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Dealing with extended periods of less work

Freelancing is rarely consistent in terms of workload, but when you have extended periods of time where there is less work flowing your way, what can you do about it?

It's June 2023, and right now - for many of us - it's been the quietest period of our freelancing careers. 

A quick poll in the Leapers community showed two-thirds of our members are feeling work is very quiet at the moment, a very slow start to the year, and really hard to find clients who are committing to signing off new projects. Looking beyond the Leapers community - there are no shortage of social posts from freelancers echoing the same, and our conversations with recruiters and freelancer platforms reflect similar, it's quiet out there for everyone.

This naturally can lead to lots of feelings of anxiety and concern - with the additional backdrop of increased costs of living, inflation, mortgage rates, fuel prices, and a looming summer period - which is generally quieter anyway. It's not surprising that this is influencing the mental health of not just our members, but the freelance community at large.

It's important to be aware that many people are feeling that things are slow - and recognise that some thing are outside of your control. Whilst the number one reason to be freelance is a desire for more control over the work we do, many things are not in our gift to control, particularly things like the economic landscape or whether clients have budgets right now.

However, hearing phrases like "We're all in the same storm", "Everyone is struggling right now" and "Wait it out, things will improve" don't necessarily help your particular situation, as broad observations and platitudes don't pay the bills. In this guide, we'll look at some tangible ways to manage the feelings of anxiety, what you could be doing during quiet periods, how to prepare and plan for quiet periods, and whether you should be considering alternative options.

Planning for the quiet times

Ups and Downs

If there's a well known "assumption" about self-employment which is probably fairly accurate for most freelancers, its the concept idea of feast and famine: swinging between periods of being really busy, and then times when you can't remember the last time you spoke to a client. 

This inconsistency is one of the biggest challenges which freelancers can face - and whilst there's always more we can be doing to keep a new business pipeline filled, the reality of working for yourself is that you're likely to experience periods of little or no work. 

When these periods extend beyond a week, a month, a couple of months - it can feel really unsettling, especially if you're having to start eating into your savings or emergency fund, and it can lead to questioning whether self-employment is a sustainable way of working for you.

Causes of quiet periods

There are naturally any number of reasons for quiet periods, some are inside your control, others are not. 

Perhaps you have finished a project, and hadn't been actively looking for the next piece of work. Perhaps a client cancelled a project leaving a gap in your schedule. Perhaps, as we are seeing currently, there is a general economic downturn, leading to some hesitancy investing in projects from a client perspective. Perhaps it's the summer holidays. Perhaps it's the end of the year. Perhaps you have been relying upon word of mouth, and not actively chasing new leads. Perhaps there's an R in the month. 

Realistically - there are just too many factors in play to be able to predict when you'll have quiet periods. There are definitely seasonal variations and spikes, and key moments in the year where things are more or less likely to be active from the client side - but even then, there's no guarantee you'll be next in line for the work.

Get ahead of the quiet times

It's almost impossible to know when you might not be working, but do what you can to plan ahead accordingly. Put aside some money each month where possible to cover costs on the quieter periods. 

Start having conversations with clients now even if you're busy, to line up work for next month or the month after that. Remember that summer and winter holidays are almost always quieter, so ramp up work during the spring and autumn, or speak to clients to see if you can help out whilst their staff are away.  New business is an always-on thing, rather than when you just need it.

Playing a longer term game

Mitigating the ups and downs takes a number of different strategies - 1) building a forward pipeline of prospects and projects, so there's always something waiting for you 2) marketing and networking to keep your name and capabilities visible and opportunities open and 3) perhaps most importantly, playing a longer game. 

Rather than observing your workload week by week or even month by month - looking at the year in totality. It's entirely possible you're having a very slow January, but if you had a crazy busy February and March - it can even out. Try to take a 12 month view - no-one can see the future of course, but look back over the past 12 months, are you on track or below where you need to be? 

A mindset shift from 'monthly salary' towards 'business revenues' can be useful to remember that you're unlikely to have a regular income, but the income you can generate via your business will have peaks and troughs, but over the longer-term, works out similarly.

Dealing with feelings and wellbeing during quiet periods

It's not you, but macroeconomics.

