Monday, August 31, 2009

GUEST POST: That Whole Work-Life Balance Thing...

Mike Chen is not only a talented commercial writer and blogger, but he also writes a mean novel. He documents the process over at his novel blog, and when he's not doing that he's blogging about hockey. He's definitely one to watch for--both online and in bookstores.

That Whole Work-Life Balance Thing...
By Mike Chen

If you're reading this, then you know that Jenny's going on vacation. A real no-technology, no-communication, no-work vacation.

How many of us are envious? Ok, that looks like all of you.

How many of us feel like we can make that clean-cut not-even-mail commitment to time off? I'm guessing if you're like me, and if you're like Jenny, it's one of those wishful-thinking things -- and kudos to her for finally taking some time off.

I think the difficult thing with freelancing or contracting, whether you're a writer, graphic designer, web developer or whatever, is that there's no firm boundary between personal and professional. There's a thick blur between those two things because the professional affects the personal and vice versa. Got a last-minute emergency request from a client? Slap on the quick-turnaround fee and take in the extra cash, but cancel whatever plans you have tonight. Gonna take time off to trek across Central America? Well, you sure won't be getting paid during that time, so be prepared to work your tail off when you return.

The problem with going out on your own, at least for me, is that there's this constant anxiety that you could be doing something to help your business. "Something" can be anything from marketing to blogging to working on an actual project, and that's the real kicker -- "something" is so nebulous that you can't necessarily shut it off.

A few years ago, my wife-to-be and I had one of those, um, discussions about where those boundaries lie. It seemed like whenever I got home from an on-site gig, I'd fire up the ol' laptop and begin a remote freelance project. While I felt like I was doing something good for our pseudo-family unit, she felt like I was disappearing into Work World. This seems to be fairly common among contractors and freelancers of the creative sort, and I think part of it is that the natural creativity that powers our careers is something that we enjoy, even when it's for work purposes.

Still, there had to be limits to this. It got to a point where I'd use my phone to work on drafts while waiting for a friend or out at an event. The biggest lesson I learned out of all of this is that sanity is much more valuable than money. And to achieve sanity, I had to set my boundaries -- and stick to them.

I have a system of sorts now. My weekly hours are a mish-mash of on-site, remote corporate contract, and freelance. When I come home from the on-site, I tell my wife (and myself) what I have to do and roughly how long it'll take. When those goals are met, I shut it down. I might write for fun, but the work switch turns off. On the weekends, I know I'll dedicate about two hours on one morning to polishing projects or handling logistics like billing and emails.

I stay flexible with this. I think any good business person should. If I get a quick-turnaround request that is worth the money, I'll take it. However, before I start, I take a big-picture look at who or what it's going to affect.

I believe I've achieved a balance with this, mostly because I can work a somewhat predictable schedule (8:30 AM to about 6:30 PM) that allows for flexibility on either side. I have a graphic designer friend that tells me that she has trouble establishing those boundaries, and she'll often work into the AM while her husband is asleep. While that may be feasible for the short-term, that sounds like a slow descent into hell over a long period of time.

A wise person once told me that life will move forward no matter what you do. That little nugget of wisdom really hit home with me, because as important as my business was, it became more important to learn to detach from it. It's difficult when it encompasses so much of you; however, the rewards go far beyond the extra money you might earn from working ridiculous hours.

If you plan properly and remain flexible, those boundaries can be drawn and adhered to. Even something like Jenny's absolutely-everything-off, as much as the notion of that might induce fear of losing clients and destroying business, that type of vacation is possible. In fact, I'd say it's necessary.

Of course, I haven't done something like that in the past two years. But I think about it a lot!


Mike Chen said...

I think this is the most brilliant, well-written guest post yet. Surely the author is deserving of a gigantic book contract.

Genn said...

I completely agree! On both the blog post and your commet. I'd just like to add that us 'day job' folks are also having a hard time with the work-life balance. With more and more companies laying off working longer hours is becoming the norm. Its a tricky thing, but crucial.