One of the greatest attractions of freelancing is the variety. Potentially, every job is different: you deal with different people; maybe in different parts of the country; and every mission presents a new and exciting challenge. But there is a thin line between variety and chaos, and both are defining characteristics of working for yourself.
Although ‘chaos’ usually carries negative connotations, it is not necessarily destructive. The trick is to firstly accept that a freelance career is unpredictable, and trying to impose order on such an inherently fluid world will just add to your stress levels. So many factors are simply out of your control and worrying about, for example, client budgets, what your ‘competitors’ are doing, or the health of the global economy is pointless. You can, however, prepare yourself for inevitable chaos by understanding its nature.
First, many freelances will identify with the phrase ‘feast or famine.’ Although your domestic outgoings are predictable, your flow of work – and payments – can vary dramatically. You are either toiling 14 hours a day trying to keep four frantic clients happy (while wondering if you will ever enjoy a relaxing weekend again) or you’re staring out of the window and asking yourself why you didn’t accept that safe-but-boring 9-to-5 job you were offered a month ago.
Your workload will never be perfectly balanced but you can alleviate some of the pain by trying, if possible, to secure some regular work. This might seem obvious but often freelances either take whatever projects come their way or intuitively focus on the most lucrative. If, however, you purposefully hunt for, maybe, a guaranteed day a week, perhaps earning lower than your normal rate, you’ll have a steady stream of income as a bedrock for the chaos.
Conversely, you may have far too much work and might be intensely worried about how you’ll hit your deadlines. It’s at this point, of course, the phone rings and another client is desperate for your services. Although it contradicts the freelance’s instinct, learning when and how to say ‘no’ is an essential skill. The danger is, of course, that if you do decline, the client will go elsewhere and never return. But, if you can offer something other than an outright negative, work may not be sacrificed.
For example, a copywriter, journalist or musician could ‘sub-contract’ the work to a trusted associate but still manage the project by providing the quality control, and sending the invoice. Alternatively, you could try to negotiate the deadline, perhaps by breaking the task into more manageable segments and at least begin the work on time, which may stop the client from offering the whole job to someone else. Whatever your chosen strategy, it is essential that the phone call ends on a positive note. If all you can do is make the client feel less stressed by offering a viable alternative, you have dealt with this manifestation of chaos to the best of your abilities.
It is also wise to look for new work when you are relatively busy. Again, this is counter-intuitive because it seems logical to focus on the job in hand and then wait for a lull before chasing new opportunities. However, this seemingly rational approach can backfire horribly. If you neglect active marketing until the current job is finished, you could be faced with a very lean period. It often takes weeks, sometimes months, for a prospective client to commission you and then, of course, it could be another long wait before you receive payment.
The solution is to set aside maybe half a day a week – every week - to make some phone calls, follow up on emails, dangle new ideas in front of possible clients and update your LinkedIn profile - anything that will keep your name in people’s minds. As always, your self-promotional efforts are not guaranteed to deliver work to your door when you need it most, but waiting for the phone to ring when you are desperate for work can be very frustrating.
None of these techniques are guaranteed to regulate your work schedule but they can help smooth the rough edges of chaos. If you have discovered other ways to balance your workload, please add them below. In the next blog, I’ll share some tips on how to deal with the peaks and troughs of income that inevitably accompany the chaotic life of a freelance.