Resisting the Urge to Panic

One of the things about freelancing that people complain about is the “feast or famine cycle.” It seems like you’re either covered in work, getting up early and staying up late, struggling to meet all the deadlines or you’ve only got an hour or two of work to fill each day. There are plenty of strategies to beat the feast or famine cycle, but it’s still likely to happen now and again to everyone.

This morning, I got up, did a short yoga practice and came to my desk ready to get the work done. But there wasn’t really any work to do! Even after a dozen years of running this business, I encounter hills and valleys. Mostly, I don’t fret about them anymore. In this post, I discuss why I don’t fret and what I do instead.

Keep a list of tasks for slow times

Slow times can be scary

There are always going to be things that you put to the side when it’s busy. Slow times are great for working on projects. Maybe you have a course you want to develop, or you’re building a database for marketing. Perhaps you have a personal project you often neglect. Have you always wanted to publish a series of e-books? Maybe you’re working on a novel.

I’ve started keeping a list of things to do when it’s slow. They are all things I want to get done, but usually feel like I don’t have time to do. Some of them are work-related, many are not. This week, I plan to do some business planning, research a couple of potential niche areas, and maybe start building my marketing spreadsheet for this year (yeah, I’m behind on that!). I also plan on doing some big work in my garden, making some progress on a decluttering project, and deep cleaning my bathroom.

Plans and lists keep me steady



Reach out to past clients

I’ve worked with hundreds of clients in the last few years, and am guilty of not staying in touch when my work-focus changes or I find new, higher-paying clients. That’s not good business for several reasons.

Editors change positions and staying in touch can mean better work from folks who know you and like you. Staying top-of-mind is important when people are busy or stressed, and really, who isn’t busy or stressed right now? Ultimately, marketing is about building solid relationships and staying in touch is how you build a relationship.

Work on administrative tasks

This year, I’m focusing on tracking my time and projects so that I can get a clear idea of how much I earn per hour on different projects and from different clients. I enlisted the help of the wonderful professional organizer Julie Bestry in building a spreadsheet to help with this, and am finding there are endless ways to use the information. But, the spreadsheet always needs tweaking and analyzing the data I collect takes time. I spent quite a bit of time on that today.

Email cleanup and filing is a never-ending task, and I tend to do it when I’m tired or when there’s not a ton of work. It usually doesn’t make my list of things to do when it’s slow, but probably should.

My colleague Jen Phillips uses scripts and pre-written forms in her business and that seems like an excellent approach. Slow times are great for putting things like that together.

Taming the Famine Anxiety

There’s feast anxiety—how am I going to get all of this done? why did I say yes to this? my work is going to suck and no one will ever hire me again! And there’s famine anxiety—I will never get more work, and my family will starve! this is the beginning of the end of my business! I’m going to have to start from scratch and rebuild my client roster. And the one that tends to get me: If I relax and enjoy this, I’ll be doomed! I didn’t plan this slow time so it’s most certainly a harbinger of disaster.

All of this seems a tad dramatic, doesn’t it? Always, looking back at either a time of feasting or a time of famine, I realize my fears were quite out of proportion to the situation. As soon as I recognize either thing is happening, I start taking steps to avert the worst mental drama.

What’s the money situation?
One of the first things I did this morning was check to see how many invoices I have outstanding. It is enough to pay my bills for two months. Not exactly the best savings plan, but good enough to help me feel calmer. I can pay my mortgage, and two months is plenty of time to hustle up more work.

The next thing I did was make a list of my current anchor clients and how much I earn from them on average each month. Right now, I have two very solid anchor clients and between them I earn enough to pay our bills. So, I’m not only counting on outstanding invoices.

Life wouldn’t be super comfortable if I was only working with my two anchors, though, and I wouldn’t be hitting my target for the year.

Is there work on the horizon?
The second thing I did this morning was take a look at potential work. I have two projects that editors have contacted me about but not yet assigned anything. I’ll email them both this week. Then there’s a much longer list of people I consider “warm” — we’ve talked, but not established anything definite or discussed specific projects. I’ll also be contacting them to say hi and ask how things are going.

Looking out to the horizon can be calming



Simply having those three items—outstanding invoices, anchor clients who assign regular work, and a list of prospects—usually eases the fears associated with famine. There are other things you can do, too:

Build an actual savings
I’m aiming to save enough to pay bills for 3 months, then 6, and hopefully eventually a year. I’m not there yet, but that’s the goal.

