How to take a vacation the right way as a Freelancer

When you run your own business it can be tough to take a break. Especially hard if you work alone. In this post, I share some techniques and tips that help me get quality downtime.

Paul Boag
8 min readMay 23, 2017


I am shocked at how few of those I mentor, gets regular vacation time. Taking a break from work is essential for your mental health and effectiveness when running your own business. But many business owners don’t manage to make it happen.

If you struggle to find time for vacations or find that when you do take time off, you get drawn back in by emergencies and supporting clients, then this post is for you.

Let me be clear; every business is different. I don’t know your circumstances or your character. But for those of you who want to take a real break, I will share with you how I make it happen. Maybe some of what I write can be applied to your situation.

It all begins by being realistic when you set your rates.

Do you charge enough for time off?

One of the big problems that seem to prevent many people from taking time off is that they cannot afford to. The reason for this is that their charge-out rate isn’t realistic.

When calculating your charge-out rate, it is crucial that you take into account the amount of vacation you want to take in a year. Then, of course, there are weekends, public holidays, etc. On top of which you need to realise that you will have to do a lot of administrative, non-chargeable work.

If you don’t establish realistic rates you doom yourself to a life without vacations, weekends or evenings.

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Let’s say you wanted to earn £80,000 in revenue over a year. That will have to cover everything from salary to tax and expenses. You can’t just divide this number by 365 days to get your daily rate.

Instead, you need to calculate the number of days you work. For example:

  • 365 days in a year
  • Minus 104 weekend days.
  • Minus ten public holidays (here in the UK at least).
  • Minus 20 days of vacation leave.

That only leaves 231 chargeable days. That would make your rate £346 per day. But, you are not done yet. If you just do that your vacation time will get swallowed by the business. That is because you haven’t taken into account that you cannot charge out 100% of your working week. You will have finance, sales, marketing and a whole host of admin to do as well. In fact, when I calculated my rate I worked on the assumption that only 50% of my time was chargeable. That reduces the number of chargeable days to 115 and increases our example daily rate to £695!

Of course, when you do the calculation you might think the rate is unsustainable because clients will not swallow it. If that is the case, then there are bigger issues to address than I can cover in this post. What I am trying to point out is that you will never get a decent vacation if you aren’t charging realistically.

But even if you are charging enough, the demands of clients can make it hard to get away. Fortunately, you can do something about this too.

How to minimise the impact of demanding clients

The first step in getting uninterrupted downtime is to take a long hard look at what work you are doing for clients. For example, if you offer a certain level of service to customers, even if only unofficially, it will make going away harder.

The most common example of this is hosting. If you arrange hosting for your clients then if their site goes down when you are away you will get a phone call. Even if it doesn’t, you will feel obliged to keep an eye on email, just in case.

Personally, I recommend dropping hosting as quickly as possible. It brings nothing but pain and administrative overhead. Also, it is easy to sell the benefits to your clients of buying hosting themselves. It will be cheaper for them for a start, and they will get guaranteed 24/7 support.

Stop hosting sites for clients. It is a pain in the ass and will mess up any vacation you go on!

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If that is not possible, help clients deal with your vacation by giving them the direct support number for the hosting company. Preparing clients is a fundamental component in getting a restful holiday.

Give customers a lot of advanced notice you are going away and keep telling them right up until you go. Make it clear that you will be out of contact and that you will become increasingly busy in the build up to the trip. Encourage them to resolve any issues with you early.

But that is not the only preparation you need to do before going away.

My four steps to preparing for a vacation

There are four things I always do before going on vacation that makes the whole experience much more pleasurable.

1. Keep your last day meeting free

I make the last day at work free from meetings. Everybody tries to grab your time just before you go away and it turns into a nightmare. So instead I tell everybody I am already booked up. That means I can spend the day tying up loose ends, so things aren’t quite as stressful on my return.

