In a perfect world, freelancers would have steady work from grateful clients. There would never be too little work to make ends meet, and there would never be too much work to humanly handle.
Surprise! We don’t live in a perfect world.
Freelancing is notorious for boom and bust cycles, where busy work periods alternate with slow weeks or months where gigs simply aren’t coming in. This can lead to unhealthy work habits: Self-employed professionals can easily burn out when there are a lot of projects due, and then spend the slow periods watching too much Netflix and playing too many video games. (You know, not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Here are some tips for handling the cyclical nature of freelancing:
Plan In Advance
When you’re a freelancer, you’re not just a writer or an architect or a yoga teacher: You’re your own boss. This means practicing smart business planning, and keeping an eye out for trends in your industry.
Keep the cycles of your industry in mind when taking on projects. If you’re an accountant, you probably already know that the period from New Year’s Day to April 15 will be crazy. Tutors will have busier periods in the months before the SATs. Freelancers working with specific industries such as digital media or the film industry have to keep their client’s project schedules in mind.
Having a reasonable idea in advance of when your peak periods and your slower months for your industry are is highly advisable, and leads to….
Use Slow Months Wisely
As a freelancer, it’s so damn tempting to view slow weeks as an opportunity to catch up on House of Cards. No matter how good a job Kevin Spacey does, don’t do it.
Instead, use your slow periods to build your business.
Non-peak periods should be used for working on marketing projects and improving your professional skills. Slow periods are exactly when you should be working on your website, and figuring out how to improve your professional presence on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Just as importantly, slower months are when you should improve your skills so you make more money and are happier on the job. Online learning sites such as Udemy, Lynda, and Skillshare are all highly affordable and offer a ton of relevant classes. Need to work on your Adobe Illustrator kung-fu to improve your web development business? Want to learn the fine points of Google Analytics so you can boost your social media consulting firm? Or just want to become a rockstar on Word and Excel? Now is the time.
Prepare For Peak Periods
Months when you make lots of money quickly are awesome. But many industries tend to have peak periods when a lot of work is required from freelancers quickly. Along with the good parts (making lots of money), there are also bad parts (putting physical and mental health at risk, and overstretching yourself workwise).
As a freelancer, one of the most important things I’ve found is preparing in advance for peak periods. Make sure you won’t be travelling, make sure you have extra assistance with family and personal commitments, and that you treat your freelance job as something with fixed hours and benchmarks–just like you would a day job.
Your job as your own boss is to make sure you’re a good employee and doing well on projects–just as it’d be if you were managing someone else at a company. Endless rush sprints and bad project management won’t cut it. Project management tools such as Trello are your friends here.
Lastly, find the parts of your freelance job you can affordably outsource–and find someone else to do them. Marketplaces such as Fiverr, 99designs and Upwork offer high quality freelancers (And, yes, freelancers can hire other freelancers!). Paying someone to schedule meetings, proofread documents, or do transcriptions may be financially worthwhile–just think of it as paying money to have one less stressor in your freelance life.
Build A Budget
I can’t stress this enough: Make a budget and stick to it. This is so important when handling seasonal fluctuations in industry. Software tools such as YNAB and Mint are great for this, or you can just use pen and paper.
If you’re an independent contractor, make sure to put money in your savings account to pay the bills during slow periods–and to pay quarterly taxes. If you run a single employee S Corporation or LLC, you want to make sure money is saved up to pay out a salary each pay cycle.
Basically… Even if having $10,000 or $25,000 showing up in your bank account overnight feels awesome, don’t spend it overnight. Save that money for a rainy day and use it wisely. Work won’t always be that busy… and you want to make sure the bust periods are manageable so you make it to that next boom.