Creating a Healthy Work-Life Balance as a Freelance Designer

Recently I was in on a roundtable discussion with a bunch of freelancers and we were talking about some of the similar problems we all face. One topic that kept coming up was that many freelancers have a hard time creating a healthy work/life balance.

This is a problem many business owners in general have. Your business is yours and as the owner you feel that ultimately the success or failure of the entire business is on your shoulders. This pressure can cause freelancers to work 12+ hour days for weeks on end. Oftentimes this leads to exhaustion, burnout, and mediocre work.

I don’t think it needs to be this way. Since starting my own freelance business I’ve had less work-related stress than ever before while maintaining an income that let’s my family live at a comfortable level. And since my daughter was born a year ago I’ve been able to work just in the mornings and take care of her every afternoon.  All without ever working 12+ hour days.

Here are a few of my suggestions for working towards a positive work/life balance:

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1. Know Your Limits

Recently elite runner Ryan Hall dropped out of the Chicago Marathon. Days before it even started. He had been training for this specific race for months, but decided it wasn’t right for him.  He said that the stress of a marathon at race pace was too much for his body at the time and he wanted to be able to continue performing well in the future.

The same idea goes for us as freelance designers.

Working overtime can be a good thing and can make sense if you are trying to finish a project on time or have decided to take on extra work for a set period of time.  But working constantly can become a dangerous way of life. If you’ve found that you are normally feeling overworked and stressed you need to rethink your decisions and priorities.  Like Ryan Hall you may need to say “No” to some design projects now to continue performing well in the future.

Set an hour-long meeting with yourself to assess your working situation. Are you currently feeling overworked and stressed? If so, what can you say ‘no’ too?

2. Turn it Off

As I mentioned, being a business owner is a responsibility that can easily take up every single minute of your day. You spend time answering emails, putting out client fires, working as a receptionist and project manager, and thinking about things like ROI and SEO for your design business.  Oh, and you need to take out the trash every now and then.

Compound this with the effort of becoming a great freelance designer – learning new techniques, getting inspiration, and (the greatest time-suck of them all) staying updated on all your social media – and you can easily get overloaded.

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To achieve a good work/life balance at some point you’re going to have to turn things off. Turn off your computer. Turn off your internet. Turn off your phone.

Oh, and one more thing.  You need to turn off your brain.  Not the whole thing, just the part that thinks about work.  Don’t keep thinking about work when you aren’t working!  If you are considering emails you need to write while playing with your kids then your job is seriously seeping into your recreational time and not letting your really enjoy either.

When you’re working, work.  When you’re not, don’t.

Take one night to not to think about work. If you start to think about work, gently refocus your mind on what you are doing and immerse yourself in your current activity.

3. Why do you do what you do?

This is a great question for many designers to be asking themselves. But maybe an even better questions for freelance designers to ask is: why are you freelance designing instead of working for someone else?

I’m thinking you freelance design because you wanted a more flexible schedule, more free time, less stress, and more creative freedom when designing.

If you are consistently working more than you want and constantly stressed out, then you need to sit yourself down and have a talk. How can you change your design job to make it more like the job you want to have?  Do you need to work less?  Take on fewer design projects?  Schedule your time better?  Get out more?

Whatever the situation, you have the luxury of being able to make decisions that will change your job to what you want it to be.  That’s a luxury most people in the traditional working world would love to have.

Write down why you are a freelance designer. Just getting these ideas written down is a big step in helping you remember them.

4. Get passionate about something besides your work

Sometimes it’s hard to stop working because there’s not much else you’d rather be doing.  You get excited about spending time on a great design or coding a clean application.  That’s why you’re in the field we’re in – you love it!  And it’s a great and wonderful thing to get to do what you love as a job. But your life can get pretty out of whack if that’s the only thing you love.

To provide some balance you’ll need to find something else you really like to do when you’re not working. That might mean finding a new hobby or resurrecting an old love that has taken a backseat because you’ve been working too much.

The possibilities are endless, but some passions I’ve recently noticed are:

  • Surfing
  • Cooking
  • Painting
  • Biking
  • Coffee roasting
  • Hiking
  • Playing in a band
  • Running

While “personal projects” are great to have for designers, I find that oftentimes you end up doing the same type of work on a personal project that you do all day for a job.  In my opinion the further away from your job your passion is the fuller your life will be.