It's important to recognise the remarkable state of affairs locally and globally right now - off the back of the pandemic, huge rounds of layoffs across many sectors, economies teetering on the edge of recessions, high inflation, high cost of living, war in Europe, continued negative symptoms of Brexit, and the climate crisis - things are hard, everywhere.

Based upon conversations in our community, my conversations with freelancers across multiple sectors, and following other communities and channels on social - many many many freelancers are feeling that the market is exceedingly quiet currently, quieter than they've seen in their career. I've read stories of freelancers who have 20+ year careers who have never seen it this slow.

Whilst it doesn't make it any easier, or reduce the anxiety around being able to pay your bills, it can help to pay attention to the quiet period not being anything to do with you, or your talent, or the value you offer to your clients. This is a systemic downturn, not your lack of skill as a freelancer. It's very easy to see people who are getting gigs, and wonder: why are they so busy? But looking in totality, the majority of people are feeling the slowdown here. 

In many ways, that could make things feel harder - as the situation is not wholly in your control, what you can you actually do about it? A sense of hopelessness or feeling out of control is unpleasant, but there are tangible ways to try and calm your anxiety.

Managing feelings of anxiety

Anxiety can easily spiral out of control, and get in the way of putting practical and helpful behaviours in place. It's important to separate facts from feelings and be as objective as possible. It is natural to be worried about your finances if you don't have any work lined up, but list out your concerns on a piece of paper - and focus on the rational worries rather than those which might be less likely to happen, or "what if..." scenarios.

Take a step away from your computer, the news, emails and socials - and take some deep breaths. Seeing constant messages or coverage of economic downturn, or endless LinkedIn posts about people struggling (or doing really well despite everything), can make matters feel worse.

Stick to your daily routine even if there's not a project to be delivered or work to be done - get up, get dressed, go to where you work, and focus on your todo list of things for your business, rather than your clients businesses. That might be updating your website, reaching out to previous clients, attending network events or taking part in communities. Make sure you give yourself a clear set of goals and tasks to achieve based upon how you want to move your business forward - else you can end up sitting staring at the screen, waiting for something to happen.

It can be helpful to make the most of the quiet periods by taking some time off, if you're able to afford it. That doesn't have to mean going away on holiday, but switching off the computer, stepping away from work, and giving yourself a clear break from thinking about work can help you return to the task for finding some new business with renewed energy, especially if you've been feeling low.

Financial Planning

Hold your nerve, but know your baselines.

When we asked the community for their tips on dealing with quiet periods, the most common response was "Hold your nerve": things will improve and its likely that work will pick up again. 

Economic forecasts suggest that the recession may not be as long as expected, and the second half of 2023 is likely to see improvements. However, to balance suggestions of just "waiting it out", many members also reminded us of the importance of not simply blindly hoping, and keeping an eye on your bank balance, if you start eating into your savings. 

Be really clear of your outgoings and how much of a safety buffer or emergency fund you have built up. Look at any excess spending which you might be able to reduce in the short term, especially business costs, subscriptions, software licenses. 

Work out what your monthly outgoings are, and ensure you've got an idea of how many weeks or months you're able to be quiet before things step into a more worrying territory. Often, people might not know their budget - and feel more anxious than is neccessary, or indeed they should be more concerned than they perhaps are. 

Money can be a tricky subject for many, but burying your head in the sand and not understanding your finances is even worse.

Smoothing your income

Wherever possible, rather than taking out 100% of the money you've made each month from your business, take a consistent income each month, based upon 1/12th of your average annual income. So, imagine you made £35,000 in 2022 - set up a monthly 'salary' of £3000. 

Even if you've made more in one month, you will be better able to plan around regular finances, and on the slower months, you'll still have money to pay yourself. Don't forget, money that goes into your pocket needs to be after deducting or putting aside money for taxes, VAT, insurance, costs, pensions, and your emergency fund.

Emergency Funds

If you've not got one already - it's never a bad time to start establishing a pot of cash put aside for emergencies and quiet periods. Put a percentage of each invoice into a savings pot - most of the modern banks these days allow you to keep a money aside for certain purposes like tax. 

Most experts say you should have enough money in your emergency fund to cover at least 3 to 6 months' worth of living expenses, but building up that fund can take a while. If you are dipping into your emergency fund now, don't forget to top it back up again when you're starting to generate revenue once more.

