Working through the freelancing lulls

Freelance work is full of peaks and valleys. Learn to ride them calmly and you'll stay above water. Photo: Leroy Grannis.

I had this moment a few weeks ago, right before Christmas, where I suddenly felt like things were finally happening. Maybe you know that feeling, when you realize you’d been waiting for something and you didn’t even know it?

Here’s a little time line to help illustrate.

Dec. 8
I had a great introductory consultation with a local photo rep who I’m helping to bolster her online presence.

Dec. 12
Subscribers received the Jan/Feb issue of American Photo Magazine, featuring two of my stories (about Maisie Crow and selling self-published books) — the first I’ve written for the magazine since I stepped down as its Senior Editor two years ago.

Dec. 13
I posted my manifesto about photo events and what we can do to make them not suck so much on the Matchstick Workshops blog.

Dec. 20
The music video Peter shot and edited in our apartment and starring yours truly went went live on, a site running a contest to become the official video for two David Lynch songs.

Dec. 22
I started a little conversation with Larry Towell on his Kickstarter page about the need for photographers to take social change into their own hands, not just provide the images for it. Happily this gave me a chance to highlight the new online photojournalism funding platform, which I’m not officially affiliated with but have been supporting however I can since I found out about it.

Dec. 23
My discussion with Travis Schreer at Pictage launched as part of their The Photo Life Podcast series.

Dec. 23
I also confirmed that I’ll be participating in the Boston-based Flash Forward Festival, helping create an updated version of the Future of Photobooks panel I was part of in October for Flash Forward Festival in Toronto.

See, the thing about being a project-based worker (instead of a salaried employee, which I quit being in April) is that my work is now incredibly cyclical.

The freelance life feels ruled by ups and downs: uncomfortably long stretches where you’re not getting jobs, just plugging away at unglamorous foundation-laying tasks, then sudden bursts of activity that provide an excitement that’s sometimes hard to hold onto for very long. Then another lull while you wait to receive payment for all that work.

I’m a very results-oriented person, so it’s hard to work day after day without much outside feedback and without feeling like I’ve accomplished something really specific. When I’m working in an office, I feel like just finishing the day is an accomplishment; there’s a sense of relief and usefulness I get that is lacking when I work from home.

The events I listed above gave me a lot of positive reinforcement all at once, but they also left me wishing I could put some of those good vibes in a savings account, to withdraw a little at a time through the next months while I’m feeling under-productive and worried about next month’s rent.

In talking to other project-based workers, I find this is a common challenge: How do you keep positive and productive during the lulls? I have thought of a few things that always help me (although motivating to take my own good advice is sometimes the hardest thing). I’d love to hear about any practices you’ve found helpful, too 🙂

1. Set up a meeting with a trusted adviser

For me this is very often my career coach, but it also might be my therapist, a former boss, a favorite professor, or just an astute friend. Setting up a meeting (or phone call) is a small enough task I can make myself do it even when I’m at my least motivated. And often, I find that just taking that first step makes me feel better, so that I often find I don’t need as much encouragement by the time the meeting happens.

2. Accept that the lulls are natural

The majority of project-based work comes to you when it wants to, not when you need it. And that can suck. You know you’ve been keeping up with your contacts and updating your work regularly and that someone is bound to have a great project any day and think, hey, you’re perfect for it! But when you’re sitting there for a week or two and the phone’s not ringing, it’s so easy to think you’ll never get another job. But if you can listen to your better judgment — you know you’ve been in lulls before and that the kind of work you’ve chosen can take months or years to pay off — you’ll stay calmer and ultimately more productive.

3. Use the time to do those things you “never have time for”

Accepting that there are lulls doesn’t mean you can’t utilize that down time. What I find, though, is that when I’m stressed out about not having enough work, I tend to feel guilty doing anything but sitting in front of my computer making lists of things I should be doing. Instead, lulls are the time to do the things that make you feel good even if your brain doesn’t categorize them as distinctly productive. Go make a photo or paint a painting or write an email to a rarely-seen friend or try a new recipe or organize your craft drawer or go to the library or go for a hike. Taking care of your own mental health will ultimately do so much more for your career than sending one more email to some potential client.

