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
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.
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.
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.