Laura Poole, owner of Archer Editorial Services, co-owner of Copyediting.com, and author of Juggling on a High Wire: The Art of Work-Life Balance When You’re Self-Employed, offered some tips at Beyond the Red Pencil on how to break the unsustainable cycle of feast and famine that many freelancers fall into. The adrenaline and cortisol from the stress of stacked deadlines and too much work isn’t healthy, nor is the panic of not knowing where and when you’ll get your next paycheque. Poole suggested not only strategies to cope with feast and famine but also some changes in your thinking and your business practices.
Sometimes feasts are seasonal, and you can plan for them if you start paying attention to patterns in your work. If you know you’ll be busy at particular times of the month or year, plan ahead. Keep your schedule open during those times and arrange for support (subcontractors, referrals, childcare, etc.) if you think you’ll need it.
When a feast is unexpected—whether it’s because deadlines slipped and piled up or your projects ended up being more work than you’d planned—triage your schedule: what can you delete, defer, or delegate?
When you just have to buckle down and get to work, make sure to support your body to stay strong and healthy.
After the feast, take time to learn from the experience. As yourself:
- How did I get so overworked? (Don’t ask why—you’re not trying to shame or blame.)
- What happened that was beyond my control?
- What did it cost me to finish this work?
- What choices did I make that affected the workload?
Seasonal patterns may also help you predict periods of famine, and you can take advantage of the quiet stretches to go on vacation or stock the freezer with meals. Downtime, said Poole, can be a good opportunity to
- rest and recharge,
- build your professional presence,
- network, and
- build your business for the long term.
Use the lull to tackle those tasks you’d pushed to the back burner, like updating your website and online profile. Could be doing something to give your business a passive source of income, like developing a course or writing a book? Use these quiet times to make your business more sustainable.
Poole suggests always thinking two weeks ahead: figure out which projects are ending, and start drumming up work before you need it. But resist the temptation during periods of famine to email all of your clients for work!
Start thinking bigger: what do you want to be doing? Start doing the groundwork now to get yourself there, go after better-paying work, and diversify your client base. Poole warns against relying on only one or two clients for your income: “If you have one client, you aren’t an independent contractor. You’re a dependent contractor,” she said. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Start saying no. “You don’t have to accept everything,” said Poole. “Freelancers say yes because yes means a paycheque. It’s really hard to say no.” But ask yourself, “If I say yes to this, what else am I saying yes to? What am I saying no to?” If you can’t say hell yes, do you really want the job?
“If you can learn to say no,” said Poole, “it will make your yeses more meaningful.” You don’t have to give an excuse for turning down work. “No is a complete sentence.”
That said, clients appreciate referrals to skilled colleagues—a good reason to build your network. And don’t be afraid to be bold: if you ask clients for what you want and need, whether it’s flexibility in the schedule or more money, you can turn some of those noes into yeses.”
Some key changes to your business can ease the cycle:
- Be proactive about communicating your schedule with your clients. “Your business is only open if your mouth is open.” said Poole. Contacting your clients keeps you top of mind.
- Review your schedule and look for trends in cyclical work that you can plan for.
- Find new clients—those who can offer you steadier work, more pay, or more projects that interest you. Weed out the clients who aren’t serving you.
- Get to know your colleagues in your network. Can you work together and help each other build your businesses? Be willing to refer, and you’ll get the same in return.
- Raise your rates—a good way to get rid of low-paying clients and to make more money in less time. “Your work is valuable!” said Poole. “You should be paid what you’re worth! And you shouldn’t apologize for your rate.”
- Develop streams of passive income, where you do the work once but continue to get paid. Speaking, teaching, and writing and are some ways to use your skills and expertise for a steadier source of income while building your professional network.