Climbed a peak, now back in the valley
February 17, 2012 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Doubting if I am cut-out for freelance/independent work. There seem to be quite a few independent professionals here; it'd be wonderful to hear your thoughts/experiences.

I am currently in the process of winding up an 18 month contract, with final bits to be swept up by next week. The work trickled off three weeks ago, and now it's just a matter of a few details to be resolved.

A malaise has set in and it's easy to sit on the couch all day watching TV, reading blogs, and going for walks. At the end of the day, meeting friends at the bar, everyone talks about how they barely have time to check their email. My weeks seem endless.

I've been working independently for ten years, and this seems to be a normal part of the process. Huge cliff of downtime after deeply engaging projects. Most successful freelancers I know work on different projects. I typically stick to one at a time, and become fully invested in it.

Normally, these would be job roles, however often the programmes are new for the clients, and thus there is no job role. Besides, I am quite happy with my current boss. :)

I thought I had developed a nice blend between employee status and running my own shop, but as time goes on, these cliffs are getting harder and harder to stomach after projects end. Too much starting over.

Enough about me. Does the community have any thoughts or stories about their own experiences? Am not so keen on advice for my situation, as there's no specific 'problem' to speak of. Rather, I'm keen to hear how others manage to navigate free agency.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked independently for years, and self-discipline is the only way I manage that feeling of wasted days between projects. Meaning, I maintain a very strict routine: I have designated core hours when I have to be working.

Between projects, this means I pick up on my own projects, such as my blog, or learning something, whatever, and treat that as my job. Because they're all things that could, in some theoretical future, have a payoff, I'm motivated enough to stick at them. But they're not mission critical, so it's fine that this start-stop approach to hobbies means I don't update my blog as often as I should, or have to learn and re-learn bits and pieces often.

It does mean that sometimes I pull out the internet cables, as that's the only way to focus on something I'm not getting paid for.

I also have that time when a project is tapering off and I'm gradually getting more and more free time. I find that the most dangerous, actually, as it's easier to justify wasted afternoons to myself if I've done a couple of hours work in the morning - even though I know by the evening I'll feel I've not achieved anything that day. I've found a change of scene - going to a cafe and planning and scheduling my next personal project - to be a good use of idle blocks of time.
posted by tavegyl at 7:47 AM on February 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I find that I only work efficiently when I'm on the verge of being overwhelmed. If I have fifteen hours of work to do in a week, chances are good it'll take me half the week to do it.

So I try to keep myself busy with overlapping projects.

I also have some other personal projects. No job-work or school-work to do? Work on the novel.

Pulling out the internet cord is very helpful.
posted by entropone at 8:02 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your scenario really resonates with me, in that there have been times over the past decade that I will work intensively on projects for months, and then the project will end, and I will be out of work for a couple of months until I line the next thing up.

I don't like this scenario (I like to make money, and don't like down time), but I don't like working for a single employer either (too risky). The only thing that has seemed to work is to look for a project that takes me 50% of my time, and then find other smaller contracts to pick up the slack.

Fundamentally, the best thing to do is to develop a process (which evolves into a product or service offering), where you don't have to reinvent the wheel with each client. This will save you time (although you can still bill for the time you would have invested pre-offering).
posted by KokuRyu at 8:08 AM on February 17, 2012

As tavegyl said, find something to do that is continuous. I keep a blog but also acknowledge and appreciate the down time since I've learnt over two decades of employment that I work better in intense spurts and then need that deprocessing time - then again it could be the nature of the work as well as its neither rote or plug and play.

Like right now my work will end in April but neither am I actually thinking of looking for anything starting earlier than July. I've been independent for 7 years now and this was the first year where I've thought about how nice it would be to find some cushy desk job. Instead, I've started working with a designer friend to overhaul my own service offerings so that it can be a more cushy desk job once I realized what I needed was less fieldwork and not fulltime somebody's employee per se.
posted by infini at 8:29 AM on February 17, 2012

I have learned that everything starts with a proposal. Most organisations, for-profit and non-profit, don't know what they don't know and my job as a freelancer is to propose a way of finding a solution to a problem either they know they have or they don't know they have. It takes time and a lot of bravery but eventually I develop the trust that brings someone to say "OK, why don't you figure out what you could do in a couple of months and what it will cost us."
posted by parmanparman at 8:45 AM on February 17, 2012

>My weeks seem endless.