Do something (outside of your field) that you’ve never done before, but always thought about doing.

What are your suggestions for maintaining a healthy work-life balance?

These are a few of the suggestions I had for creating a healthy work-life balance as a freelance designer. What other tips, advice or suggestions can you share with us?

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  1. Wonderful article. Great topic. I was planning a talk on managing a distributed design team last night and reached out to the people I work with most (Hi Brad) to get wisdom. Reid (great friend and talented design do gooder) defined the art of working from home as achieving Rhythm.

    We all work best in a pattern. John Maxwell, the author of every leadership book conceivable, told a group of us at a conference: “I can predict the long term outcome of your success if you show me your daily habits.” I continually find that the struggles I face are rarely in doing, but in the decision to do. The decision to stop working when stressed. The decision to exercise when don’t feel like it. Take away the decision and it becomes easy. If you swim every Tue and Thur at noon, then the day quickly comes when you aren’t asking if you should swim. You simply go swimming according to your habit. It doesn’t compete with work, because it is a reoccurring commitment in your calendar.

    Design your life. Design your work. Both with equal intention. Otherwise, some one will probably design it for you. =)

    1. @shane, Great thoughts Shane. Being intentional about all of this is key, and creating those habits to force yourself to do what you want to do anyways is vital as well. You’ll thanks yourself later.

  2. You give some good advice. Working from home, I find it hard to be disciplined enough and stop when I should. Oops, just realized it’s 8:30pm on a Friday… time to stop. Thanks!

    1. @Flavio, Can definitely be hard to stop when you’re having fun. Hopefully at 8.30 on a Friday reading Millo is at least some fun for you. Hopefully also this article helps you get to what is the most fun for you.

  3. Brad, thanks for the great article. Like you I too work from my home and my own master. You are very right when we start working we forget to set a limit for ourself. This exhaust us too soon.I too became slave to my work when I started but controlled it all now.

    After my morning walk and breakfast I have set 10.00am -1.00pm for work as it is most productive hours with small break after every half an hour for stretching. I do most challenging jobs at this time.

    Two hours in afternoon for TV and lunch and small nap.

    Then 3.00pm to 6.00pm in my evening goes into work and one hour from this is reserved to learn new tricks (currently html5 and css3) and that is most enjoying period. Simple reason you are learning and will soon be earning once you master them.

    Evening fully reserved for badminton, family and TV.

    Bad habits that took my energy that I have stopped are:

    Never check social media during working hours. It is a energy sucker for a freelancer. I personally check twitter every weekend.

    Never answer mails as it come except when too urgent. Instead of using computer to answer mails and staring at it I spend few minutes on Blackberry as I can answer mails while sitting on my rooftop and relaxing at same time. It gives you a nice break too.

    And yes most important point that you raised, never accept more work than you can handle. It is most aggravating factor as far as stress is concerned. Draw a big line. Just decide how much you need for monthly expenses and savings and work accordingly. You will surprised to see how easily you reach that amount. Personally if I reach that limit in 20 days I enjoy my last 10 days of month doing easy, small and fun jobs and read a lot 🙂

    I too learned it hard way but now I am in full control.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. @Jay Kaushal, Like your style Jay! I love how you’ve taken ownership of your time and made your job work for you. Setting that schedule, especially for times when you WON’T work, is so great!

      Answering emails while sitting on the roof and enjoying the view sounds like the icing on the cake!

  4. 1) Get help. You don’t have to be the accountant, janitor, delivery person, and designer. Spend your time on what you do well. 2) Pay yourself on a set schedule. Figure out what you want your salary to be, write yourself regular paychecks, and save the rest.

    1. @Kim Phillips | Lucid Marketing, Good call Kim. Getting help on what you don’t do best can be hard to do, but can remove a LOT of stress.

  5. The biggest mistake we make as freelancers is to work too much. I’ve done 16 hour work days quite a lot in the past year and it was far from being right or healthy. Now I have a schedule and I’ve started working out again. This week marked my return to the karate classes and it’s been a blast.

    I am still pretty fit and athletic, but it is an important aspect in my life and it surely makes me a better freelancer.

    1. @Ramona, Agreed, bringing exercise into your life is one of the best things you can do to help balance things out. Plus it gives you so much more energy.

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