When you’re hot, it’s stressful. When you’re not, it’s depressing. We’ve all been there: the phone doesn’t ring. That exciting ‘will-it, won’t it’ project feels like it’s fading away.
Hope seems futile, and motivation is lower than a limbo champion’s backside. Gallows humour is all you’ve got left as the freelance blues loom over you, chanting: ‘Get a real job, you loser’.
These are the unavoidable facts of freelancing. I speak from bitter experience: I once lost all of my retainers on the same day, as both simultaneously decided to get a full-time content writer on staff. Gutted. But as independent creatives, that’s a risk we take every day. Here’s my essential checklist of keeping motivated and sane during lean times.
1. Find a way for fear to push you from behind, not stand in front of you
“Fear's a powerful thing. I mean it's got a lot of firepower. If you can figure out a way to wrestle that fear to push you from behind rather than to stand in front of you, that's very powerful, “ (…so goes the spoken intro to Dr Dre’s track, All in a Day’s Work).
It’s Jimmy Iovine, Dre’s business partner, who is speaking. He continues:
“I always felt that I had to work harder than the next guy, just to do as well as the next guy. And to do better than the next guy, I had to just kill. And you know, to a certain extent, that's still with me in how I work, you know, I just... go in.”
So the first thing to accept is demotivation is a brand of fear: an adverse reaction, almost like an allergy. Motivation is the opposite, a positive response. Being scared that you’re not doing enough to make stuff happen is a much better stance than pouting, self-doubting and hiding under the bedcovers.
2. Outsource your confidence: believe those who believe in you
We all have moments/days/weeks when our self-belief is sucked dry. You might not believe in yourself at such junctures, but somebody somewhere believes in you: your partner, your best mate, your mum, your kids. Someone thinks you can do it. This is no time for second-guessing and paranoia, so take their belief at face value. Accept that only a lack of effort could ever let the side down – your tribe will be equally proud of effort as results, so dig deep, put the hours in and get back to basics.
3. Have a plan for Mondays
We’ve all felt the pain of being ignored by clients. Have any of you lot ever been emailed or called back by a client on a Monday? I don’t think I have. Therefore, I learned that to safeguard one's sanity, always have a concrete, written-in-indelible-ink plan for an independently productive Monday.
4. The buck stops here: you are the business
You might see yourself as an artist, but as a creative freelancer, you are a business. Doing your art is working IN your business, but you also need to work ON your business. So if you’re quiet, while it might be tempting to stay in bed late, keep in mind that most millionaire CEOs get out of bed around 5am and work ON their business all day long.
When motivation is low, it’s easy to slip into making whatever paid work you have last all week. Don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap. It wastes time, it’s terrible for your chi, and if any new deals come in, you might find yourself overrun and stressed to the eyeballs.
To keep the tempo up, sketch out a firm timetable of what you’ll do to work ON your business, be at your desk for 8am and get stuck in.
Use all your powers of lateral creative thinking on a variety of business development stuff:
- creating sharable content for your online profiles and website
- researching the latest trends in your markets, for fresh ideas and angles
- hunting for new leads, calling old ones
- creating a compelling email newsletter
- PR opportunities.
Never forget the power of PR. Could you do a stunt in a local paper or write something for a trade rag that gets your name in front of a bunch of new buyers? Media coverage is fantastic; it’s a time-honoured badge of social proof – people believe what they read much more than they would ever let on.
5. Bona Fide Training Plan
If you were an FTE, there would be a company training budget, courses to choose from, and forms to fill, to prove the business case for a day out of the office.
Treat your own business the same way. Could learning about sales techniques make you convert more pitches? Could learning PR get you more pitches? Could learning UX psychology or SEO bring more enquiries through your website? Of course! Decide where to start and build it into your weekly planner.
When you are flush, you might also want to stock up on a reading list of textbooks. But education needn’t cost a penny - see these two previous CB articles 58 of the best websites and apps to learn something new and 50 free online courses for creatives and entrepreneurs for inspiration of which courses to take.
Learning is not only good for the mind and soul – online courses are an underrated networking opportunity. I’ve met several people who’ve offered me work that way.
6. Inspiration Day
You can’t be all business, all the time. You’ve got to keep the art vibe alive, so set aside a day to let your mind and your feet wander. Go to libraries, museums, galleries. Soak up whatever influence you can from a wide variety of sources. Talk to people you wouldn’t usually approach. Read something you wouldn’t normally read.
Take notes and photos as you go. Go home and make a mood board of the day. Let it inspire some great work.
7. Always be pipelining
When we’re quiet, the best thing we can do for our sanity is to have ongoing conversations that we hope will turn into work. If you find yourself in a position of no project, no pipeline, you will feel utterly hopeless. So no matter how busy you are, make time to keep the networking and email marketing going. Keep your job board profiles up to date – or join new ones.
Your poor anxious brain will thank you for having a few warmed-up leads to fire a quick email to, to see if that project you talked about is ready to bring you in; it’s a great way to keep constant hope alive, even if they don’t all come off.
8. Side projects: more the merrier
I’m a firm believer in side projects for the sake of side projects. As well as freelancing, I’ve got a novel plot simmering away, and I occasionally do a bit of stand-up comedy. It’s nice to have something completely unrelated to think about, instead of forever wondering if/when that elusive email brief is finally going to arrive.
9. Inbox woes: subtle, insidious creativity killer
Checking our email too much is the bane of a freelancers’ life. If you have the discipline to check just two or three times a day, you’ve got a stronger will than me!
But to try and sidestep the pangs of hurt when you check, and there’s nothing new, sign up for every relevant blog and newsletter that you come across. It’s a double win – it keeps you in the loop, may offer inspiration and, at the very least, helps take the edge of that static inbox feeling. Only a little bit, mind, but every little helps.
10. Scrimping is a virtue
When I was struggling, I used to know every loss-leading bargain in every supermarket in town. Veg is cheapest in Iceland, beans in Tesco, toothpaste in the Pound Shop, meat from the butchers on the market, etc. etc. Something is comforting about stocking up on the cheap, feeling a bit like you’ve beaten the system, and contributed positively to your situation - and at least you’ve got enough sustenance to power you through the search for your next lucrative client.
Conclusion: Anxiety and drama is a sad fact of freelance life.
Remember, have faith: something always turns up. It’s just a case of making sure you are in the right frame of mind to convert opportunities when they do arrive – and that your freelance blues don’t suck all the joy out of your life during the meantime.
Eat healthily, work up a sweat often and remember folks, freelancing is not a religion; you can always look for a job –if that doesn’t get fear pushing you forwards, I don’t know what will!