Not dropping your rates

It can be tempting to take on lower paid work when things are quiet - everyone needs to make their considered decision, but dropping your rates can lead to making it harder to put them back up when things are better, especially if you land some longer term clients. If you're absolutely in need to accept a lower value contract, consider keeping your day rates static, but offering a discount on an invoice. This makes it easier to negotiate the next contract at your correct rate.

Building out your business

Working your networks

Whilst you should be doing this continually as a freelancer - it's going to be doubly important to keep up the pressure on marketing and reaching out to your networks. Whilst there might be fewer roles and projects available, staying visible and front-of-mind for clients for when they do have a project is a sure fire way of being at the front of the queue.

Suggesting a quick zoom call or coffee with previous clients, taking part in industry and networking events to create new connections, being involved in community groups and projects, or even hosting your own events, can all create new opportunities. 

Aim to have a range of different sources of new business - as being reliant upon just one can reduce your chances of finding work. Get on to more platforms such as YunoJuno, where jobs are posted on a regular basis - and widen the number of possible channels where you can find work.

Marketing and Portfolio

When we're busy, one of the things which will often get deprioritised will be marketing and developing content to support our marketing, such as our portfolio, website, emails, case studies, and so on. 

This is a great time to review how you're positioning and communicating yourself. Work on those examples of work you've done, write up the stories of success, polish the way you present your work, keep sharing it via your networks.

Professional Development

Some quiet time also allows you the space to invest in yourself and your capabilities - think about using the downtime to extend your skills, brush up on something you've been needing to work on, expand your work into a new area, find some coaching, find a mentor, build out your own support network - all of the things which so often we don't have time for. 

If it can feel like you 'should' be focusing on chasing new business, rather than personal and professional development - consider spending a chunk of your day on new business, and then a couple of hours on yourself.

Develop new products

Consider what additional things you could package up into easily sellable products, which you can market in addition to your services. 

Many freelancers have spent time finding additional ways to offer their services, either at fixed price, in a different format, as courses, training, content, workshops, templates - the possibilities are wide and varied. It's possible that there are a range of ways which you can add revenue streams to your business, that reduce your reliance upon direct client work.

Business plan / strategy

Whilst a few weeks or even months doesn't neccessarily mean that the business you're running is pointed in the wrong direction - it is always healthy to review the direction of your services, products and offering, and your strategy for both shoring up the difficult times, and growth in the good times. 

What do you want your business to be doing over the next 12 months to 3 years? Are there things you can be doing now to defend against any further quiet periods in the future - which aren't as reliant upon waiting to hear from clients? Is there a longer term goal which you can start working towards now? Ideally these strategic decisions are made when things are going well, so you have the safety net of income to work whilst pivoting - but moments of need can create useful triggers to reflect on what you're doing too. 

Just make sure you're not being too reactive - and making big decisions around your work under pressure.

And finally .... 

It's entirely possible that you've reached a point where you feel like freelancing simply isn't working out for you right now - and that's okay. 

Freelancing isn't always the right option for all people - and seeing your career as a series of relationships, some long-term (i.e. employment) and others shorter-term (i.e. project based as a freelancer) helps you to recognise that taking the role which suits your current needs and motivations is far more sensible than slavishly committing to one 'way' of working. 

Finding a role where you have stability, a good team around you, and some breathing space to focus on doing great work is always going to be a positive - and there's no reason why you can't return to freelancing at a later date. 

Many more people are engaging in more 'squiggly careers', or working in more fluid ways - moving between fixed-term employment and self-employment, or even juggling multiple forms or employment. The future of work is more likely to be a portfolio or range of types of work, rather than the old model of a 'job for life'.

Ultimately, being a Leaper is about making active decisions about how you want your career to work for you - and if that means not being self-employed at the moment, if it means pivoting to work in a different way again, or it means doubling down and holding your nerve - being in a place to make an informed decision towards taking care of your own wellbeing, is the most valuable position.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself

Most importantly, when you're already stressed from a lack of work - make sure you're being gentle with yourself. 

Things are incredibly hard for many of us currently, and giving yourself a harder time about it isn't going to help you or your business. Lean into your communities and networks to engage with others - it can really help to recognise you're not in this alone.

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