As a freelancer, Cait Flanders knows about the struggles of time management and setting a schedule for herself—here are some tactics she uses for getting the most productivity out of every day.

Before I quit my 9-to-5 job to become a full-time freelancer, I worked remotely for a start-up company for two years. While that might sound like a dream—to work from home and get a steady paycheck—I suffered from major burnout while I worked there, because I wasn’t managing my time or taking care of myself.

The problem started with my feeling the need to be online at all times, so everyone at the company knew I was working. Since the head office was across the country and three hours ahead of me, I logged onto our chat program at 6:00AM each day. And because it’s a start-up, some people worked 12-hour days, so I stayed online and was available to work until at least 6:00PM.

During those hours, I rarely took proper breaks—like a coffee break or lunch hour, where I physically walked away from my computer. It wasn’t the company’s fault; they didn’t know I felt the need to be online all day, and no one asked me to check my email late at night or on weekends. I just felt like working from home was a gift, and I owed it to them to be the best remote employee possible.

One of the other problems that came with being a remote employee, however, is that I also felt like I couldn’t take a vacation. My work was attached to my laptop, and my laptop could go anywhere I went, so I took it—and I worked. For two years, I barely took more than two full days off at a time—and I suffered for it. While I was at the airport, waiting to come home from one vacation (where I worked), I had a panic attack. It was obvious to me that my body was telling me something needed to change.

First, I altered my hours: I woke up later, started work later, and logged off earlier. I also set three alarms: one for a coffee break, one for lunch, and one for when it was time to stop working. After work, I’d do something active, like go for a walk or go to the gym. I stopped checking my work email in the evenings and on weekends. I didn’t make all of these changes overnight—they had to be slowly built into my life—but together, they helped me create a much healthier routine. The result: not only did I work fewer hours and take more time off for myself, I was more productive and genuinely enjoyed the work I was doing.

When I became a full-time freelancer, I noticed how easy it would be to slip back into old patterns. Every day, I felt these anxious pangs telling me I should take every opportunity to make money. I knew if I didn’t take action to appease this anxiety I would end up working long hours and not letting myself take any breaks or time off. Instead, I knew I’d be a better freelancer for my clients if I managed my time and took care of myself first.

Here’s my advice to other freelancers: If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your clients. On top of eating healthy and staying active, you must manage your time.

Here’s how to build your own healthy routine:

Stick to a Work Schedule

While one of the luxuries of working for yourself is that you can work whenever you want, I’ve learned it’s still important to stick to a schedule. You don’t necessarily need to work Monday through Friday, though. I often take Tuesdays off to go hiking with friends, as well as Saturday, and work all the other days.

The bonus of sticking to a schedule isn’t just that it helps you map out the rest of your life so you can do things besides work; it also helps you set realistic projections and deadlines with clients. If you know it’ll take two days or two weeks to finish a project, you can look at your existing schedule and workload, and give your client a reasonable deadline—one you know you can comfortably work within, so you can do your best work and are not scrambling at the last hour.

Schedule Breaks

On top of picking which days you want to work, it’s also important to take breaks throughout the workday. I failed to do this for years, because I wanted people to see I was online and know I was available to work. But then I thought about it this way: The people you freelance for take coffee and lunch breaks, so why can’t you?

The advantages of taking scheduled breaks are endless. For starters, your eyes will thank you for looking away from the screen! But in all seriousness, pausing every couple hours is good for your productivity, and can help you come back to your work feeling refreshed. If it helps, set alarms on your phone that ring in the morning, at lunch, and when you want to finish work—and walk away from the screen as soon as the sound goes off.

Go on a Real Vacation

Finally, once in a while, take more than one or two days off each week. Perhaps the greatest luxury of working for yourself is the fact that you’re not limited to 10 or 15 vacation days each year, so move things around and take as many as you can afford. The distance will spark your creativity and help you find clarity in your work.

Being your own boss isn’t easy, but putting the right systems in place can help you do your best work. Taking care of yourself and taking time off will not only help you, it’ll also help you serve your clients. Once you find the schedule that works best for you, you’ll see more success in your business.

Cait Flanders is a freelance writer and editor in Canada.
She is passionate about helping others align their budgets with
their goals and values, and overcome consumerism tendencies
—all of which she writes about on her blog Blonde on a Budget.

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