4. Remind yourself of past achievements

You know, like writing a list of them on your blog 😉 I hope you’ll forgive me for writing a post that is at least 50 percent self-serving. I needed to remind myself of how good I felt about work a few weeks ago, and getting additional validation by sharing it with everyone who reads my blog is icing on the cake. Being able to help others (I hope) by sharing my own experiences is also a great way to make myself feel better. Perhaps that should be Tip Number 5….

12 thoughts on “Working through the freelancing lulls

  1. This post certainly resonates with me. Especially the part about accepting the lulls and taking the time to do the things you never have time to do. I have to remind myself, when I'm done crossing off my list, to remove myself from the computer and do something, anything, other than staring at a screen. Take a nap, go for a road trip, call a friend… leave the country! Anything suits, as long as it is something I never could have done working in an office. My experience is that soon enough, I'll be strapped into my computer chair for three weeks straight, with barely enough time to sleep or eat, much less relax! We don't have the “security” that our salaried friends enjoy, but we can take advantage of the freedom. Number four is important, too. It's easy to get caught up in what happened (or didn't happen) “today,” but looking at things from a longer perspective is a good reminder of where we came from; that the lulls have been balanced by successes, and viewed together, the line is going up and up.Congratulations on the very interesting and diverse freelance career you are putting together! I hope you continue to share your journey.


  2. This was great, Miki! And super useful to those of us that aren't freelance workers, either. I think even having a 9-5 job can feel “cyclical” in terms of achievement, recognition, and productivity.


  3. Take advantage of a lull by making sure you're able to connect with people to tell them what you've been doing. It's the kind of broader connecting we don't get the time to do when we're deep in the day-to-day execution.Btw, I'm looking forward to hearing more about Matchstick Workshops. Let me know how I can help.


  4. Miki, I swear, its so true. Sometimes I'd rather be surfing. And you've chosen the perfect picture to describe my freelance career. in fact, i haven't really surfed in a couple of years because of my obsession with photography. here are my practices during those assignment lulls: 1) lunch dates (or tea/coffee dates) at least 2x wk. 2) long walks on the beach 3) business housekeeping & laundry (well okay seriously, i fall back to my stock & portrait list and start arranging shoots to do for my stock agency or for myself) 4) ice creamI often ride the roller coaster but really have to tell myself to get out and “see,” because ultimately what makes me happy during these lulls are making interesting pictures. thanks for much for sharing your ride and i look forward to our next lunch (or tea) date!


  5. Riding the Lulls….Here we are a the beginning of a new year, lots of momentum and a boat load of good intentions. How does that translate to work? My strategy is this:1.) Organize. while a “clean desk is the sign of a sick mind”, chaos is distracting. Put that s*** away! Box up last years files, throw out all the tidbits that have collected around your desk. Breathe.2.) Say ” Thank you”, pick up the phone and connect. Set a timer. Commit to 3 calls.3.) What project did you work on last year that you want possible clients to see? Send them a link to new images in your book. Invite them to be FB friends. Build the network.4.) Come up off that buck! Spend a budgeted amount to join an organization or participate in a print or web campaign. Buy the best you can afford, not a ton of different places and then, this is the important part, actively engage with that group or media outlet. IT requires attention to make momentum.Go get 'em Tiger!!!!


  6. Pingback: Tweets that mention Working through the freelancing lulls | HEY MIKI --

  7. I love #3. I've been wanting to make a list of all of those things I never have time for…so that when I find myself sitting around feeling guilty for not doing what I “should be doing,” instead of wasting time on Facebook, I can pick an activity from my list to work on.


  8. Best of luck, Miki. I think the key to keeping your head on straight is not getting too high when things go well and not too sad when things are slow. When there is too much emotion involved it can be counter-productive and depressing.


  9. THIS: “I’m a very results-oriented person, so it’s hard to work day after day
    without much outside feedback and without feeling like I’ve accomplished
    something really specific. When I’m working in an office, I feel like
    just finishing the day is an accomplishment; there’s a sense of relief
    and usefulness I get that is lacking when I work from home.”

    I feel like I wrote that from start to finish. Although I never worked in an office, I know darn well how you feel about that.
    The whole post was very informative for me. Thank you!


    • Glad you got something out of it, Ivan 🙂 What kind of work do you do? And I always love to know how people find my blog, if you have a minute to let me know.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s