Freelance Tip: Put 'Slow Time' to Work for You

True story: I agreed several months ago to write this blog post. And then I got busy, unexpectedly so, and the article slid to the back burner. Now, with a quieter workload, I'm able to get the project done.

Two years into a freelance career, I'm still getting a feel for the business development process, so I'm experiencing the common cycle of busy and slow times. (You, too?) Veteran creative solopreneurs have learned that a methodical approach to marketing creates a steady stream of incoming work and a strong network of prospects, which evens out the workflow and lessens the frequency of those nothing-to-do periods.

Still, slow times are inevitable for freelancers. Deadlines shift, projects are delayed, work naturally tapers off during summer vacation months. Notwithstanding the very real challenges that a brief slowdown can create – primarily a tighter cash flow – creative freelancers can (and should!) take full advantage of those periods of unbillable time on their calendars. Here's how to approach slow times with purpose and productivity:

Learn to anticipate a slow patch. An unexpected work slowdown can be panic-inducing. So the first aspect of making the most of your downtime is to see it coming. If you aren't already, you should be using some kind of project management system to chart your workflow and ongoing projects. It doesn't have to be fancy, though there are a number of online project-management tools available (many designers use Basecamp; TeuxDeux is a simple tool for managing to-do lists). Some people prefer a wall of sticky notes to track projects; I use iCal and my own system of color-coded blocks of time.

Regularly look a week or two ahead in your calendar; when you see a gap of a full day or more in your project calendar, pay attention. If that gap remains unfilled, then book that time for yourself. As you gain experience, you'll understand the natural rhythms in your workflow. Perhaps things slow down during the summer, or January is a little quiet. Plan for that downtime, and put it to use.

Make good use of the time for your business. You know all those "if I only had time" projects? Congratulations: You just found the time. Update your mailing list. Brainstorm ideas for the next six months of your e-newsletter, and write as many of those as you can. Freshen up your portfolio. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete, expand your network, ask for recommendations. Spend a full day researching new prospects. Write case studies about your last three best projects. Review your business documents – estimates, proposals, invoices – and see if any of them need updating. Clean your office. Take a client to lunch.

Tackle projects on your long-term to-do list. Your project management system should have three elements: your calendar (for appointments, meetings), your daily/weekly to-do list (project-based tasks, business tasks) and your long-term to-do list (open-ended tasks that aren't deadline- or project-driven). Use slow periods to chip away at your long-term to-do list. An example: I'll be presenting at the upcoming Creative Freelancer Conference in San Francisco on Saturday, June 22, and I'll be using as much unbillable time as I can spare to prepare.

Refill the well. Use downtime to do whatever you need to do to rejuvenate your creativity: read, research, explore, exercise, have coffee with a friend, visit a museum, go the library. You should be doing this regularly, anyway. Get over the idea that time spent refilling your creative reserves is time wasted.

Cut yourself some slack. Why do we feel guilty or inadequate when we're not flat-out swamped? Consider why you joined the freelance ranks: Chances are, it had something to do with choosing your own projects and setting your own schedule. If you have half a day, or three, that isn't claimed by client work, don't beat yourself up over it.

Have you found smart ways to make use of your slow periods? Please share what you do in the comments section.

Photo credit: Creative Commons