Track

To Avoid Burnout, I Shifted My Workday 4 Hours Backwards. Here’s What Happened.

Earlier this year–pre-viral apocalypse–I found myself in serious need of a vacation. I love my work as a freelance writer. But after one year with barely a day off, I began to feel tapped out of the creative energy and stamina required to spring out of bed and write content all day.

I needed a break, and a week-long vacation in late spring sounded perfect.

I’d get some assignments covered, set my email away message, and resolutely turn down opportunities that interfered with sacred vacation time. I had savings and clients on retainer; I was prepared for lazy mornings, some extra sunshine, and most importantly, zero workload.

And then, the coronavirus happened.

Within the span of two weeks, I lost half of my clients. My income plummeted, and I needed to save my money and scramble for new opportunities. My vacation suddenly appeared self-indulgent, unrealistic, and unaffordable.

The symptoms of burnout, however, persisted. Repeating my daily grind began to feel, for lack of a better term, nauseating. I needed a break, and I would have to get creative about taking one.

My solution: vacation until noon

Freelancing may come with its drawbacks–lack of PTO among them–but there are good reasons we freelancers forego benefits and job security. Chief among these reasons is time flexibility. That being said, I have stuck to an 8-to-5 schedule for the majority of my freelance career. On most days, I wake up immediately thinking about work. What’s due? What do I need to tackle first? On a scale of 1-10, how mentally drained will I feel at the end of today?

Contemplating an interminable stretch of weekday mornings like these, I made a decision. I would shift my schedule four hours forward, take my mornings off, and see if I could trick myself into feeling like I’m on vacation…without actually taking a vacation.

Here are the results of shifting my workday to 12 p.m.-to-9 p.m. for two months–and how that affected my ability to meet deadlines, remain productive, and most importantly, avoid burnout:

1. Free time felt more like free time

When I work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., I often finish the day in one of two mindsets: I continue to remain in work mode, and consequently use the rest of my waking hours to run errands, make phone calls, or do some other “productive activity.” Or, I feel so drained that I’m unable to fully enjoy my evening.

Either way, my weekdays don’t often include hours that feel like “free time” in the truest sense of the phrase.

Shifting my non-work hours to the mornings, however, allowed me to experience free time to the fullest. I woke up at the same time every day (between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m.), and then decided what I would do for the next six or so hours until I had to get started on work. Most mornings, I headed to the beach for a surf or a run along the coastline. I followed my workouts with a homemade breakfast.    

By the time I sat down at my laptop at noon, I’d already had a fulfilling, enjoyable day. I was ready to focus on the task at hand, and comfortable with the idea of spending the rest of my waking hours at work. I had already worked out, and I felt fueled by my hearty breakfast. My day had already been a good one, no matter how overwhelmed I felt by a particular assignment.

2. I was more likely to complete my goals

Here was the most surprising result of my experiment: I became more productive.

As a freelancer, I set three goals a day – typically two writing assignments and one administrative chore. Though goal-setting keeps me on task for the most part, I often find myself a bit behind schedule (and scrambling to finish everything on Fridays).

Working late into the evenings, however, made it more likely that I would meet all of my objectives on a daily basis. Given that I had already sufficiently enjoyed my day, there was nothing left to do but slay my to-dos. Not only that, but I was surprised to find myself–a self-proclaimed morning person–just as focused at nighttime as I was at daybreak.

3. I was able to stave off burnout–temporarily at least.

Starting work at noon every day did, in fact, feel like a mini-staycation. By giving myself permission to have fun and switching up my habits, I was able to fool myself into believing I was on a break.

Yes, I still had to work–but writing in the evenings with an occasional glass of rosé and feet still sandy from the beach felt more luxurious than attempting to cross a 5 p.m. finish line.

The effect? I was able to stave off temporary feelings of burnout–temporarily, at least.

After about two months of starting work at noon, I found myself itching again to take a full week off. Eventually, I needed a full respite from writing to reboot my creative juices. After examining my finances and setting up some new clients in the pipeline, I was able to finally plan for taking five full days of work off.

The takeaways

Will I continue to start work at noon?

For right now, that’s the plan. The downsides to pushing my work day back were minimal; Coronavirus doesn’t allow for much socializing in the evenings, anyway, and I learned to run my errands on the weekends. The upsides, on the other hand, were significant; Mornings at the beach, decreased stress, and increased productivity have made me a believer in late starts.

That being said, my personal circumstances allow me this luxury: I’m single and childless, so I’m not coordinating my schedule with others. I also live in a climate where it’s more or less summer year-round. I’ve got plenty to do outside on a daily basis.

When my circumstances change, I imagine my schedule will, too. But that’s the beauty of freelancing–I can change my schedule at will. At the end of the day, that was the most powerful lesson of my experiment in time management: We control how we use our time, not the other way around.

September 23, 2020