as early morning or late night, it is advisable to perform high concentration tasks during the most productive hours as much as circumstances allow. The freelancer should handle the lighter tasks in the tail periods. The actual length of the working day clearly varies by person as age and experience create different endurance capacity. I personally take a nap every day, allowing me to extend my work day to better cope with the time zone issues. As for responding to emails, it is perfectly legitimate not to respond to correspondence in the late evening as most people do not expect an immediate answer during those hours, with some exceptions. By limiting active working hours and allowing oneself not to respond, the freelancer gains several hours of downtime each day, a key for long-term health.

[Cat sitting in a bowl]
It should be clear that working seven days a week is not sustainable over a year. The problem is that special cases requiring us to work an entire week without a day off become the rule, not the exception. The only way for an independent entrepreneur to take a day off is to schedule it. The actual day of the week is not important but at least 24 hours without work is vital for sustainable work. For example, my wife and I have decided that we do not work from Friday night to Saturday night except in extreme circumstances. Our reason for keeping the Jewish Sabbath is not religious but instead practical as nobody in Israel or abroad expects us to work on Saturday, meaning we do not generally receive requests, thus facilitating our decision. I also do not work on Sunday nights as I watch US football and baseball but, again, it is easy to take Sunday night off as the whole world is recovering from the weekend. In practice, all that a freelancer needs to do to have regular days off is make a firm decision, which is admittedly easier said than done. However, insistence on at least one day of rest pays long-term dividends.

[stress attacks]
The last scheduling choice is the actual workload. Freelance business tends to be feast or famine, i.e., too much or too little. While the latter may not be healthy for the bank account, the former has the potential to harm the person. It is difficult, if not impossible, to define “too much work” as individual capacities and technological skill vary from person to person as does the effect of stress. Some people only perform at the best when they face a tight schedule. However, everyone does have a point beyond which the pressure created by the workload begins to create harmful physical and mental health. The key is to identify that point and be ready to schedule work in a manner that does avoid that point, even at the price of losing a project. I suffered from years from irregular heartbeat, which was aggravated by stress. One benefit was that it taught me to listen for the signs of stress and schedule work in such a manner that I feel confident in my ability to meet the deadline without killing myself. If a potential project creates uncomfortable stress, I state a deadline that fits my needs even at the risk of losing the project as my health is more important any specific project. Daily work scheduling is not a science but instead the art of managing the possible.

The results of overwork are financially, physically and emotionally disastrous. Entrepreneurs, especially, freelancers, should schedule the work day, work week and work load in such a manner that the they can sustain the pace and enjoy the money they earn. After all, money is a means for a goal, not the goal itself.

* Captions allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

All pictures from Pixabay.

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