In my three years as a freelancer, I've learned a few things: some people will still sound surprised when they call you at 2pm on a Tuesday and discover that you're working; unplugging is vital to your creative output; and slow periods are inevitable. While I've managed to navigate the first two - a sense of humor and deep breathing for the first, self-imposed but strict business hours for the second - the last one has been somewhat trickier.
I recently experienced my first slow period and so I reached out to my freelance network to gain some perspective. There, I heard the same refrain over and over again: down times are normal, almost always temporary, and even the most successful, talented freelancers go through them. In this world, things change quickly: business goals evolve, client budgets get slashed, and life happens. In fact, slow periods are so common, they're virtually a rite of passage - you're not officially 'in' until you've survived your first one. But they're still hard - on both your wallet and your ego - and I couldn't help feeling like I was failing at this freelance thing. And for a few very dark moments, I even began to consider the possibility that I may have to go back to a more traditional career. Happiness and job satisfaction are really overrated, right?
But didn't I leave that world behind to chase something of far greater value? These last three years have been the happiest of my life, and a big reason for that is the sense of pride and fulfillment I get from my work. This lifestyle can be trying and intimidating at times, but all of the most worthwhile things are. And when you accept slow periods as just a part of the deal (and plan accordingly), you realize that they're actually a blessing - the universe's way of telling you to recharge, reevaluate, refocus. Why so many freelancers fail is because they give up the moment things get rocky (and understandably so; it's a tough road and not everyone is as fortunate as I am to be able to weather the storm financially). But your drive got you here and your drive will see you through this too.
In the meantime, take advantage of the newfound wiggle room in your calendar! Here's how I got through my first business slow period and how I plan to use my time and frame my mind when the next one undoubtedly comes along:
1. Re-examine your brand and your goals: Take a look at where you've been and, more importantly, where you want to go. When things are hot, I don't have as much time to really consider a job before saying yes. Often that means taking on projects that really aren't a good fit for me and my brand. Use this time to renew your focus on what you want to do or even take your business in a whole new direction.
2. Get the minutia of your business back in order: You're likely coming off a really busy period, during which some things relating to your brand have fallen by the wayside. Use this time to get back on track - get accounting and tax papers in order, set up systems so you're ready for new clients, freshen up your site or branding materials, and clean out old files and projects that are taking up valuable space on your computer and in your head.
3. Research new client and project opportunities: Get your hustle on! Reach out to your network, former clients, and peers in your industry for leads and referrals, scour the internet, or simply cold email your dream clients. Just don't let it consume you. Set aside an hour or two a day to research and reach out about potential opportunities and then move on to something else.
4. Step up your social media game: When you're in the thick of it with your business, it's often your personal brand that suffers. Hell, I'm a social media strategist for a living and when I'm busy, my own social media starts looking mighty tired. Use this time to refresh your profiles, post better content more frequently, analyze what's working and what isn't, and, most importantly, engage! I've had many leads come from people I met online.
5. Engage other parts of your brain: When business is booming, my entire day is spent writing, thinking about content, words, and grammar. While practice in those areas is vital to my success, my best ideas often strike when I'm doing something completely unrelated. Force yourself to think differently: work with your hands, pick up a new hobby, or spend time learning a skill totally unrelated to your field. You never know when it may come in handy!
6. Take in the great outdoors: Except for my morning exercise and some Molly-imposed doggy breaks, most of my days (and I'm sure most of yours) are spent behind a computer. Now that you have some time, take regular nature breaks. Stretch your legs, breath in the fresh air, really notice the world around you. There is beauty everywhere, as long as you give yourself the freedom to enjoy it. And you don't have to go far - lately, I've felt most inspired while sitting in my own backyard watching the squirrels build their winter nests.
7. Treat yourself: There's something about digging through an antique shop on a Wednesday morning or taking an extra long Monday lunch break with a friend; even as a freelancer, being out and about during normal work hours still feels rebellious. Do all those little things that you felt guilty doing when you were overwhelmed and overworked, and do them guilt-free (not that you should ever feel guilty for taking advantage of the benefits of being a freelancer!). But do it now because before you know it you'll be far too busy.
8. Redefine 'success': If you're anything like me, you quit your traditional job to pursue something radically different from what that world could offer. In the jobs we left behind, success is mostly defined by one thing: money. But your values may be different. Money is important, of course, and with hard work and dedication, the money comes. As freelancers, we willingly sacrifice many of the comforts of a corporate job - salary, benefits, perceived security - for things that, to us, are far more important. For me, success is no longer defined by a number. Success is waking up every morning excited about what the future holds. It's doing work that aligns with my personal values and passions - and being able to say no to the work and people that don't. It's having the freedom to take a midday hike with my dog on a particularly beautiful day, a 20-minute nap with my cats on an especially trying one, or a two-week vacation abroad, all without having to ask anyone for permission. It's knowing that when I'm working 12-hour days, I'm doing it for myself, not to line someone else's pockets. And it's knowing that I'll never wake up one day, many years down the road, wondering why I wasted so much of my life doing something I hated. For me, success is measured in happiness... and that has no price tag.