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 Genero.tv, 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 Emphas.is, 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….