2. Schedule last minute emails to go out after you leave

The problem with email is that the more you send, the more you get. As you send out last minute emails, you inevitably get replies which lead to more work. So instead I schedule those emails to send after I have logged off for my holiday. That way I don’t feel tempted to reply and get drawn in.

Anybody who does email me back will get my out of office. That means they won’t expect a reply until my return.

3. Setup your out of office the right way

I am sure you have experienced the horror of getting back from holiday and being faced with a mountain of email. You can reduce that with a well written out of office notification.

A well writen out of office reply can significantly reduce your workload when you come back to the office.

In my out of office message I make it clear that I will reply to any clients or prospective clients on my return. However, I ask everybody else to email me again once I return to work. That way I can ignore any non-client email unless they take the time to followup when I get back.

Interestingly, few of those non-client people do email me again. That just shows how many emails we receive are pointless. They are not important enough for the sender to bother resending them!

Finally, don’t forget to change your voicemail greeting too. I tell clients I am away and ask them to email me rather than leave a message. That way I can deal with all messages in the same place on my return.

4. Do an email purge before you go

Before I finish work, I do one last thing. I clean out my email inbox. For me, that isn’t that hard. I tend to follow the inbox zero principle. If you don’t that is not a problem. Just create a folder called something like pre-holiday inbox and put all your inbox emails in there.

The reason for this is to ensure you are not overwhelmed with email on your return. But it will also make dealing with email while you are away much easier. Because, yes, I check email when I am away.

How to handle work when you are away

At this point, you might have expected me to say you should entirely ignore work while on vacation so you can completely unwind. But if you are anything like me that is not going to happen. The worry about what is going on in my absence would prevent me relaxing. Also as the vacation draws to an end, I would dread the mountain of work awaiting me once I am back.

Instead, I lay some ground rules for myself that ensure I get the most from the vacation and avoid the worry.

First, I only take a smartphone. A smartphone is good enough for remaining in touch, but not good enough to do any work. If I take a laptop or even an iPad, I find myself getting drawn into work.

Second, I do check email but only once a day. At the end of each day on vacation, I sit down with my phone and process the emails in my inbox until it is empty again.

I start by archiving any email that is not from a client or a prospective customer. These people will email me again on my return if it’s important and I don’t want the email sitting there to nag at me.

I quickly scan any remaining email. If it doesn’t need a reply, then I just archive it. Anything that remains will need dealing with on my return to the office. But instead of leaving email in my inbox, I use my email client (Polymail) to show it to me on my return. Of course, not all email clients offer this ability so just add it to a folder for later retrieval.

Polymail allows you to resurface emails once you are back in the office. That means you can keep your inbox clear when you are on vacation.

Doing this for 5 minutes each day will dramatically reduce the number of emails you have to work through on your return. Also by clearing your inbox each day, you don’t have to look at all those emails you have to reply to when you get home. But most of all it will give you a sense of control that allows you to relax. Sure, you might get a depressing email. But that person will know they aren’t going to get an immediate reply, and you have a system for dealing with it. That means you can sit back and relax until it is time to get back to work.

A final tip when returning to work

My first day back at work after a vacation used to be a nightmare. I had this mountain of email to wade through, and people inevitably booked up meetings from the moment I stepped into the office. Any good feelings from the vacation instantly evaporated.

Things are different now. In part, this is because I can reduce the mountain of email while I am away. But another fact is that I refuse to book in any meetings or meaningful work on that first day back.

Instead, I reserve the first day back for replying to email and marshalling my thoughts. I used to spend the last night of a vacation updating my task list and preparing myself for work. Now I do that on the day I get back, and it makes for a much more pleasant way to start work again.

So there you go. That is how I deal with going away. I hope you found it useful and there are one or two tips in there that will help you have a more pleasant vacation this summer.



Paul Boag

I am a User Experience Consultant, speaker & author of User Experience Revolution. I run @boagworks and am a director of @smashingmag and @headscapeltd