Do a marketing challenge
Set yourself a goal to send out a certain number of letters of introduction, or attend a certain number of in-person events. Jennifer Goforth Gregory has a fantastic list of marketing activities for January that work any time of the year. If you think your slow time is extended (it happens!) spend a couple of weeks or a month completing a marketing challenge.

Actually enjoy your time
This is going to be my approach for this week. Since I’ve already realized I’m not facing eviction or actual famine, I’m going to try to relax, enjoy the fact it’s spring time and my flowers are blooming, take extra walks with my pups, try a couple of new recipes, and maybe even find a shady spot to read.


If, next week, things are still slow, I’ll start actively searching for new work.


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Ideation

One of my strengths as a writer is being able to think up lots of ideas—story ideas, ideas on how to tell a story, ideas on how to find new clients, ideas about running a business. Ideas are usually the easiest part of the process.

Even though I like brainstorming and coming up with ideas, I don’t usually enjoy pitching story ideas to publications. One reason is that it takes a ton of time, and it’s unpaid time. Another is that publications aren’t great about responding an uncomfortable percentage of the time.

The problem is that if I don’t spend time brainstorming on a fairly regular basis it’s much harder. Recently, an agency client asked me to put together a list of potential ideas for one of their clients. They were paying me to do the work, which was awesome, and since it’s one of my favorite things, I agreed. When I sat down to actually start the list, I felt that deer-in-the-headlights thing. Frozen. Unable to come up with anything. For one panicky moment, I thought I’d lost it; my idea well had run dry.

Of course, 10 minutes of reading and an hour or two of thinking (while doing other things—you can’t let ideas know you’re chasing them, you have to come at them sideways) I had a pretty good list. But it was a good reminder that even the things you’re good at require some practice.

I’m adding “participate in a pitch fest once a quarter” to my list of goals for 2022!

A beautiful setting helps stimulate creativity

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My Plan Is My Map

Do you participate in business planning? Does your plan sit in an ignored folder all year? This post details my planning process and it’s long. I’d love to know if you have a similar planning process!

I’ve always been a planner. Usually, the urge to start making lists and considering goals and looking at the previous year starts in December, but this year it came a little early, and deserves a bit more thought. In 2020, I tossed the plan out in March and decided to simply concentrate on survival and self-care. At the end of 2020, I decided to carry through with the same in 2021. Like many others, I wanted some time to recover from living in the middle of a pandemic.

This year, though, I’m ready to return to my plan because without it, I feel a bit lost. I still have goals, but I don’t have a clearly mapped path to reaching them because my plan has always served as my map.

It came to my attention recently, during an excellent Thursday session of #FreelanceChat on Twitter, that not everyone plans in quite as much detail as I do. I’m sharing my planning process in case others may find it a useful jumping-off point for their own planning.

The basics

Everyone I’ve ever talked to about planning, calendaring, or tracking goals has a different set up, so what I’m describing is the mishmash of tools that works for me. There are several elements:

  1. My notebook – I use a half-size, 3-ring binder with some dotted paper and some plain paper for the different sections, which include my daily task lists, my home-related goals, an area for jotting and journaling, and a budget area.
  2. A Google Drive file – it’s officially called Notes, but within the folder, there’s a document titled “Marketing 2021” and that’s where I pretty much free-write what I want, how the previous year went, what I’m planning, and anything else remotely related to my business.
  3. Wave Accounting – Although it may not seem like a planning tool, my accounting software is also my client list, and it shows how much I earned from each client, my monthly earnings, my previous years’ earnings, and any weird dips or spikes in my income.
  4. Google Calendar/Calendly – These tools are for the day-to-day, nitty gritty but are also useful in planning my marketing efforts across the year.
  5. A Google spreadsheet – I track potential clients using a spreadsheet. I note their name, title, company, LinkedIn profile, email address, date contacted, and the result. If I’m actively seeking work from them, I try to get in touch every three months either by email or through LinkedIn.

I told you it was a mishmash! It works for me though. Now, I’ll explain how I use the tools and end up with a clear map for running my business.

Using the tools to plan

When I begin planning, the first step is to dig into the plan from the year before. I can’t do that this year, but I can look at my statistics from the last few years. Did my earnings increase? (they did!) Did I have a more balanced client list? (in some ways) Were my earnings spread evenly across my client list? (more than in years past, but there’s room for improvement) Did I keep up with my marketing plan? (no plan meant nothing to keep up with) How many hours did I work, on average? (this number is ALWAYS lower than I expect it to be, which isn’t a bad thing)

And, because I can’t separate my professional life from my personal life, I also look at my household goals (like budgeting or saving, home improvements, and vacations) and my self-care goals (fitness, nutrition, health concerns, craft projects, books, and on and on – this is often the longest list!)



