It feels like a secret every time I hit ‘schedule send’ on my email and slip off for a surf in the French Atlantic, long before my clients have even woken up to their morning coffee.
Maybe they think I’m at home in Toronto, starting in on that familiar routine. But few actually know I’m halfway across the world living a few hours into the future. I never miss a deadline. I’m quick to respond and free to hop on a call. It’s business as usual for them, and on my end, I’ve established conventions to help me make sense of an unconventional setup.
When I started freelancing over a decade ago, I realized fairly quickly that no one was going to give me an off switch. As my stable of clients grew, I went from “no boss” to juggling a handful of clients, each with unique needs and their own understanding of the word “deadline.” Most of my friends and family saw my life as a perpetual vacation, but I envied their weekends and evenings while I wrote pitches or made edits to stories on my phone from the back row at concerts.
Five years ago, my wife quit her job and we decided to move to France for six months. In the months leading up to our move, I traded sleep for hours lying awake in bed having imaginary conversations with my clients about what my leaving meant, about how it’d only be brief. I’d be relocated but not unreachable. I calculated financial hits, which clients would drop me, and who might stay. I thought my way in and out and back in again to every potential scenario.
And then it clicked. Did I know where my clients were that exact moment? Not really. A few maybe. But mostly, our relationships were based on emails and a few calls. And when I conducted interviews, I was calling sources all around the world, juggling timelines and timezones. What would it matter where I’m connecting from?
Since shattering that mental hurdle, I’ve spent the past five years perfecting the logistical gymnastics of relocating for a month or two at a time. Now it’s just what I do.
At least once a year, we pick up and go somewhere for a month and work on our home timezone. It’s not van life. But it’s not a vacation either. It’s just trying something new, something the freelance lifestyle affords us, taking advantage of the timezone differences to split reality in two – a vacation day and a workday stacked on top of one another.
Adjust your cadence to a remote work schedule
Like the cadence to the sentences we write, most of us have a rhythm to how we communicate. I used to be rapid-fire. An email came in and I responded instantly, abiding by the unwritten rule of expediency our smartphones have imposed upon us.
But it’s not reality. Some things have tighter timelines than others. Prioritize. Slow down. Respond to truly urgent things and let the less-than-critical emails sit for an hour or two. After a while, clients will get used to your cadence.
Don’t get me wrong. I have zero self control with email. I check it incessantly and read everything (usually within seconds of receiving it), but I do tend to prioritize and respond in a more relaxed timeframe. This way, clients aren’t in for a surprise when I’m elsewhere and go through stretches without the ability to respond.
Keep a few stories in the bank
The early days of freelance hustling instilled in me a reluctance to say no. It’s still a maxim I practice, especially in the lead-up to a month away.
I overload myself with work I’m not entirely convinced I have the bandwidth for, provided I can plot out deadlines a week or two into my trip when I know I’ll have wifi problems ironed out (there’s always a glitch somewhere along the line).
Then, I start tackling interviews and getting as much of the work done as possible. The aim is to have a few stories in the bank so I can give them final edits and file that first week or two away.
Keep your clients’ timezones in mind
I’ve found what works best for me is traveling somewhere a few timezones ahead. France, for instance, is six hours ahead of Toronto and nine hours ahead of the west coast (I have clients and sources in both places). That gives me until 3 pm or 4 pm Central European Time before I need to even look at emails.
If I get a patch of time to do some work and catch up, I can always schedule the emails to go out at an appropriate time in my client’s world.
If you aren’t asked, don’t tell
Skype works perfectly well for calls. Occasionally I’ll pick up a local SIM card so I can check emails when I’m out. But mostly, I live off wifi, and I’m choosy about who I tell.
Clients with rigorous turnaround times need to know I’m overseas, mostly for the downtime during traveling. But other than that, I only tell clients who I’ve built a strong relationship with. They’re looking for on-time delivery, prompt edits, and the occasional call — all possible regardless of where I am in the world.
Now, It’s not necessary to hide that you’re elsewhere. If you’re active on social media and want to post photos, go for it.
Don’t treat remote work like a vacation
So much of freelancing is a mental game. About the “off switch” – that’s not this. It may feel like a vacation sometimes, but it’s a different kind of arrangement. It’s working and living elsewhere. It’s buying yourself time.
That first experiment, the six months I spent in Europe, didn’t yield many evenings out, and I had to wrap my head around the guilt that comes with dividing your mind between vacation and work.
Someone once told me if you want to live longer, get up early. I try to remind myself of this when it’s 11 pm and I’m crunched to an editor’s 5 pm deadline on their time, the memory of the morning surf and the market afternoons reserved for the version of me who lives in another timezone.
Andrew Seale is Toronto-based journalist, storyteller and all-around word-slinger. He’s sat down with tech CEOs and award-winning authors, chased mining magnates and sea horse aficionados, and picked the brain of a roller coaster designer and the 14-year-old who achieved nuclear fusion.
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