How do I cope with the ups and downs of the freelance life? 1 – when the work goes away

10 Jun

To do listsOne of the things that puts people off freelancing or self-employment is the ups and downs, feasts and famines, highs and lows of the workflow. While the freelance workflow can be tricky to manage, it is possible to get a handle on it and maintain your work-life balance (most of the time). I’m sharing with you my tips for making that work.

In this post, we’re going to talk about what happens when it feels like the work has all dried up. In the next post, we cover the other side of things: overwhelm!

The important thing to note here is that this all comes with time. No one starts out super-organised and busy at just the right level all of the time. Cut yourself some slack – things get over-busy or yawningly low for all of us, but these tips will help that to become less of a problem.

How do I cope when the work dries up?

The scariest thing about being a freelance is when the work appears to dry up. It’s easy to catastrophise here: what if NO WORK EVER COMES AGAIN? Well, in my experience, unless you’ve done something really wrong (like produced very sub-standard work or reneged on all your deadlines), the work will come back again. Part of learning to deal with the fallow periods is making yourself believe that they will come to an end.

There are two things to think about here …

  • What to do during fallow periods
  • How to prevent fallow periods happening in the first place

Let’s look at them in turn.

What should I do in times when I have no work?

There are so many things you can do to fill in the times when you have no work. They basically break down into three areas, though …

1. Rest

When it’s busy busy busy, I bet you don’t get all the rest you need. I try to get some downtime for myself when I’m slow at work – extra sleep, quiet reading, a cafe visit with a friend. Recharge those batteries ready for the next busy time!

2. Admin

There’s always admin to do, and you know it. Whether it’s clearing out your inbox, following up on leads that never came to anything, tidying your desk or sorting out your receipts, now’s the time to do it. (Extra hint: set a stopwatch. Do it for half an hour. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.)

3. Marketing

You can do a lot of your own marketing for no monetary cost – but there’s usually a time cost. If you have a free day, make it your mission to, for example …

  • Register on a few more free-to-advertise online boards
  • Write some amazing website content to promote your products or services, or overhaul what you’ve already got
  • Write and schedule some blog posts to keep your website regularly updated and cover you in the busy times
  • Go to that networking event you don’t usually have time for – or a new one
  • Overhaul your profiles on social media and make sure your message is getting across
  • Write some products for awareness-raising, passive income generation – free downloads, pdfs, an ebook …

The message here? Put your down time to good use, and use those troughs in incoming work to tidy things up and work to generate new business to diminish the next low point.

How can I guarantee to have a steady stream of work all the time?

You can’t. But you can work towards that situation, and this is something I have a lot of experience with, and it’s how come I write my blog posts in little scraps of time while waiting for something to come in, rather than in great blocks during days and days when I have nothing to do.

The answer is, I think, simple: diversify.

While it’s great to be an expert in a niche or to have one big customer who “always sends you so much work”, it also lays you open to sudden downturns when the industry in which you specialise or the company for which you work takes a downturn itself.

If you work supplying widgets to Company A which are different from the ones Company B uses, and you only make widgets of that kind, if the market for those widgets goes down or Company A goes bust or changes what they use, you’re in trouble. If you make widgets of all kinds and supply company A and B, it would take the whole widget market and both companies to go downhill fast before you were in trouble.

I’m not saying be Jack of all trades and master of none, but a bit of judicious diversifying can really, really help to iron out those peaks and troughs which come in any line of industry.

Here are some general ideas, with examples from my specific work:

  • Work on different products or services – I do editing, transcription and localisation, so if the market for one goes down, I have the others to look after me. I usually work on a range of tasks every week, but I can end up having a week of transcription and that’s fine.
  • Work with different types of client – even in the area of editing and proofreading, if I just worked for students, I’d get massive peaks and troughs as dissertation season comes round at Easter and the end of the summer, but disappears in October/November. But I can fill in those troughs by doing editing of self-published books or working with translators
  • Work with clients in different places if that’s possible – I have customers all over the world. I used to have a lot of Chinese customers; at the moment I don’t. If I’d concentrated only on that region, I’d be in trouble now. Similarly, with the drop in the value of the Euro, if I just had European clients who paid in euros, I’d be looking at a serious drop in my income right now.

I’m not suggesting that you take on areas of work or industry sectors you’re totally inexperienced in and unused to – but have a think about how you can diversify a little. If you work editing legal texts, maybe you can offer your services to a local university with a large law department. If you sell your handicrafts in shops, why not consider an Etsy shop or going to a few fairs?

In summary

If you want to avoid the down times and keep a good flow of work throughout  your working year, you can approach the issue on two fronts:

  • Have a plan for what to do when you have no work – rest, marketing, admin – and put that plan into action when you end up with some free time.
  • Work actively to have a good mix of work coming in from various sources, so you aren’t relying on just one income stream and don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.

When we add to these tips with some on what to do when you’ve got too much work, I hope you’ll find here a useful resource for helping you to smooth out the ups and downs of the freelancer’s life. Do let me know which ones work for you, or if you have other practical ideas that work!

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Related posts on this blog

How do I cope with the ups and downs of the freelance life 2: when there’s too much work

Top ten tips for freelancers

How to decide who to work with

How to turn a new customer into a regular customer

What’s the best mix of customers to have?

How to make more money in your freelance business

When should I say no?


Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Business, Organisation, Skillset


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4 responses to “How do I cope with the ups and downs of the freelance life? 1 – when the work goes away

  1. Natalie Murray

    June 10, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Excellent advice, thank you! And I hope you’re right about more work almost certainly coming your way when you’ve done a good job!



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