Once I’ve taken a hard look at what happened the previous year, I start thinking about what I want for the next year. I figure out how much money I want to make, then break that number down into quarterly, monthly, and weekly amounts. I decide if I want to actively seek new clients, and if so, how should I find them? I think about the industries I write for, and whether or not I’d like to add to that list and if so, what do I want to add? I consider personal projects that are related to work, like writing this blog, or working on a fiction project. I jot down pretty much all of my wildest dreams — for the next year — in this phase. This part is pretty fun.

I do the same kind of thing for household and self-care.

Next, I try to be realistic, and decide if anything on the “wildest dreams list” should be pushed out into a 5- or 10-year plan. I look at the gains made in the last few years and try to aim for similar improvements in my goals and also try to figure out what the “stretch” goal would look like. Then, I break it all down again into quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals.

The big plan is useless if that’s where it ends. I review it all each quarter, and make adjustments to the monthly goals if necessary. Each week, when I lay out the two-page daily task spread, I look back at the monthly plan and fill out a section titled “this week.” That section also includes things like due dates, bills to pay, and anything else important to remember.

(A note about the weekly and daily lists)
This is super nerdy, but I write the day/date in a different color pen. Monday might be blue, Tuesday, pink, and so on. I write the list itself in black, and cross items off in the color pen for that day. This helps me to see exactly what day I did the tasks on the “this week” list. It also gives me a decent overview of my productivity. I’m almost always most productive on Monday and it declines as the week goes on.

New additions

Another element of how I plan has to do with adding or taking away parts of the process. I used to treat my 3-ring binder like a bullet journal, with all the pretty spreads and such. Now I simply use my color-coding system and create the sections. I don’t find a lot of creative fulfillment in drawing pretty headers for each week or graphs for progress toward goals. I’d rather spend my time working on a quilt or reading or taking a walk.

One area that I’ve included in my plan each year and struggled with is that of professional development. One year I planned to read one business book per month and only finished one or two. Another year, I planned to do a couple of courses but didn’t. I want to give this area more thought, figure out exactly what the specific barriers are, and try again to get better at what I do.



I’m thinking more about the number of direct clients versus agency clients that I work with, which is another fairly new element to my planning process. I tend to prefer agency clients, but with worries about the PRO Act, I think it’s wise to balance things out a bit and add more direct clients to my roster. I’m also spending much more time analyzing how I found the best clients on my list. I’m hoping that can inform my marketing efforts. Sadly, I think most of the best ones came from sending LOIs (letters of introduction). LOI campaigns are an enormous amount of work.


(A note about LOI campaigns)
My ratio is usually somewhere around 1 good client for every 100 or so LOIs sent. Finding the companies, the correct contacts, their email addresses, sending the emails, following up, and tracking it all takes a ton of time and effort. Usually, if I’m doing an LOI campaign in a given year, I pay for LinkedIn Premium for a month or two, along with an email finder (it’s been Hunter.io in the past) then spend a set amount of time each day building a database. Once I have 200-500 potential contacts, I cancel the paid subscriptions and start working the list, sending LOIs, followups, following the people on LinkedIn and Twitter, and commenting on their stuff.

Accountability

I have several friends and colleagues who are my accountability partners. One exchanges emails with me at the end of each month, saying what we did and didn’t do and what we want to do in the next month. Another has become something of a planning partner and we’ve been doing Zoom calls where we discuss our client lists, our niches, our incomes, and so on. We’re doing a series of calls to help each other work through the planning process this year. I’m also part of a group of technology writers who casually chat and discuss issues we might be having or brag on ourselves, or whatever.

Each of my accountability partners has been crucial to my business journey. If you’re going to plan, it’s enormously helpful to have someone help you pay attention to whether or not you’re following it.

My Plan Is My Map

You can probably see why I felt a little bit lost the last year or so. Without the detailed plan to refer back to, I didn’t always feel like I was on the right track. Instead of following a defined and clear path through the forest of running a business, I was taking a leisurely stroll whichever way the wind blew me. For some people, strolling is the better way because there’s less pressure. But for me, the map can serve another purpose, and that is confirmation that I’m actually getting somewhere.



Plenty of times, I’ve gotten out my quarterly plan, and been able to see that I did exactly what I set out to do. Maybe minor adjustments are in order, but often, I’m trekking along the path I charted at the beginning of the year. That is as motivational as anything else I can think of.

