3 Mistakes keeping you in the feast or famine cycle (and how you can break out!)

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If you ask ten freelancers what their least favorite thing about freelancing is, I’ll bet money at least half of them say “uneven income.”

The feast or famine cycle is the equivalent of the freelancer’s boogeyman, drawing shudders when you mention it. But most freelancers are making mistakes that keep them in the feast or famine cycle, even without realizing it.

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Are you one of those freelancers? Read on to find out:

Mistake #1: Not pitching once your client list is full

Once you have a full roster of clients for the next month or two, that means you can stop keeping an eye out for more work, right?

Wrong.

Most projects have a lead time of at least a few weeks (even if they’ve posted a listing looking for someone), with the occasional exception.

What happens when you do this is that you work on client work for a few weeks, and then you wrap up all those projects, and…you don’t have any more clients waiting for you, because you haven’t been keeping your sales funnel full.

Then, you work your butt off trying to get new clients for a few weeks, all the while having no income headed your way, you fill your client list, and the cycle starts all over again.

Solution: Always be pitching, at least a little bit.

If you want some tips on how to tighten up your pitching systems so that you can actually fit it in, even when you’re busy, check out:

Obviously, pitching isn’t the only way to keep your client funnel full—but it’s a good one if you don’t mind getting your hustle on, and it has a shorter lead time than many other methods.

Mistake #2: Saying yes too often

This is a hard lesson to learn, especially if your days of ramen-eating and digging in the couch for laundromat change aren’t too far behind you.

As a freelancer, it’s hard to say “no” or even “not right now.”

It feels like throwing money away.

However, what happens when you say “yes, and I’ll start on it right now” to every little thing is that you wind up way overworked.

As a result of that overwork, you’re not only running yourself into the ground (which is not good, considering you are your own best business asset), but you’re also not leaving any time for important business activities like pitching or marketing. And we already covered what happens when you do that—you bust your butt for weeks on end, then come up with no client work.

Now, you’re so exhausted that the idea of rustling up new clients makes you want to sob into your latte.

Solution: Have a way to keep track of how far you’re booked out.

In my case, this is fairly easy to do, as I know about how many client articles I can do a week (3-5, depending on how much time I want to spend on my creative side projects). That easily translates into 3-5 client slots a week. I pencil them in as they fill up and book out as my calendar fills up.

Some people use a spreadsheet to keep track of how far they’re booked out. Others use time-tracking apps like Toggl or time-trackers in their accounting software.

I actually found it harder to pull up a spreadsheet or file quickly (maybe because I always have too many tabs open anyways!) and started keeping track in a Moleskine planner. Now, I use my Freelancer Planner (this is one of the reasons I created it).

Whichever method you use, make sure you have a way to keep track of your time.

Then get used to telling potential clients, “I can’t start on it immediately, but my next opening is on X, if that works for you.”

For open-ended service packages:

If you work with more open-ended service packages, like web design or branding, it’s a little trickier.

One way to do it is to figure out approximately how many hours each of your service packages has (which you should know anyways). Take that and compare it to how many hours you want to work a week on client work.

I’d recommend 20 hours, maybe 30 on the high end, to make sure you’re leaving plenty of time to work on your own business. (More on that in a moment.)

If you know that your most common service package takes about 30 hours to complete, and you like to have three client projects going at any given time, then booking three clients means you’re booked out for the next 3-5 weeks.

If you look at this math and it doesn’t leave you enough money to make a living, it might be time to raise your rates—undercharging is another common problem for freelancers.

Mistake #3: Not working on your inbound and referral systems

This is easy to neglect, especially because the lead time on inbound marketing can be so long.

When you’re weighing working on a blog post or answering questions on Quora, knowing that it could be several weeks or months before that results in a new client, it’s easy to go the quick route.

But if you really want to kick the feast or famine cycle, a big part of that is making it easy for clients to find you and come to you. This means actively marketing yourself and making it as easy as possible for other people to refer you.

Solution: Learn how to be an effective marketer.

For a crash course in marketing yourself as a freelancer, check out these posts:

If you want to learn more about setting up systems to help generate more referrals, check out:

Facebook groups can be great for getting yourself out there, as long as they’re genuine communities and you don’t behave in a spammy fashion. Just participate and answer whenever you can.

Quora is another good venue to check out.

And guest posting is another great way to establish yourself as an industry expert, and several of the larger publications pay for guest posts, too, so it’s a win-win. A List Apart and Sitepoint are two places to start.

The common thread: Make time for your business

You’ve probably noticed that most of these mistakes come from one root cause: not making time or energy for your business.

As freelancers, we often put our clients above everything else in our work life. Which sounds great in theory—but often leads to burnout and uneven income, for the reasons listed above.

Figure out how you can set aside time for your business on a regular basis and then actually follow through on it. Struggling with productivity? Read on here:

For me, Mondays and Fridays are time for my business, when I work on administrative, marketing, and business development tasks (and get caught up on email).

You might not want to set aside full days, but instead do a few hours each afternoon.

Whatever way works best for you, make sure you stick to it. It might feel weird at first, especially if you’re used to cramming every single working hour full of client work, but in a month or two, you’ll notice the results.

Now, back to you.

What are you going to do this week to get out of the feast or famine cycle?

Here’s a few places to start:

  • Setting up your pitching systems and deciding how many pitches you want to send a week from here on out
  • Figuring out how far you’re currently booked out and booking your next client inquiry for after that time
  • Pick a place to guest post at and start brainstorming your post topic
  • Reach out to previous clients to follow up and ask for referrals
  • Set aside a day or chunk of time to focus on your business, instead of your clients’ businesses

Let us know which one you’ll be doing in the comments!

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About Michelle Nickolaisen

Michelle Nickolaisen is a freelance writer and the creator of the Freelancer Planner. She’s based in Austin, TX and when she’s not working on one of her many projects, she’s usually watching something nerdy on Netflix or reading. Keep up with her on Twitter at @_chelleshock.

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  1. Brilliant article. Yeah… it’s hard to say no…..