Officially, I took a two-week break during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday for 2019/2020. I say “officially,” because I knew it would be, to a degree, a working holiday. Social media and online writing really don’t take a break. Online content needs to be continuous. I could have scheduled some of that work ahead of time, but I decided I would be OK devoting a few hours to work during my break.

Note I said “I decided.” Many times, releasing stress is all about us being able to make a choice, rather than feeling forced into doing something. It’s less about the action itself, and more about the reason for the action.  

But I could tell for some of my clients, it was difficult to accept that my business was closed! And interestingly enough, it was difficult for me as well.

A much-needed break

This break was the longest vacation that I had taken in 10 years. The last time I took two full weeks off, I was freelancing onsite at an educational publisher in the Chicago suburbs. It was early summer, and I used nine of those days to go to Greece. So I was completely out of the country. Because I was so devoted in a full-time way to that particular client, they knew I was going to be out of town and out of reach, and no one bothered me. 

Of course, that was 2005. In 15 years, times and methods of communicating have changed (and improved) significantly. My cell phone was worthless in Greece at that time. I did manage to check email once, thanks to an Internet cafe, which was truly all about the Internet and computers, and nothing about anything remotely appearing to be a traditional cafe. It was the only access I had to the Internet during the nine days I was in Greece, and that was available for only three days, while I was in Athens. The rest of the time I was completely off the Internet and cellular grid.

Nowadays, however, even if traveling to a faraway, foreign land, it’s not that difficult to hook up to the Internet and communicate with others regularly.

And precisely because of that — because you can — there are people who expect you to still be engaged in your business, even if you are on a “break.” 

But I also think it’s equally important for our minds, our bodies, and our spirit to have a true break. We aren’t machines. We are human beings. And we need to occasionally refresh ourselves. It’s good to get away and “shut off.” It’s a healthy thing to do, and it’s important to do it.

I have to say that, during my recent time off, I felt so free, in so many ways. Mainly, I was free of a lot of stress and worry. I didn’t have to concern myself with pleasing someone else. I didn’t have to worry about deadlines. 

The difference it made on both my mind and my body was very noticeable. I happened to have a doctor’s appointment the second week of the break, and my blood pressure, which has been abnormally high for the last two to three months had almost back to normal. Headaches I had been suffering during those months were gone. So was a burning sensation in my right leg, which, after nearly a year of testing, doctors had finally decided was coming from my back and my tendency to sit so much. But I also learned that stress brought on and intensified the burning sensation. The break reduced my stress and my time sitting in front of a computer, which gave me some badly needed relief from that symptom.

Clients might test your boundaries

During those two weeks, sure enough, even clients who knew I was on break were still reaching out to communicate with me. When they did, they received an auto-reply reminding them that my business was closed for the holidays

The issue really isn’t so much about them reaching out, but about myself. I wanted SO BADLY to return those emails and communicate and, well, work. How dare I leave them hanging for days?

And you know what? I almost did. 

Then I remembered an important concept: Others will treat us as we treat ourselves.

We use our own behavior to train others how to treat us. How we treat ourselves and our businesses dictates how clients will treat us. They will follow suit.

If I emailed replies to these clients, that would be sending the message that I didn’t find my time off valuable. I would also mean that I didn’t think I had control over my time — that my time didn’t belong to me. It only belonged to my clients.  

They got the auto-reply. That’s why it’s sent — to inform people that we are NOT available at the moment and when we will be. So they knew what was up.

So, I had to treat myself with the respect that I deserved. I had to be disciplined enough to not rush to the keyboard and start typing out responses. It was, admittedly, a little bit of a mind game for me. But after a few hours, the temptation passed (time and patience are powerful things).

We communicate important messages about how we should be treated simply by how we treat ourselves. Others will listen and respond accordingly. If we indicate that our vacation time isn’t valid, they’ll treat our time off as such and continue to evade that space. If we treat our time as the precious commodity it is, then others will respect that.

If they don’t — then frankly, they don’t deserve to be in our lives, in any capacity.

It’s not you, it’s me

So it’s really not about their behavior. It’s about ours. It’s about how we choose to act or not act. It’s about how we choose to interpret their actions. A lot of people email and text, and they really don’t expect an immediate response. That’s often our own interpretation in our heads.

Now, of course, we do need to respond in a timely matter when business is in session. For me, I promise to respond to any communication within 24 hours. Usually, it’s much, much sooner than that — within two to three hours, at the longest. Even more often, it’s instantaneous.

But it all comes down to treating others as we’d like to be treated. And treating ourselves as we’d like to be treated too — so others can learn exactly what that treatment looks like and apply it as such.

I’m on a boat!

This all reminds me of a little story.

Once upon a time, I provided services for a company that turned out to be one of the worse clients I ever had. The work itself was interesting and within my niche, but the company’s management was extremely unreasonable. They expected their employees and freelancers to dedicate every waking hour to their mismanaged, time-crunched projects. The stress dripped down like molasses from their overworked employees to us freelancers, and it was brutal.

Fortunately, as a freelancer, I could draw the line fairly easily. Good freelancers, who run their businesses as true businesses, never have all their eggs in one client basket. If you walk away from a client, you aren’t necessarily up a financial tree over it.

So after this went on for longer than I’d care to admit, I finally said “no thanks” and walked away from that client and any future projects from them.

Employees of the company found quitting much harder to do, of course.

One project manager I was working with at the time was getting married, and her honeymoon was going to be a cruise. She want on it, but she worked the whole time — and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. She answered emails and made phone calls, and in general, continued doing project management. 

As she talked to me on the phone from the boat (!), I asked her, “What does your new husband think about all this?” 

“He’s pretty upset with me,” she answered.

“I don’t blame him,” I said back.

But she also said she felt extremely pressured by the company’s upper management not to drop the ball. She felt fortunate that she was even allowed to go on the cruise. 

So she made herself available — even though she didn’t really want to be. She returned emails and made phone calls and kept working — much to the chagrin of her new husband. 

Wow — imagine how he must have felt. Not only was her time of no value to herself, but neither was his. What a message to communicate to your new spouse: “Spending time with you is not valuable to me. You are not my priority — even on our honeymoon.”

While she never actually uttered those words, that message was sent and received, loud and clear, via her actions.

It’s not OK

Needless to say, this company folded only a few years later.

It’s difficult to be successful when you treat your employees like slaves and still expect them to stick around and do quality work under such extreme deadlines and circumstances.

But — if you are going to be that person who allows yourself to be treated in such a manner, you are sending up the signal that it’s appropriate. You are saying that it’s OK. 

But it’s NOT OK. Don’t send that message to your clients. If you are a business owner, draw the boundary lines with your clients. Communicate. You deserve to be treated well as you perform your services. Teach your clients to treat you with respect by treating yourself respectfully first.

And in return, if you have employees or 1099 staff, treat them as you’d like to be treated. Be kind. Be understanding. Foster collaboration. Entertain ideas. Allow independent working. That sort of leadership produces great results and great karma. People want to work — hard — for people who treat them well. You’ll earn their trust and their loyalty.  

In taking my own advice, my clients had to wait until my break was over to get replies to their emails. The message I sent (without actually saying it): “I’m worthy of this break. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”

Knowing my clients, they’ll respect me all the more for respecting myself.