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It’s Most Difficult at the Beginning

I am back to square one, maybe even square negative five, regarding my fitness level. Similarly, but much less drastically, I’m at a low point in client numbers. Fitness and business have always swung along the same pendulum in my life, likely because they both depend solely on my own motivation and willingness to do the work. At this particular moment in time, I’m working on the basics for good health and for a prosperous business. You know, paying attention to what and how much I eat, making a point of doing some form of exercise everyday, making marketing calls, sending out queries, referring back to my business plan.

And it’s freaking hard.

Easing myself into things, as I do, I started counting calories two weeks ago, and have kept it up. Now it’s time to add in exercise, and that is tougher. I’m trying to follow a fun, slightly silly workout plan, that uses the language of RPG (roll playing games). It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and it looks pretty simple. Except, on the first day, I am supposed to do 100 reps of four bodyweight exercises. I’m going to try, but don’t have much faith that I’ll be able to do it. The first set of 25 almost killed me.

Similarly, I started sending out marketing emails a week or two ago, but I know that to see real results, I’m going to have to do much more. Like make 10 calls a day, every day, for a month or two, and continue to send out several emails per day. That’s just how it works. For someone like me, who feels weird and awkward on the phone, and who struggles with any kind of social interaction, this stuff is hard. Probably not as hard as getting back in shape, but still not exactly as easy as writing a blog post.

The important thing to remember at times like this is that it’s only hard for a little while. It won’t take long before I’m looking forward to working out, or before the marketing has done what it always does and I only need to send out 2-3 queries each week to stay busy. Everything in life is that way. When I first built my flower garden, it took a lot of work to break up the grass and fluff up the dirt. But the next spring was easier, and every one after has been too. Any BIG THING is that way. You have to approach it a bit at a time and know that it will get easier.

A friend learned to play guitar as a teenager. Then she got a job, raised some children, and didn’t play. Recently she picked it back up and says the same thing about her practice sessions. They are tough, but she knows they will get easier.

Have you ever started over with something? How did it go for you?

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Walking the Freelancer Tightrope

The fourth quarter of 2014 was my most lucrative quarter as a business owner to date. It was the kind of quarter that makes you reevaluate and scale up your goals, and spurs you to begin dropping your lower-tier clients. It felt good.

(You know what happened next, don’t you? It’s so sadly predictable!)

The first two months of 2015 have been less than stellar. They haven’t been my worst months ever — not by a long shot — but my earnings did drop to about 30% of what they were in the two previous months. There are many reasons for the drastic drop, and most of them are related to the delicate balance business owners much strike between feeling good and feeling a little worried.

When I’m a little worried, I pay more attention to marketing — it’s just naturally on my mind more. Since it’s on my mind, I see opportunities while reading for pleasure, browsing online, having conversations with colleagues, as well as randomly in the middle of the night. I’m just more open to finding new work.

On the other hand, when I have lots of work, I’m thinking about getting that work done all of the time. I’m making connections to whatever it is I’m writing — and that is good. It gives my work more depth, and sometimes shines a new light on a topic.

When things are tighter, I tend to hoard my pennies, and my time. I don’t invest much in things like software, or in taking time off from writing to go to lunch or to events. Of course those things can, and do, generate new business.

You might imagine that less work = more time for other projects, but that hasn’t been the case in my experience. For example, when I had more deadlines than usual, I got up between 30 minutes and one hour early everyday to work on my fiction projects. Scheduling becomes more important when you are busy, and sticking to the schedule is critical.

When I have fewer deadlines I tend to let things slide, thinking, “Eh. I don’t have anything scheduled for the afternoon. There’s no harm in sleeping in this morning.” Or watching a movie, or baking some bread, or whatever other purple squirrel I can come up with that day.

Luckily, I’ve been working on my own for long enough that I have some safeguards in place to deal with the current situation. I have a long list of publications to contact, and another list of businesses and organizations that might need my services. I have a plan that I can pull up and follow the moment I realize things are off-track.

Recognizing the downward turn and taking the steps necessary to correct it are two different things, of course, but that’s where experience comes into play. It may take me a month or two to see what’s going on, but once I do, it’s easier to take action.

Here are a few of the specific steps I’m taking now:

1. Sending out a set number of letters of introduction or pitches each week. My number is 10. I do a fair amount of research before contacting a prospect so more than 10 becomes overwhelming.

2. Contacting all former clients with whom I enjoyed working. This one is self-explanatory, and just common sense. It also tends to yield the fastest results.

3. Closely evaluating how my time is spent. If there is “spare” time, I try to fill it with either planning, research, or working on my fiction projects. It feels terrible to realize I’ve wasted time on social media or playing games when a glance at my bookkeeping software clearly says I should have been doing something to support my income! When it comes to my bookkeeping, I might take the advice of friends who recommend that I consider utilizing taxes for freelancers done by an experienced CPA.

4. Getting back to my plan. In November and December, I put together a detailed plan for the next year. It has some good stuff in it, and pulling it out and following the steps is helping me stay on track.

5. Making sure the basics are covered. A couple of weeks ago, this site went down because I forgot to pay my hosting bill. That is just a bad way to run a business!

Have you ever corrected a downturn in your business? What are your best tips for avoiding a slump?

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Review & Reflect, Set & Implement

For about the last three or four weeks, and maybe even a little longer, I’ve been thinking about what I want. From little things like some new socks (why do I wait until every pair has holes before I buy new ones?) to bigger-picture things like

You have to start somewhere.

You have to start somewhere.

what I’d like my life to look like in a year, or five, or even ten. Thinking about what I want inevitably leads to thinking about how I spend my time because, as we all know, minutes make hours and hours make days and days make years. What you do with your minutes matters.

Review & Reflect

So what have I been doing? Not writing posts for this blog! The last post was in AUGUST. This blog, and in fact, my business, enjoyed an unnoticed, uncelebrated anniversary in July. Smiling Tree Writing began (both the blog and the business) in 2009. The last two months have been the most profitable for the business to date (which is one reason there haven’t been any posts since July — I’ve been working!). Both of those facts make me feel a sense of pride, as well as a drive to push harder.

Although the last two months were the best to-date, I have a confession: November was the first time I met my original, set-in-2009 income goal. It took more than five years to reach that first (quite modest) income goal.

I have conflicted feelings about that. One the one hand, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted. I had to work that hard for

Then you can grow from where you are.

Then you can grow from where you are.

that long to make that (quite modest) amount of money? Geez. Do I really want to keep on doing this? On the other hand, it can be done. I’ve learned an awful lot about it in the last five years, and it feels like that work is paying off.

Of course, reaching that original goal means I must increase it rather drastically — by about 75%. In order to increase your income by 75% you need goals, short term, long term, measurable, specific, and all of the other things that good goals are.

Set & Implement

Once I knew what I want for the next year and beyond — insofar as anyone can know since the universe always holds surprises — I needed a map. How do I get from here to there? Here’s a glimpse of what my goal setting looks like:

  1. professional
    1. make $XXXX a month, from varied sources (this will require an increase in both number of assignments and amount paid per assignment)
      1. create a list of publications to pitch
      2. continue looking for regular, steady, paid gigs like XXXX and XXXX — it would be great to have 2 more of those
      3. set a regular schedule for marketing, whether it’s a couple hours a week or 15 minutes per day. Just do the work.
    2. finish the rough draft of my story, send it to some people to read, get it to XXXX for editing in August, get it
      ...and growing...

      …and growing…

      published in October.

      1. complete the draft in Scrivener
      2. get the whole thing printed for draft 3
      3. make corrections in Scrivener
      4. send to people to read
    3. finish the tips for XXXX book, pay to have it formatted and pay mark for a cover and get it published by February.
      1. inquire about cost for formatting.
      2. if it’s not all already in Scrivener, get it there.
    4. start writing on smilingtreewrites again, at least every other week.
    5. update everything in my portfolio, add new work
  2. health
    1. Nutrition
      1. shop every

As detailed as that list may seem (and it goes on for several pages, and covers a variety of categories besides professional and health) it is missing at least one crucial element. Dates. Although it mentions some months, there are no specific milestone-type dates. For example, this list doesn’t say how many letters of introduction or queries I will send each week in pursuit of new work. It doesn’t say by what specific date I will have completed the rather painful second draft of my manuscript, or what date I will have “the whole thing printed.” As it stands, this list of goals is only a partially useful.

After I wrote this list, I made another for how long I’d spend on various activities each week or month. Doing that led me to add a few things. Next, I’ll put things on my calendar, so that I see them everyday. I may even make some kind of visual aid to hang next to my desk to help me stay focused as I’m working.

The hardest part is implementation. I can write workout plans all day long, but that won’t help me become a runner again. To do that, I’ll have to put on my running shoes and hit log in some miles. Reaching your goals isn’t magic, no matter how magical it may feel when you do.

When do you review and set new goals? Do you have a process? Can you share any sage advice about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to reaching goals? 

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