Do you feel as though freelancing has you trapped on a treadmill? Do you feel lost and like you don't know where your business is going? Are you bored?
It's all too easy to get stuck in a rut. It's normal to have moments when you just can't be arsed, lose motivation for work and dream of ditching everything to go travelling for a year.
That's because we get bogged down by the business of running a business. We might have clients that we've fallen out of love with. We may feel as though we're churning out the same old work, over and over again.
If this sounds familiar, what can you do? Well, don't throw in the towel just yet. There is still hope. You have to take a step back and figure out what you need to change to make freelancing great again. Easier said than done, I know. But the following strategies should hopefully clear the cobwebs and set you on the right path. Before we get onto those, let's consider what's stopping you from embracing change:
The sunk cost fallacy
It's the biggest misconception of all – the very thing that traps so many of us. It's the delusion that we can't change our lives because we've already invested too much time, money or effort into our current situation. It's the "sunk cost fallacy" – anything we've already paid for and cannot recover.
We keep from changing because we think it would be a waste. We do it every day. If we have food on our plate that we can't finish, we eat it anyway because we don't want to waste money. We might continue reading a book that we're not enjoying. Or stay with the wrong partner because we've invested so much in them.
Recognise this fallacy, which is also known as the status quo bias, as something that could be holding you back.
Another reason why we might avoid change is that we're afraid. Afraid of losing control, fearful of uncertainty and afraid of whether we can do it. We're worried that transforming our business, even just a little, could lead to complete disaster. Which means we often stay on the same path and never resolve anything. What have you got to be afraid of when you haven't done anything yet?
Admittedly, it's just as scary to do nothing – think of all the things that could go wrong if you don't change! My point? No matter what you do in life, you can never predict the outcome. Changing things might make things worse, or they could make them better – you'll never know unless you at least try. Take comfort from good old Winston Churchill, who famously said: "To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."
It could be that you're just confused as hell. You're paralysed because you don't know how to change. This is incredibly common. Particularly if your business is stressing you out and you haven't the energy to think, let alone do anything.
You could be burnt out. I've been there, so I certainly know how it feels to be overwhelmed and like I can't change anything. You're probably just exhausted and need a break.
The ostrich "head in the sand" stance
Sometimes we just can't be bothered to change because we know it will bring lots of hassle, extra work and agro. You might have to let clients or staff go, and dread any confrontation. You might have to sort a new website or change your whole offering. Let's face it; change might be a pain in the ass.
Of course, there are lots of other reasons why we might avoid change and carry on regardless. These are just the most common excuses I've come across in my ten years of business. Now let's look at some helpful strategies to get you out of a rut.
1. Create a mind map
If I'm ever struggling to make sense of things, I often write things down on to paper – to get my jumbled thoughts out of my head and in front of me, in the hope that I'll be able to come up with a plan.
I'll create what is known as a "mind map" – a fantastic technique that helps me visualise things through keywords and drawings, which then spark inspiration and ideas to reveal what I need to do next.
Grab yourself an A3 sketch pad, loads of brightly coloured Sharpies and get creative. Write your name, your business name or your problem in the centre of the paper, and then branch off all the things you want it to be and more. Write from the heart. Jot down anything and everything that springs to mind, no matter how banal. The answer might start to reveal itself.
2. Consider what you're passionate about
If the cobwebs are still there, go back to the drawing board and think about what you love. The very thing that gets you out of bed in the morning.
Because if you've moved further and further away from your passions, it's time to remember why you started your business in the first place.
Laura Boast, who runs Manchester design studio, LJB Studio, believes change has a positive impact on everything and should be embraced regularly. "Keeping things fresh is what helps drive my business forward. I've never been one to sit still; I'm always finding new ways to shake up what I'm doing, so I can keep progressing."
Laura has just changed the focus of her studio to specialise in creative services for surface and material designers – something she's crazily passionate about. "With so much innovation and creativity, it's an exciting time for the interior sector. It's amazing how one product can transform a space, and how that can make you feel. Being able to work in this field has made me incredibly happy."
I've done something similar in the last 12 months. My consultancy, Boomerang, was initially covered a wide range of sectors – some of which didn't inspire me. After ten years of running the business, I decided to specialise in the creative industries, because that's what I love the most, and that's where I have heaps of experience. Honestly, it's the best thing I ever did. Sure, it was scary – closing my business to some potential clients. But I'm now working with the kind of brands I'm passionate about, and thoroughly enjoying every moment.
3. Write down three attainable goals
Often the best way to inspire change is to create a basic plan. Not a complicated one that makes you feel overwhelmed. Just something that gets the ball rolling.
Ok, so you're a designer. But you'd rather do illustration. That's great. You've drawn your mind map, figured out what you're passionate about, and decided graphic design isn't for you. So how about you set yourself these three small goals to help you change?
For instance, you could set up a separate online portfolio to showcase your illustration work or send out an email to existing clients, telling them about your illustration services and approach at least one illustrator you admire for some friendly career advice.
Setting attainable goals, and figuring out those first steps, is incredibly powerful and – like a snowball rolling down a hill – will soon build and gather momentum. The point is – you have to get started, no matter how small those initial steps. Because if you sit there and think of everything that needs to be accomplished, you'll never do anything.
4. Change your perspective
We all have days when we feel deflated from work. It might not be a permanent thing. You could be tired and in need of a holiday. You might find that when you return from your break in the sun that you have a new sense of energy and passion for what you do.
No job or business is perfect. That's certainly true for everyone. But if you can find the silver linings, count your blessings and perhaps tackle the things you dislike, you might get yourself out of that rut. I'm not religious, but I've always loved Reinhold Niebuhr's quote: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".
Write down all the things you love about your business. And then list everything you dislike. The answer to your problems will become apparent and will allow you to tackle situations one by one.
For instance, if you hate chasing late payments – use a better software tool to automate the process for you (I love FreeAgent). Or if you despise working from home, can you join a local co-working space? (Check out our recommended co-working hubs across the UK.)
5. Go on holiday
If none of the above helps, get lost! Really. Get away from your desk and take a break somewhere. Completely distance yourself from work even if it's just a camping trip to Wales for a long weekend.
Don't even think about your business. Relax, and you know what – the answers will naturally come to you. You'll be sat on your picnic blanket, enjoying a glass of red wine and snap! The path will suddenly become clear. You'll think, "That's what I need to do!" and you'll return home with a plan.
This technique has always worked well for me. I started my business after a family trip to Australia, and I came up with the idea for Creative Boom on my honeymoon in Greece. I get the same clarity when I go cycling or spend time with family and friends – the answers will pop into my head. (My 'notes' app on my smartphone is full to the brim with 'to-do' lists of attainable goals.)
More than anything, give yourself a break. Take the pressure off. Don't sweat it. Running a business can be tough. If the rut means you're just not enjoying being a freelancer, then getting a full-time job could be just the answer to your problems. There's no shame in admitting entrepreneurship isn't your cup of tea. It's about what's right for you.
Whatever you do, never fear change, because – as Charles Darwin said – "it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."