3 Steps to Break out of the Freelance "Feast or Famine" Cycle

 

Freelance can be the ultimate freedom. Creating impactful works of art. Traveling the world. Making millions. Being your own boss. What's not to love?

But, it's harder than it seems, and too often we find ourselves on a roller coaster: up one day, and down the next. Slammed with work today, waiting for the phone to ring tomorrow. It doesn't need to be this way. 

You can break out of the feast or famine cycle and build a career that lasts.
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After building a freelance photography business that bills over $1mm per year, interviewing dozens of the most successful creative freelancers working today, and helping hundreds of other creative freelancers build towards their professional and personal goals, what we've discovered is: There's no secret, just a process. I have a couple tips to share:

Put on your fucking pants.

If it's past 9am and you're reading this in your slippers, you're doing it wrong. Take a shower, put on your shoes, and get out of your house. Being a freelancer doesn't mean "take conference calls from your bed" or "work in your pajamas". This is a job, you are trying to build a career, and you should treat it as such.

One of the biggest mistakes we see freelancers make again and again is to treat their business like a hobby. There is no longevity in that.

I can directly track the progress in my freelance photography business with the professionalism of my work environment. When I worked from a laptop in my bed, I made a $50k/yr. When I worked from a desk in my living room, I made $75k/yr. The year my roommate moved out and I turned his room into an office, I made $100k. When I moved into a co-working space and hired a part time employee, I made $200k. Now that we have our own office and two full time employees, we bill over $1mm. It's correlation, not causation, sure, but it's a strong one that we see in people's careers over and over again.

Find a dedicated space to work.

If you work from home and you've never experimented with working from a more professional environment, you should try. With the ubiquity of coffee shops and the influx of co-working spaces, there are very few excuses not to.

If you find you truly do your best work at home (and you've honesty tested working from out of the house), or you really can't leave the house, you should focus on creating the most professional environment for yourself as possible.

Working from your bed is bad for focus. Sorry, but it's true. Working from the couch in your living room is only a little bit better. Setting up a desk somewhere that is exclusively used for work, that's getting there. Dedicating an entire room to your work is better than that. (It also gives you a small tax write off.)

If you want to build a smart, sustainable freelance career, your goal should be to have a dedicated space you go to each morning to work. A place where the distractions of your daily life aren’t present, and you can focus fully on your creative business.

If you are going to work from home, when you get up in the morning, take a shower, get dressed, put on your shoes, and leave the house, just like you would if you were commuting to an office. Walk around the block. When you come back to your house, you're now "at work", and you can let go of all your personal distractions (dishes, laundry, TV) that you wouldn't be looking at if you were in an office.

But better yet, actually leave your house, and go somewhere. Try this:

Exercise 1:

Get a pen and paper, take five minutes, and project yourself five years in the future and visualize your perfect workspace. Ask yourself these questions:

Where is it? How far of a commute from your house is it? What is the light like in there? What does it smell like in there? Do other people work in there with you?

Describe it in detail. Look for some photos that exemplify it. Save them in a folder on your desktop or pin them to your inspiration board. Revisit this vision from time to time. One day, you will open the door to your workspace, and realize you have created what you envisioned.

Exercise 2:

You may not be able to create this perfect work environment now, but what small steps can you take to make your environment a little bit better, a place where you can be a little more productive, and a little more focused? Give yourself a quick win, a small financial goal for your business, and as soon as you meet it, reward yourself with something that will make your work space a little better. Some examples:

  • A new desk or chair
  • A supply of candles
  • A trial membership at a co-working space
  • A new plant
  • A better speaker system
  • Anything that will make sitting down to do your work that much nicer.

Visualize a specific goal.

If you don't know where you're going, you're never going to get there. Goals are what motivate people. Without them, it's hard to know where we're going, and why. Goals work like magnets. We cast them out into the future, and they pull us towards them.

Goal setting is both a science and an art. A thousand books have been written about the process, and there is no one way to do it right; the important thing is that you do it.

How do you get this view?

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First, you have to want it. And you have to know why. Then, you can start to plan. You can figure out how, and where, and when, and with whom.

But when the going gets tough, when the trail gets steep and your breath gets short, you'll remember where you're going, and why, and you'll be more likely to keep putting one foot in front of the other, step after step, hour after hour, until you get there.

Visualization Exercise:

We've created a visualization exercise for the members of Art of Freelance, but we're giving it away here. It will help you create clear goals for yourself professionally, and personally.

 
 

Freelance doesn't need to be a constant struggle of ups and downs. If you build your business well, it will be far more sustainable than any corporate job. You can get fired from a "real job" by one shitty boss, or one economic downturn out of your control. But no one can fire you from a sustainable freelance career. If you build the right kind of freelance practice, you can be making 6 to 7 figures a year, doing it with grace and style, and no one can tell you no.

Doesn't that sound nice?


Mathieu Young is a renowned professional freelance photographer and director. Mathieu has served the giants (Bose, Samsung, Showtime, Paramount Pictures) and won awards for social enterprise campaigns in Tanzania, Kenya, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. He is the founder of Art of Freelance and Kensington Presents, a pop-up concert series in collaboration with California State Parks. 

Kai Bigwood