Freelance Reality Check: Feast and Famine Cycles

I don’t know about you, but for me the only thing worse than being too busy is being underworked. Being one of those people who defines himself a great deal by his career, lack of work is painful if it lasts too long. Regardless of my personal attitudes toward this situation, you’ll find it common to your situation as well. Given that, you have to consider a few things.

Workload

I’ve written about being one situation or the other, but one thing the aspiring freelancer needs to get used to is an ongoing, unpredictable cycle of busy and non-busy work schedules. I’ve gone weeks sometimes with no work coming in, and then I’ve had stretches where every customer who had nothing for me during those dry months suddenly had immediate need for my services in the midst of several other deadlines. I’ve been at it for almost two years now, and so far I’ve detected no pattern in this feast-or-famine, boom-or-bust, binge-or-purge workload situation. One difference between being a freelancer with this problem and having a day job writing is that if you tell the boss you have nothing to do on a day job, she will find something for you to do, if only to get you out of her hair. When you’re the boss, you have to find your own solutions.

Income

When you’re busy and money is coming in, that is the time to pay your bills and stockpile cash–as much as you think you can stand. I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s good to build up a “rainy day fund” of six to nine months’ worth of money so you will be prepared for those times when you are not working because you don’t know how long they’re going to last!

Mind you, while money is coming in, it’s easier to pay your bills and you are freer to take yourself out to eat or indulge yourself in other ways (massages are a good stress-relieving reward). That doesn’t mean you go wild. And while I’m not as diligent about this as I should be, it’s better to maintain your “lean times” spending habits when you’re busy so that you have more to sock away. Then again, maybe you can also use some of your saved-up cash to take a planned vacation for one of those times when you know you won’t be busy.

Morale

The Workaholic’s Haiku

The hills and valleys
of my workload rise and fall
and my mood follows.

Perhaps the worst part of not working–especially if you’re a defined-by-work person–is the effect it can have on your morale. You can start getting fearful of not working again or that you’re going to lose your “edge” or that people will simply forget about you if you aren’t working for them. Negativity is bad for your writing–don’t let it get to you.

If you don’t have work to do, what are you doing with your time? You can’t always be on vacation or merely paying your bills. You could try taking a class, but if it’s something formal, like through a community college or university, you run the risk of having the class time eventually bump up against your work time as a new or existing client suddenly has work for you to do. If you’re a duty-first person, you focus on your paying work first and then do your homework. Pick up a really busy week or two, and suddenly you’re behind on your academic pursuit and you might have to drop the class. So perhaps a class isn’t for you. That depends on how long you expect your dry spell to be.

One thing that’s become clear to me as I’m now coming out of a two-week dry period is that it’s good to have a hobby: some activity you can pick up or drop at will, depending on your availability, without worrying about having a gap if work suddenly picks up. Writing a  novel, maybe. Or, if you’re single, you could work on changing that, should it suit you. If you’re not single, your down times can be a great opportunity to reconnect with your significant other, making up for some of that quality time you missed because you spent your anniversary getting a document out the door. Another thing you can do with your down time is some strategic planning, marketing to obtain your next client, or think some deep thoughts and take decisive actions relating to how you can be a better person. Or you could just clean your house/condo/apartment.

Bottom Line

The most important thing to realize about the freelancing life is that you are going to have these feast-or-famine cycles and that you need to make the best of them. After a few cycles, you’ll hopefully figure out what works for you and will have some solid plans for what to do with yourself when you’ve got “too much time on your hands.”

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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4 Responses to Freelance Reality Check: Feast and Famine Cycles

  1. Great post — I too worry about signing up for a course in between contracts..but I find that online courses are more flexible. Even if I start a course, and work picks up, I can usually keep up by doing homework on lunch hour or after 5.

    On another topic, likely you’ve already written about this, but would love to hear your experience with a difficult client, or those contracts that for whatever reason go sour….when (and how) to stay and work it out, when to cut & run, and how to leave without it hurting your reputation. Thanks! I enjoy your blog very much!

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