The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Give yourself a break

The final day of February every year is International RSI Awareness Day, so it’s a good time for a reminder to take care of yourself when you’re working at a desk all day. In the past, I’ve written about posture and desk set-up – which are both incredibly important – but this year, the main thing that I’ve been struggling to get right, and which I think a lot of freelancers will recognize, is keeping my working hours under control.

One of the main causes of health problems related to working at a desk is simply overworking. If there’s something a bit awry with your posture or desk set-up, then long hours pushing your body is only going to exacerbate any niggling, underlying issues. And, to be honest, even if your set-up’s spot-on, too many hours in one position and your body’s going to get tired and tense and your posture’s going to slip and that’s when problems start. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, keeping an eye on the number of hours I spend at my desk is one of the most important tools I have in managing my condition.

In an ideal world, I’d work roughly 20 billed-for hours a week (actually working on paid projects) plus around 5-10 hours of ‘admin’ (sorting out emails, book-keeping, social media, reading, writing blog posts, etc.). Those hours would be evenly spread through the week and also spread through the day with plenty of breaks and no more than an hour at my desk at a time (with mini breaks within that hour). And I’d just plod along happily.

At the start of each week, I have in mind a rough ‘shape’ for the week ahead, that generally consists of:

One ‘disrupted’ day, when I might take the whole day out at an event or I might have a half-day away from my desk. That could be meeting a friend for lunch or booking in a one-to-one pilates class.

A swim twice a week. I generally go at the end of the morning and it’s a great way to stretch out and release the morning’s tensions. I also find it’s great thinking time … lots of activities get composed as I’m gliding up and down the pool!

An hour away. On other days, I try to get completely away from my desk for at least an hour at some point during the day. I’ve taken to going for a brisk walk with a favourite route around Bristol harbour (about 3.5 miles/5.5 km) which takes me about 50 minutes. Or I might just take a roundabout route to the Post Office or to do some other chore.

Bristol harbour

In reality, over 18 years of freelancing, I’ve rarely managed to keep a steady flow of work. However, hard you try to plan, schedules shift, briefs expand so you find yourself doing double the hours in half the time and projects overrun, overlapping with the next one and eating up your planned downtime. And even when you push back, deadlines only move minimally and grudgingly.

So, what’s the answer to avoiding overwork and keeping a healthy workflow? I’m afraid I don’t have any magic bullets, but I would say:

Keep pushing back against unrealistic schedules. If a project is taking significantly more hours than you were led to believe at the outset, then ask for more time. Set out how long it’s taken you so far, for example, per page or per unit. Check that you’re doing what’s expected. Explain how much longer the remaining work will take and pace that out according to your normal working hours to suggest a new deadline. Of course, you have sympathy with your in-house contact who’s under pressure to keep to schedule, but this is business and it’s not reasonable to expect you to work silly hours and damage your health. It’s up to the person who decides the schedule to get the timings right at the start rather than being wildly optimistic and hoping you’ll just soak up the pain.

Be aware of the hours you’re working and, more importantly, the breaks you’re taking. You might not be a swimmer or a walker, but planning activities into your week that force you to take a proper physical break from your desk, ideally in the middle of the working day, gives your body a chance to relax and release some of the built-up tension. And remember, sometimes the most important time to take breaks is when you think you can least afford to; when you’re racing to meet a deadline and you’ve been hunched over your desk for days getting more and more frustrated. That’s the time when you’re most at risk and most need a break. You might feel like you ought to push on, but you’ll probably be more productive after a pause. If you can make proper breaks a part of your working routine before your body starts to creak under the strain, then you’re more likely to avoid serious health problems along the line.

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