Freelancers like to refer to the frightening, frustrating income style we’ve insanely chosen for ourselves as “Feast or Famine”: Sometimes you’ve got more work than you can shake your sweatpants at, and sometimes checking the mail is the most productive prospect you have for the day.
There will be famine (lots of it), so the important thing is setting up the feast. If no one has given you work to do, you’d better find yourself some work to do, even if it doesn’t immediately translate into income. You chose to be your own boss; sometimes you have to boss yourself around. Until you treat freelancing that way, you’ll probably never be a full-timer.
Here’s what to do once you’ve finished your paid work (always take care of that ASAP) and are looking at a blank agenda for the rest of the day.
Find new mediums for pay.
The obvious first task is applying for more work, but you can only do so much of that before you want to go Office Space on your computer. Start a profile on a freelancer site like oDesk or Elance. If you already have one, make it better. If it’s as good as it can get, make it better some more.
When that gets old, start researching publications that pay their contributors, even if you know nothing about their niche. If you know that, say, Istanbul Diaspora Trends Monthly will pay you $200 for an article, you’ll find something to write about. Spend time researching, pitching, or even doing speculative work to send in (i.e., write a full article and submit it without pitching, called submitting “on spec”).
I started writing — and getting paid for — articles here at Matador Network because I researched what they published and what they didn’t seem to be publishing much of within those niches.
If you’ve done all this and it’s still only 2pm, work on your marketing. If you don’t have a website, start getting one together, because a good site will take a lot of work. Alternatively, start a relevant blog to keep your name searchable and associated with quality content.
These Matador posts basically constitute my blog, and one time scored a great client because one of their readers with a startup company dug, strangely enough, a piece I wrote about separating my creativity from my freelance work.
Maintain a connection with your industry.
Get on some quality mailing lists for contract job postings, or find new freelancer websites and make profiles. Read up on better ways to shape a resume or pitch. Additionally, follow other freelancer blogs and trends (Elance has some good reads, and FreelanceSwitch.com is blossoming).
Think of time as money.
Because as a freelancer, it is — often literally. All of your time — all of it — is on the clock, as you can choose to do work at any hour of any day. It all comes down to the concept of opportunity cost. This is one of few lessons I remember from high school AP Economics (or APECON, a title open to all manner of jokes) because it’s so relevant to what I do.
Let’s say you do a $20/hour job for 2 hours — that time was worth $40. If you wrote a piece for 3 hours that you sold for $60, that 3 hours was worth $60. If you research a job for an hour, apply for it, then get it, that hour was worth the amount of money you will make for that job.
If you watched Dr. Oz instead of doing any of these things, that hour was worth zero dollars (unless you get an idea from it to sell later), though you probably learned how to not get cancer, so it was actually worth all of the money you would have paid for chemo. You get the idea.
Honestly assess your fit for freelancing.
You have to make freelancing into a full-time job, even when it isn’t. You have to be willing to work 40 hours a week (or more) whether you’re feasting or famine-ing.
Do you have to do all of these things to be successful as a freelancer? Of course not (I don’t actually do all these things myself, but I still recommend them). But if it all sounds too boring, or if no matter how hard you try you can’t find productive things to do for 4-8 hours a day at least 5 days a week, you should reassess what you’re choosing to do with your career.
* The Travel Writing course from MatadorU includes lessons on how to survive as a freelancer.