The waiting game

Freelance is great … apart from the wait

WAIT sign

What are you waiting for?

I’ve been a freelance business writer now for just over 8 months. It’s almost certainly been the best thing I’ve done in my career.

I love it.

I love:

  • the chance to work on a wide variety of projects
  • the flexibility of the working hours
  • working with clients in a number of different industries
  • getting great feedback from satisfied customers
  • being my own boss

But there are some things I’m still getting used to. In particular, the ebb and flow of the workload. And the unpredictability. Even with three regular clients, some weeks it’s hectic, and other weeks it’s eerily silent.

So, what do you do when the work doesn’t come in?

That is rarely, if ever, an issue when you’re an employee. Up until last May I worked for ten years as a writer for a technology company and never had a single day when I wasn’t busy. At least a bit busy. And when things were slack, there were always lots of colleagues you could talk to.

But the nature of freelance means that there are peaks and troughs. Days when no-one needs you.

How do you handle that?

What do you do while you’re waiting?

I’d be interested to hear from more seasoned freelancers about what they do in such situations. As a newcomer, I’ve found this quite a challenge. Yes, I can hear all of you who aren’t self-employed grumbling “nice problem to have”, “wish I could have a day off” etc.

But the point is, you don’t get a day off. You just don’t get paid.

I follow a lot of copywriters on Twitter: many of them are freelance, and some of them talk about staying in bed, going to the pub or just having fun on days when they’re not busy. They may be joking. But if not, I envy them.

I still have that ’employee’ work ethic that doesn’t let me relax and take the day off when I don’t actually have any work to do. That’s not a humble brag: it’s actually a right royal pain in the arse. I’d rather just turn around and say: “Right, I’m having fun today. I’ll take my phone in case anyone calls or emails, but I’m taking the day off.” But I don’t. I try to. But then I start to feel guilty. Naughty, even.

So, what do I do? I sit at my desk and wait. While I’m waiting:

  • I tweak my website
  • I write the occasional blog post
  • I check my email and phone
  • I research potential new business opportunities
  • I read a book in between checking my email and phone
  • I go to the gym at lunchtime
  • I do my accounts and admin tasks
  • I get lost in Twitter
  • I turn Twitter off because all the other writers seem to be super-busy and still have time to write kick-ass blog posts
  • I check my email and phone again

And that’s OK. Because it’s usually the odd day here and there, and then all of a sudden things are busy again.

How do you respond when your patience is tested?

But just recently the trough has lasted a little longer. I’ve just finished two big projects for regular clients, and there’s nothing else coming through for a couple of days. I am also waiting to see if my quote for a significant project for a potential new client has landed me the job. It was nice to be asked to quote for it, but in doing so, I’ve had to curtail my usual chase for new business to ensure I have time to do the job if I get it. Nothing unusual there, that happens when you’re freelance. But when there’s a work lull at the same time, the waiting game takes on more significance, gets more frustrating, and tests your patience just that little bit more.

Except this time, I’ve changed tactics. I’ve had an epiphany. Instead of waiting, I’m going to get on with some writing. Just for me. Just because. The path that has led to me going freelance started when I took a three-month sabbatical in May 2010 to start writing a novel. I’d never done it before, but loved it. I worked really hard every day and even at weekends. For no money.

I got a third of the way through it, including some ruthless redrafting and then I had to go back to work. The draft has stayed on the shelf and in the Dropbox ever since.

You’d think it was a no-brainer to go back to the novel whenever the work dried up a little, but it wasn’t. I’d think about it, then the cycle of feeling guilty and naughty would start again. So I went back to pingling and waiting again. Until yesterday.

Give yourself permission to get creative

Yesterday I resolved to give myself permission to start writing my novel again. I’d got stuck at a certain point, and after allowing myself to go back and investigate things yesterday afternoon, I realised what I need to do to get unstuck. I need to rip up a chapter and a half and start them over again. By the evening I was getting excited by the prospect, and started having new ideas for the first time in ages.

And today I’m getting stuck into writing my novel again. As soon as I’ve blogged this. Until the work starts trickling, or flooding back in again.

Wish me luck!

Are you waiting patiently?

How do you handle the waiting game?

Is it time you gave yourself permission to do something you’re really passionate about while you’re waiting?

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2 thoughts on “The waiting game

  1. The trick is to never ‘wait’ – in the passive sense of waiting. Instead of waiting, consider your downtime ‘marketing’ time instead. So get back on Twitter, follow some new people (the people who might be clients!) over-share something interesting, look for networking events, write more blog posts and consider how else you can reach out to new clients. But never, ever WAIT.

  2. Thanks Leif, very sound advice. I’ve been using my downtime proactively to a large extent, but it’s also been important for me to give myself permission to use the time for more creative projects rather than solely focusing on the business. I guess it’s a case of just making the most of that space.

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