This past December, I was preparing for a long-anticipated vacation in New Orleans. It was two o’clock in the morning as I sent off my last business email and hit the sheets. As I tried to relax so I could get a few hours of sleep before my flight, I reflected on how I’d worked 12, 14-hour days all week so I could take four days off. I wondered if there was a better way. In truth, when you are self-employed like I am, it’s never easy to take time off. But there are a few tricks to balancing work and fun — without losing clients or imposing on your much-needed vacation time.
Plan ahead to take time off
This might seem obvious, but you can sit down and make a list of every project on your schedule, what surprises or new business might arise, and what your clients are expecting. Then plan accordingly.
Don’t wait until the week before you take time off do this; start your planning three to four weeks ahead of time.
For example, as a writer, I will line up all of my interviews and research activities in advance, so that I can spend as much of the week before my trip as possible churning out articles and newsletters. I try to get everything done a few days before my trip so there is time for edits and revisions.
Encourage them to think ahead and let you know what they’ll need while you’re away. Get them in on the brainstorming, and you might even get some extra work.
For example, if they say they’ll need their annual report, suggest a press release and a blog to go with it. Once you put your schedule together, send a copy to your clients. This will enable them to identify any forgotten projects or deadlines. It also will serve as written documentation that will avoid any misunderstandings later on.
Pennsylvania-based massage therapist Gina King spends a few months in Texas each year. She says, “I let my clients know months in advance. I discuss their needs and concerns that I can work with them to address gaps in services.” She adds, “I call them a few weeks before I get back in town so that I can set up appointments and be ready to go.”
Heads up for down time
Some people, like accountant Thomas King, CPA, can predict when business will be slower and plan his vacations accordingly. For instance, he says, the 15th of the month is always busy, so he usually plans trips at the beginning or the end of the month. He also knows that February through April and the last two months of the year will be busy, so he tries to avoid making plans during those times.
Send in the subs
Especially when you will be gone for long periods of time, it might be necessary to have a colleague who can pick up the slack. Gina says:
“I give my clients business cards for massage therapists in the area who I know and respect. I encourage them to contact one of these individuals while I’m gone.”
Some will take her up on this offer; while others, she notes, will just wait until she returns.
Tom notes, “I have an accountant I collaborate with who can come in and help out with clients if I get sick or have some sort of emergency.” While he has confidence in his colleague, he admits it’s difficult. “I’ve been with some for many years, and it’s hard to turn them over to someone else.” However, he observes that it sometimes is unavoidable, and his priority is to ensure that his clients get service that is as seamless as possible.
Even when you have a good relationship with clients, it can be a bit disconcerting to turn them over to someone else.
Having the person sign a do-not-compete or other type of contract might help prevent problems down the road.
Of course, you shouldn’t make arrangements for a substitute without input and approval from your clients. In fact, they might have someone they want to use, or they may be willing to hire a temp or suspend the project until you return. If you include your clients in your planning and make it clear that their satisfaction is paramount, they are more likely to return your loyalty.
Have tablet, will travel
Unfortunately, especially when you’re self-employed, it might not be possible to get away from work completely. Tom says, “My wife and I went on a cruise, and I would get up early and do a few hours of work while she was still sleeping.” This requires a bit of planning, he says. For instance, he arranged in advance to have Wi-Fi internet access.
If you are traveling abroad, find out in advance about any special power cords or other devices you might need. Tom admits:
“It’s unhealthy not to take time away from work, but sometimes it’s just not possible to drop everything and go.”
He noted that your dedication can score points with clients.
While it might be not be possible to escape completely from work, determine not to let it ruin your vacation. For instance, as Tom did, you can set specific times or parameters for work.
Avoiding the stress that work brings with it can be a bit trickier. I was traveling a few years ago when I got notice of a major personnel change in a client’s office. As freelancers and contract workers are well aware, new management often want to bring in their own people. I tried not to let this news ruin the rest of my trip; however, I confess that I thought twice before spending money and re-thought a couple of splurges I had planned.
Check in? Check.
Let your clients know in advance not only when you are leaving, but also when you will return. If possible, give them an emergency contact number; and check email and voicemail at least once daily for issues that might arise.
For example, if I see something that might make a good article, I will shoot a message to one of my editors. I also will bring clients a small but thoughtful gift from my travels.
All about reason
While most clients are likely to understand your desire or need to enjoy vacations, spend time with ill family members, or take time off for health reasons, don’t expect their indulgence if you are traveling for another client. When this happens, it is important to ensure — as much as possible — uninterrupted service for everyone. Whether this means working at night or getting up extra early, the goal is for every client to feel that they have your full attention.