Hungry, Not Starving: How to Break the Feast-or-Famine Cycle as a Freelancer

During an internship in college, my supervisor mentioned that he used to freelance full-time. I had never done any freelance work at that point but I was interested in it, so I asked him what he had learned from the experience.

His answer? It’s hard to try and juggle everything and you’ll always be stressed and either underworked or overworked, because you never want to turn down work as a freelancer. You don’t know when your next gig is coming, so you have to take everything that comes your way.

At the time, this made perfect sense to me, though I still thought it wouldn’t apply to me for some reason. Ah, the hubris of youth 🙂

Looking back at it now, I think that this mentality, which is based on scarcity, is one of the biggest drivers for freelancers who make too little while working too much. And I think that’s probably why my supervisor was a former freelancer when I met him!

Now, I understand this mentality, I really do. If I’m honest with myself, I still carry it myself.

Even though I rationally understand that I shouldn’t try to take every job, there’s still that little bit of my brain that’s always whispering “What if you turn this down and then don’t get any more good gigs for months?”

But using our rational brain to overcome our emotional responses is what we’re all about here, so let me give you some ideas and tactics about feast-or-famine that I’ve found helpful.

Stop trying to get work

First of all, you need to stop trying to get work.

Instead, you need to start designing, building, and improving systems to get work.

This means not scrambling and trying whatever comes to mind when you need your next gig. Instead, it means identifying your target market, figuring out how you will reach them, and then turning that into a repeatable system.

(Helping you design and build those systems is outside the scope of this post, but I have a lot more coming soon on this subject!)

Then once you have these systems, you need to run them all the time, not just when you need your next project. If you wait until you need your next project, it’ll be too late. There’s always lead time between starting to look for work and getting paid, which varies from weeks to months, depending on your situation. If you run your business development systems only when you need them, you’ll be in cashflow crunch all the time.

Now, this is easier said than done. When you’re busy, the last thing you want to be doing is spending time trying to find projects you don’t want or need, let alone have time for.

So it’s fine to scale your systems up or down a bit based on your need for work, but don’t scale down to zero. If part of your system is going to networking events and you’re slammed with work, just go to one a month instead of one a week.

The other helpful thing is to identify where the bottlenecks are in your business development systems, and try to automate or eliminate them. One way to do this is to ask yourself some questions:

What would it look like if these systems were giving me 100x the lead volume? What if I were getting 10 inbound leads per day? How would I qualify them in a scalable manner? I couldn’t jump on the phone with every one of them, so I’d want to have a process to perhaps send them a set of questions so I could identify just the top 1% to chat with. Could I automate that process?

We often avoid thinking like this when we only have a handful of leads to deal with, but even that handful can be frustrating and distracting enough when we’re busy with client projects that they dissuade us from keeping the biz dev systems running.

And that means they won’t be delivering us leads when we need them most.

Book out in advance (maybe)

One tactic you can use is to book clients in advance. So you have a project wrapping in two months, and you can collect a deposit and book a client to start once that project wraps.

I know freelancers who are booked out 6-12 months in advance.

Now, I personally try not to book out more than a couple months in advance, for two reasons:

  1. I like the freedom of being able to easily change my mind, my pricing, my offerings, etc. The farther you book out in advance, the more locked in you are. I also like to be able to extend an existing project if I need to, instead of having to tell that client no because I already sold that block of time to someone.
  2. If I book out really far in advance, I’m leaving money on the table. Demand for my services is higher than my availability, so clients are willing to wait. That means they’d also be willing to pay more. I’d rather have the money than a bit of extra peace of mind.

Ultimately, I feel this way because I have faith that I’ll get work when I need it. I’ve always been able to get work, I’m pretty sure that’ll continue, and I have some financial margin to carry me through any short-term bumps.

That said, of course if I have a great client come along while I’m on a project, I’ll try to work something out, even if that means booking out in advance beyond what I normally do. But I don’t go looking for it, and I try to build in some flexibility so I can move that start date around if needed.

