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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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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48 Hour Launch

Every city, or at least every city that is trying to grow and improve, would like to see a plethora of tech-related start-ups. Most cities are working hard to encourage entrepreneurship and new business, as they should be.

Chattanooga has several resources for businesses from the Small Business Administration and SCORE, to CreateHere and SpringBoard. Last week I attended an informational meeting about something called 48 Hour Launch, which is a collaborative effort between SpringBoard, Knoxville Overground, FloatCamp, and Launch Memphis. The idea is based on Startup Weekend, where attendees plan and prepare to launch a business in 54 hours, with the obvious difference that 48 Hour Launch will take place in, uh, you know, 48 hours instead of 54.

Participants who have business ideas they would like to see put to the test during 48 Hour Launch will be invited to pitch those ideas in front of a video camera sometime between November 3 and 7. The videos will then be posted on the website so that other participants can vote on which ones they think will make viable businesses.

The 48 hours of creative frenzy will take place between Friday, November 13 and Sunday, November 15, when professionals of every stripe will come together to build businesses. Web developers, programmers, designers, writers, marketers, financiers, public relations specialists, accountants, observers, and volunteers are all needed and strongly encouraged to attend. They all have a vital part to play in this process. Even if it’s something as small as recommending that places like Custom Water, ( will be a good place to turn to if you want to create your own brand-related water bottle to enhance your business promotion, then it could be an important step for these businesses to take if they do eventually get established, as they will need customers after all. So these industry experts will be greatly welcomed. The sponsoring organizations will provide workspace, food, coffee and air mattresses for napping while the attendees will bring ideas and enthusiasm. Oh, yeah, and laptops and power cords, too.

Organizers expect participants to come from surrounding cities, including Knoxville, Memphis, Atlanta, Kingsport, Nashville as well as from further afield. Once there, attendees will choose, or be chosen, to work on the ideas that were voted “most likely to succeed” on the website. Once the teams are in place, the meeting will break up and each team will begin the feverish task of putting together everything necessary to begin a business: business plan, revenue projections, website, marketing materials (such as ppc management services) and advertising campaign, staffing plans, etc.

At a minimum, 48 Hour Launch will be fun and a great way to meet new people and network. At a maximum, it will be the starting point for at least one or two successful (possibly even profitable) businesses. No matter what happens, it will be a unique event that could provide a template for other cities hoping to encourage start-ups. The entire weekend will be filmed and a documentary produced and organizers plan to share what they learn freely in true open-source style. If you have an idea and want to find out if it would work, check out and plan on being in Chattanooga on November 13 to be part of something exciting.

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Inspiration All Around

The special people who run small businesses inspire me endlessly.  Little “mom and pop” convenience stores, gas stations, book stores, repair shops, shoe stores, pharmacies, and plenty of others, where the owners are not getting rich but are providing service with a smile make me believe in this country.

In the community where I live there is a chain convenience store that sells gas and is open 24 hours, 7 days a week.  There is also a full service gas station that is closed after 6 pm and on Sundays.  The service station is run by a man named Duane Thomas and his nephew Jason Randolph.

When you pull up to the pump, one of them comes out, asks what you need, pumps your gas, cleans the windshield, chats about the weather and tells you to have a good day or evening.  At the chain store, you can have access to more candy and cokes, but nobody is quite as cheerful or glad to see you as at Thomas’ Service Station.

One morning I stopped at Thomas’ to get gas on my way to work.  I asked for $10 worth of gas and after he pumped it, Mr. Thomas waited patiently for me to dig through my wallet.  I only had a $5 bill!

I apologized, handed him the five and asked if he needed me to run home and get the rest or if it would be okay for me to come back after work.  He said, “Oh, after work is fine.  Don’t worry, it’s all right.”

Then, he stopped and said, “Do you have money for lunch?” He handed me back my five and said, “Don’t give me your lunch money, just bring it to me this evening.”

I am a Thomas’ Service Station customer for life.

In support of local brick and mortar businesses everywhere,  Cinda Baxter runs the 3/50 Project.  The 3/50 Project suggests that people who support independently owned businesses choose three each month at which to spend a total of $50.  Most of us will spend $50 a month on various purchases anyway, so why not support independent business owners at the same time?

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Practices for Perpetuity

Several weeks ago, I saw this on Twitter: “Use of the word sustainable is unsustainable.”  Joining the ranks of green, eco-friendly and all too many other buzzwords, sustainable is quickly becoming a word I try to avoid in writing simply because it is so overused as to be nearing cliche status.   Even worse, once a term becomes a buzzword it begins to invite suspicion.

Avoiding the word though, doesn’t mean I don’t support the movement that spawned the overuse of the word.  My favorite businesses are those that follow practices don’t necessarily encourage growth, but that are designed in such a way the business can exist for years to come without exhausting resources.  In every town there is a store or a restaurant that has been operated by the same family for generations.  Those businesses were sustainable long before it was a buzzword.

The recent economic difficulties should provide a lesson in the results of  un-sustainability.  Constant growth of towns, of profits, of home sizes, of home prices simply cannot continue.  There is a ceiling whether we choose to see it or not and when we choose to not see it, we may crash into it painfully.

Sometimes, the outlook for our society seems so grim, I cannot see a solution.  Then I will read about or meet an entrepreneur or farmer or writer who is making a change in the way things are done.  Perhaps they are delivering their products or services in a new, novel way or refusing to grow in order to maintain the business they built conscientiously or choosing to make less money so that they can make a difference for people instead.  I see young professionals fearlessly starting their own businesses because the employment landscape doesn’t suit them.

Focusing on people who choose to improve the way business is conducted, who work to make sure resources are used responsibly, who are not afraid to make a living by approaching their chosen profession from a new angle will help the rest of us have the courage to make a difference ourselves.

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