Freelancer Downtime Can Turn Lost Hours Into Productive Ones

By Tom Bentley, Contributor, on January 5, 2018

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You know what’s a great freelancer feeling? Finishing up a long-term project or a lengthy article and wrapping that beauty up with a shiny bow. You know what’s sure to turn that great feeling into foulness? Not being able to say “next!” and shift gears into the next project. Worse yet is when you haven’t been steadily progressing on your projects, but are in some nebulous “in between” — a lull period where focus drifts away. These are both examples of the dreaded freelancer downtime.

Whether you’re congratulating yourself a bit too much after a big project by going on cruise control, or you’re in between assignments and your focus on the future is getting fuzzier and fuzzier, letting yourself succumb to the full lethargy of freelancer downtime is a self-reinforcing peril. If you have no ongoing projects to check progress against, it’s easy to fall into Facebook and Twitter and CNN numbness, where you’re always refreshing feeds that give you no mental nutrients. Downtime itself has a momentum, so your movement into the Land of Languor can feel like it’s the new normal.

Fear not! Not having a deadline doesn’t mean you’re dead. There are many things you can be doing to enhance your business, your skills and even your bank account when you’re not hot on a project.

Businesses Need Spring Cleaning, Too

In that newfound spare time, assess and organize your systems for things like invoicing, tax prep, marketing and prospecting — and make sure they give you the most for your efforts. Google software productivity tools that could streamline stale business routines. Speaking of productivity, you might have an aging to-do list that has entries dating back to before you were drinking age. You have the time: Cross out those niggling ones you never meant to do in the first place, and focus on the ones that actually contribute to your work. Then do them. “To-do” becomes “done.”

And no freelancer is an island. Now that your keyboard’s gone cold, heat it up by hitting the network you’ve been neglecting. Reach out to old clients, IM your freelancer friends, go out and have coffee in — gasp! — real life with a business mentor. There’s major value in networking, and it breeds a solid truth of freelancing: Even if you don’t have a current assignment, put in the effort to find one. Or ten. Many times, work begets work.

Oh, this might also be a good time to assess how you accept, approach and fulfill simultaneous projects. Experienced freelancers should know approximately how long a big project will take so that they can weave in other smaller assignments and take on new ones while the active ones are cooking. Being able to project at least a few weeks ahead in your deadlines is a great skill. You can plan ahead to eliminate dead periods and prevent the sluggish torpor of freelancer downtime.

When in doubt, listening to podcasts to deepen your knowledge turns any downtime into experiences. Learning is stimulating, and even knowledge that’s outside of your work purview can provoke new possibilities.

Refresh Your Profile — and Yourself

One way to make a difference when things slow down is to freshen up business aspects that might have gone stale. Does your website look like a 1990s carnival, with flashing Flash and some boombox hip-hop blaring out that users can’t turn off? Chill that noise. How about your portfolio? Are you still displaying your sketches of kittens from eighth grade in your graphic arts gallery? As much as I love kittens, they must be sent outside to play. While you’re at it, polish your LinkedIn presence so it’s everything you want it to be.

You could always give yourself a break, too. No, not so you get more in-your-face Facebook time. If your business can handle it, there’s remarkable refreshment in truly getting away from it all, pinging phone included. If you do see a real gap in your projects (and know you can return from your break with solid determination to create anew), take some actual time off. Perhaps you could learn something entirely new, like a language, to open your boundaries. By the way, six weeks in Paris might be over the top for someone whose work hours have taken a hit. Try the new local croissant place instead.

Do Some Good

If you’ve got free time, giving back to your community or a cause you really care about can be the best use of downtime — and may even give your mind some space to plan your next moves. Volunteer for a cause that resonates, and the biggest winner might be you.

I worked with a community literacy organization one-on-one for more than a year with a native Spanish speaker who was interested in writing stories, poems and plays in English. We had a great time (even when there were some bumps in understanding) dissecting what makes a story and how to entice a reading audience. I easily took away as much from him as he did from me, and he had me thinking of aspects of writing I’d never considered.

Freelancer downtime doesn’t have to be wasted time. There’s probably plenty you can do between projects, and a lot of it can boost your business. Notice that I never even mentioned doing the laundry. Maybe you can get to that, too.

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