All that said, it’s completely up to you how far out you want to try and book in advance, just know what you’re giving up if you do!

Stop trying to win every project

Ultimately, the “book out 12 months in advance” method is usually only a slighter better version of the “take every job you can find” method.

Both are based on scarcity.

They’re based on the fear that if you let this client go now, you may not be able to replace them with one later.

It’s helpful to change your mentality from trying to win leads, to trying to identify and close only the best leads.

You want to identify the cream of the crop, just the top 5% or so of projects, and then close those.

So you’re not closing deals, you’re sifting them.

Going back to the questions above: what would your business development systems and processes look like if they were designed to get you as many high-quality leads as possible, and then help you identify and close only the top 5% of those?

Emotionally, the best way to do this is to have a lot of leads. It’s much easier to turn down 95% of projects if you know that the 5% will be high-quality and be able to bring you a nice income.

Finally, I’d encourage you to turn down projects with terms.

What I mean by that is that unless the client is toxic, don’t turn them down outright. Instead, design your offer to be a good fit for your situation and let them turn you down.

So charge more, specify that you’ll only work 10 hours a week, agree on no phone calls, work on it when you’re in between other projects, whatever.

If you’re going to turn down the work anyway, you might as well ask for whatever outlandish scenario would make it worth it for you to take the gig.

The worst they can say is no, in which case you’ve lost nothing.

I just did this myself.

The project was supposed to run from September through January, but I have some personal stuff coming up in December, so I told the client that I could only take the project if we could split into two phases, taking Thanksgiving to New Years off.

Turns out, they were fine with it, and now I have a project I would have just turned down because it didn’t fit with my schedule.

Ask for what you want. Make them say no.

Build recurring revenue

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that having a base of recurring revenue can really make it much easier to smooth out your cashflow, because it lowers the baseline of where your income is.

I personally like to dedicate 20-25% of my time to recurring revenue projects, which usually make up about 50-60% of my monthly cashflow needs.

That’s a huge chunk of my budget that’s covered even if I don’t have any big projects going on.

I’ve written about recurring revenue for freelancers here.

Change from feast-or-famine to sprint-or-siesta

I live in Nashville, TN, but I’m in Vancouver right now, part of a 4 week solo trip where I’m spending roughly a week at a time working from different locations.

Last week I was in Alaska, this week Vancouver, next week I’ll be working from the Oregon coast.

It’s been a fun way to break the day-to-day routine up and experience new things while still getting work done.

But even though I’m still productive (somewhat), the biggest reason I can do this easily is that client work is a little slow right now.

I have a few big client projects kicking off later this month, and a couple of big new products for freelancers that I’m launching later this year (more on this later), but things are a little slow right now.

As a result, my earnings for the last month or so have been less than half of their normal average.

And actually, it’s been really nice.

Earlier in my career, I didn’t have the financial or emotional fortitude to handle a few weeks of downtime very well. I needed the cashflow, and I worried that a few weeks without work would turn into a few months, or worse.

Now, I have a little bit of financial margin, which helps, but I also have the confidence that my lead generation systems will bring me my next round of jobs.

Some of this is just a conditioned response that you have to earn by going through a few cycles, but I would encourage you to pay attention to your emotions during those up-and-down cycles, and try not to freak out after you’ve gone through a few.

Channel your energy during the down times into tuning your biz dev systems, working on passion projects, and enjoying the additional freedom and flexibility.

After all, that’s why most of do this freelance thing in the first place!

So ultimately, for me the feast-or-famine comes down to a few tactics and mindset shifts that can reduce the variability of your income over time, but also the recognition that there will always be ups-and-downs in your workload and income as a freelancer.

But if you can train yourself to recognize this and have faith in your systems to turn your current downturn back into an upturn, you can find yourself really enjoying the break.

I know I am!

I send out a few emails per month with great articles and advice on building a successful freelance business. You should subscribe right now: