Free Time is Not Free

Puerto Vallarta
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I’ve been quiet for a while. I had a lot of things on my plate before I went on vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a few days. Now I’m back to… uh… having even more things on my plate. I could have theoretically skipped the vacation to catch up on work,1 but that would have been a bad idea. Vacations are really important.

This might seem pretty obvious, but you have to put this into perspective. Most of the people I know and work with are either freelance writers (who often have two jobs – their freelance work along with a day job) or professional creatives (who sometimes don’t even notice that they’ve worked a 60 hour week until someone calls them wondering if they died or something). If you’re writing or designing a game or doing illustration, it’s often not because you’re making millions2 of dollars a year, but because it’s something you love doing.

But it builds up. If you’re a writer, for example, odds are that when you’re not writing or doing something else to pay the bills, you’re talking to other writers about writing, or blogging about writing, or reading to learn more about writing, or what have you. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing at all – it’s a vocation many are passionate about, and many of us enjoy the process. But there is such as thing as too much. Once in a while, you have to take a few days for yourself in order to recharge the batteries.

Many of us see time and energy as a direct commodity and resource – you have a certain amount to spend, and you spend it, and the next day you have the same amount to spend again. But in reality, that’s not true. Many times, you have a little bit less than you did the time before, and putting in the same amount of time and energy day after day gets to be harder and harder. With freelancers, this is often even worse, because often “free time” becomes “a chance to get more work done.” This is a trap, because there’s always more work to be done.

For years, I was on this treadmill, and I burned out pretty hard because of it. I actually thought I was done forever, but I was back in six months. Since then, I’ve tried to make sure I actually take a few days now and then to focus on something I enjoy, or even to take a break entirely.

“Taking a break” takes a lot of forms, however. A chunk of my shorter breaks late last year ended up being the first draft of Marvelous Superheroes. During my trip to Mexico, in which I swore I wouldn’t do anything resembling work, I ended up spending several hours brainstorming ideas for some stories I’ve been debating writing just for fun over the past few years. Another time I took a mental health break, I ended up watching most of the Red Dwarf series.

It all comes down to self-awareness. There’s a line between “lazy” and “burned out,” and I think each person needs to find that line for themselves. For me, I find that if I’m just being lazy, the feeling passes when I write the first few sentences of whatever I’m working on, but if I’m still feeling like gouging my own eyes out after a half hour or so, I’m probably burned out. Taking a day or two (depending on the timeframe of the project) to walk away from it and doing something completely different usually helps me. It’s not a weakness or an excuse – it’s necessary to make sure that when I come back to the project, I’m putting my best work into it.

Yes, you should write ever day. Yes, you should push yourself in a variety of ways. Yes, writing is hard work, and you should be ready to put in the hard work to make it the best you can. But no one can work all of the time, even if the work is incredibly awesome and fulfilling.

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  1. Not really – it was a company vacation that I had planned time for since late last year. It would have been a really bad idea for me to bail on it. But, you know, I could have.
  2. Or hundreds