This is enviable, from a certain perspective. I mean, endless weeks aren't so good if you're not enjoying them. But the older I get, the more I wish I could get time to slow back down.

'Climbed a peak, now back in the valley' has a real Sisyphean feel to it; a different conceptualization of the problem might make you feel differently. I try to imagine that all the variables--my mood, the amount of paying work I've got coming in, the amount of time I'm spending procrastinating, etc., etc.--all these things are points that are moving along their own little sine waves. Sometimes they're up, and sometimes they're down. They're not going to peak and then keep climbing; that's just not The Way Of Things.

You charge the battery so you can use it later; you let a field lay fallow so you can use it later; you watch a stupid movie so, uh, so you can... okay, maybe that's not the best analogy. In my experience, taking a walk is a better way of recharging than watching TV, or checking to see if anybody's put anything new on The Internet since the last time I looked. But even a certain (small) amount of indefensible time-wasting is part of a balanced life, right?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 9:09 AM on February 17, 2012

I always have multiple clients, at various stages of their projects. And I'm always looking for work. I've been a freelancer for around 15 years. If I do have a period with absolutely no work (which has happened a couple of times), I use that period to network, see films and meet people that I might not get to do otherwise and fiddle around the house. But really, I like to work, and I enjoy having a variety of things to work on. Once I raised my rates, I got better clients, too.

I think working on one big thing at a time would be rather dull, but that's just me.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm another one who tends to do one Really Big Job at a time and then has a lot of floundering and recuperating to do in between.

I always tell myself I'll use the in between time to work on one of those personal projects I fantasize about while I'm working for other people, but that will never actually get done because by the time I actually get motivated enough to work on one of them another paying gig lands in my lap.

I've been freelancing for a few years longer than you have. Every time I go through this cycle the downtime period gets a little bit longer, and I feel a little less motivated to dive back in. I figure eventually one of them will be the last one and I'll have to figure out what comes next.

So I hear where you're coming from, is what I'm saying...
posted by ook at 11:40 AM on February 17, 2012

I did the one-big-project-at-a-time thing for several years but decided to change for these reasons:

- I got bored or frustrated with the project or client after a few weeks.
- The big projects paid on an hourly basis, which limited my income and made me feel like an employee.
- I wanted to develop a passive income, so I had to find the time to create and market a product. I couldn't do that when I was always weighed down by someone else's project.

So I transitioned from doing the work for the client to teaching clients how to do the work themselves. I give paid webinars, sometimes teach on location, sell access to a how-to site, and sell consulting packages that clients pre-pay with a credit card. I market myself through a blog where I make clear what my opinions are, which both drives traffic and filters out clients that I wouldn't enjoy working with.

The pros:

- My projects are much shorter and more varied.
- I'm involved at a higher level instead of doing the detail work. I get to play with ideas more.
- I get more respect because now I'm seen as a thought leader instead of an outsourced employee.
- The passive income from the how-to site goes effortlessly into my bank account. It steadily pays the bills while the client income goes up and down, and it gives me the freedom to turn down a bad client.
- I can schedule blocks of down time or give myself time to improve my product.

The cons:

- More email: I get a LOT more email from a wider range of people, including daily emails from strangers asking for free advice, sending me press releases, vaguely suggesting partnerships, asking to republish my stuff...
- More admin work: I have to schedule multiple webinars and conference calls; for awhile I was also doing a ridiculous amount of travel and doing all the planning myself.

I'm currently figuring out how to get a virtual assistant to help with the cons. But even in my currently slightly overwhelmed state, the pros far outweigh the cons, because I like a lot of variety and I like playing with ideas.
posted by ceiba at 12:18 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I typically stick to one at a time, and become fully invested in it.

I do the same and I tend to go really hard and focus intensely on it. Sometimes when I finish a project I panic a bit when it suddenly stops. I actually need the downtime to reboot because of just how hard I go but convincing my brain of that has taken a bit of effort.

I have taken to deliberately filling that time usefully, preferably in advance. This usually means with short projects, hobbies, learning new things, doing things that have to be done (e.g. I want to move in the next year, so getting my house and stuff together properly - researching where I'm going to move to, etc), planning a trip, etc.

Of course, I'm now going to say that the way I'm eventually going to get around all of this is to go into a completely different field altogether in which I continue to work for myself but with a far more even, higher-earning workflow.
posted by mleigh at 2:49 PM on February 17, 2012

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