It’s a scary word in all professions, but it gets even scarier when your income relies directly on you being able to perform. Deadlines start to slide, you find amazing new ways to procrastinate, bills are coming in but you’re not sending them out. It can quickly spiral out of control, and I should know – I’ve been there many times.
Just as scary. There’s no clients, no work, and your bank account is running low. There’s a drought in your pipeline, and you’re really not sure if you’ll ever get a job again. You start considering those clients that have more red flags than the Soviet Union. Maybe your prices are too high, maybe you’re too picky, and maybe this strange guy asking for your bank account details really will deposit $80 million from a deceased Nigerian prince.
But as terrifying as the “Boom or Bust”, or “Feast and Famine” of freelancing can be, these both have a common solution.
Planning for downtime
The first step is accepting that you are not, in fact, an automaton. You have to eat, sleep, go to the toilet, and occasionally even have some fun. Without that, you won’t survive. Accepting that you can’t work 24/7 can lead to the realisation that you can’t work 16/7 for very long either, and maybe even 10/5 is pushing it a bit far. There’s only so many years in a row where “time off” means “total immune system failure” before you burn out for good.
Once you have accepted that you need to work sustainable hours most of the time, you can start planning the hours that you do work better. Start scheduling clients so that you’re only working on one or two major projects at once. Consider charging “day rates” or even “week rates” instead of hourly, so that you can dedicate an entire day to a single project without distraction.
Next start planning your salary. Sure, you get paid into your paypal or your bank account, and then you spend it straight from there, but maybe that’s the problem. Try opening an account for your business at a different bank – one that takes a day or so to transfer money to your regular account. This makes it difficult to pull money out on a whim. After that, start paying yourself a salary every week, or fortnight, or month – whatever works best for you. The salary should be consistent, not just “whatever money I have available”. Pick a number that’s easy to cover. Start putting aside money for tax from every time you pay your “salary”, and leave the rest of your business income right there – in the business bank account.
After a while you’ll notice that it’s grown to the point where you could pay your next salary twice. Here comes the magic trick:
Take a week off. Maybe two. What can your salary cover? Use the money saved to pay yourself leave without having to worry about where your next pay cheque is coming from – you’ve already saved it.
After you’ve done this once, start building up your “time off” kitty again. Use it when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and to keep yourself afloat when clients run thin. Use that time off to get your mind on track without stressing, or to learn a new skill, or just to go through your shoe-box of business expenses so that your accountant doesn’t fire you.
After a little while, you’ll get used to the stability of a consistent income. You’ll be less inclined to take on too much work, or take on bad jobs when it’s slow. You don’t have to stop working on your business, but you can start spending your time on improving your business instead of procrastinating.
Making time for downtime is vital to surviving long-term as a freelancer – take it from someone who learned this lesson many, many times over. In the past few years, I’ve gone from working 52 weeks/year (and being miserable) to working 42-46 weeks in a year, and earning more. While I still get stressed, I know that I can always afford to take a week at the end of a big project to rest, recoup, and recover for the next one.
For more tips, tricks, and thoughts on freelancing, please look through our other posts.