How Freelancers Can Avoid Wasting Time Between Jobs

By Plum Phillips May 8th, 2019

One summer, while maintaining a freelance career, I found out I was pregnant. It was good news, if a bit surprising, but the sickness and fatigue that accompanied it were awful.

As a one-woman enterprise, my success depends on my ability to self-manage and tap into creativity at will. But while I was overcome with nausea, I could barely smile at cute dogs, let alone satisfy clients with quality stories delivered on time.

I thought hard about what to do. I had no savings (yay, freelance life) but fortunately for me, I’d had a decent summer and was sitting on a fistful of healthy invoices. It wasn’t entirely without risk, but I calculated that I had three months of padding to ride out my sickness before I’d have to lurch back into action.

So I called it: I’d pass on client work to give myself some time off.

Dry spells are the scourge of freelance life. That I entered into one willingly sounds nuts, I know. To keep busy, and to set myself up for when I returned to client work, I wouldn’t abandon work entirely. I simply decided that any work I did until I felt better would be on my business and brand, on my own time. That meant tackling ground-floor basics I had been putting off for years: setting up systems to track expenses and accounts, tweaking my personal branding, and making more of an effort to network, albeit online for the time being.

For anyone whose circumstances have squeezed them out of the gig ring temporarily, I advise that you keep your muscles moving during the lull by tackling some of the following projects.

Redress your admin systems

It’s easy to neglect the clerical aspects of freelancing, but giving your admin rituals a little TLC can power up your overall efficiency. What’s your current system for keeping tabs on pitches? How are you tracking business expenses? What’s your invoicing jam? There are a bunch of tools and apps designed to help streamline tasks like these, but I like Trello for workflow and QuickBooks for staying on top of accounts.

Now’s a good time to road test some tools by taking advantage of free trials. Just keep in mind that one person’s must-have app can be someone else’s take-it-or-leave-it. It’s whatever works best you.

Update your personal branding

There’s no need to hit up the ‘gram in a gale of houseplants and millennial pink, but there’s nothing wrong with reviewing how you come across online. It’s not easy to project-manage site up-scales or graphics re-dos when your life hinges on meeting non-stop deadlines. Perhaps you could do with revising your logo, rewriting your About page, or giving your LinkedIn or Contently profile a polish?

Use this breathing space to audit your offerings. Could you diversify? Are you trying to be too many things to too many people, offering services that just don’t float? Are you using the latest industry language to attract your target clients?

Dial into webcasts and online training

Webinars—like the ones Contently runs—and social live streams are great for passively engaging in the latest happenings in your industry. Attending a few choice sessions can leave you with valuable, actionable takeaways.

If you have real time on your hands, consider taking an online course. And if you don’t have the cash right now, a little dig around will kick up some worthwhile free online learning opportunities. HubSpot Academy offers a range of free courses for marketing professionals; or you could officialize your understanding of Google Ads through Google Academy’s free digital training packages. If you want to really branch out—diversifying your menu of services or stepping into a new area of topical expertise as a writer—Udemy runs courses on everything from SEO and web dev, through to cat behavior and rapping.

Binge Netflix, consciously

Yep. Go ahead and sink your teeth into some guilt-free Netflix sessions, or any other streaming service for that matter. Staying in-tune with pop culture is a B2C ninja move, whatever your niche. I don’t mind admitting how hideously late to the party I was with Mad Men, for instance. I watched seven seasons in their entirety while I was sick, and I learned that Don Draper drops everything to catch a movie in the interests of “research.” (And look, here I am now referencing Don Draper in this piece.)

There are also some outstanding documentaries to wet your creative whistle too. It’s impossible not to feel inspired after tuning into Netflix’s docu-series Abstract: The Art Of Design, with Nike’s Tinker Hatfield and Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Or get more studious: On Prime Video, search “digital marketing,” for example, and you’ll be amazed at the video results that come up.

Get going on a passion project

One day, I’m going to write a novel—but I’m not there yet. I am good for practicing though, and I did a lot of this in my down time by entering as many short story-writing competitions as I could. My aim wasn’t to win them (true story), but to gain from the process. It was measurable achievement—tangible output—and it made me feel like I’d done something worthwhile.

My work as a content creator can only improve when I write fiction, and I think this applies to any kind of creative outlet. A YouTube channel on deadlifting, an e-book about low-light photography—whatever it is, your project can deepen your expertise or, at the very least, provide a rejuvenating reprieve from paid work.

Don’t stress yourself out

Try as we might to ensure our professional lives are always in order, with white space on the calendar kept neatly to a minimum, life has its own plans for us sometimes. Whether it’s morning sickness like mine, or your pipeline simply dies up, a work lull doesn’t have to be wasted time. My downtime from client work became an opportunity to tackle all those things I had habitually complained about, but never had time to do.

Once you’re back in the saddle, I guarantee you’ll be hitting the client work even harder and better than before if you used your time off wisely. Your personal refresh will benefit everyone, including clients, in the long run.

Plum Phillips began her freelance journey in 2009 as a journalist, writing for music and women’s titles before transitioning to copywriting. After three years working full time, she returned to freelance as a (primarily) B2C copywriter in April 2018.

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