Facing a new year & a new decade: some 2020 vision on the feast/famine cycle (with Daphne Gray-Grant)

Freelancers everywhere, if they’re honest, know that no matter how well work may flow several of weeks or months, eventually contracts dry up for us all.

Maybe the client with whom you had a retainer decides to rebrand radically (or retire!), ending that ongoing relationship (inducing a “famine”).

Or illness strikes you or a family member so that you must scale back on contracts you’d earlier planned on earning (“famine”).

At the other end of things, maybe several prospects contact you at once, wanting work done “yesterday” (“feast”).

Or a new client causes “scope creep” so that you have less time than you originally expected to complete revisions for them, adding to an already full rota of projects (“feast”).

“Feasting” for many hard-working, introverted writers isn’t as fun as the term suggests. Usually, it’s exhausting. The pace of work also makes it difficult to plan for future projects, months away, when your current flow of work will have stopped.

“Famine” can be alarming, if you have too small profit margins and inadequate savings or no alternative sources of income. Most often, as writer and publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant argues in her blog posting from January 2019, “famine” periods are deeply, “deeply boring.” To the point that writers and creatives can descend into a morose state of mind.

Both “feast” and “famine” cycles disrupt a healthy pattern of work and rest that are vital to freelance life.

To the newbie freelancers whom I meet and for whom I occasionally present workshops, Gray-Grant has some useful ideas for preventing and then dealing with and surviving the highs and lows, as they inevitably arise.

A. Preventing the “feast/famine cycle”:

(1) She recommends that you calculate how many hours you can devote to work each week, including time for maintenance tasks (like billing, bookkeeping, marketing, etc.) that you cannot charge for. That way, you will be more conscious of your targeted hours of work.

(2) It’s also important to estimate your creative (e.g. writing and editing) speed. So keep a spreadsheet in Excel, where you pair up a unit of your work (e.g. word counts for writers) with the time it takes: After two weeks, she says, you’ll be able to take the average and yield a realistic idea of your speed. This too will assist you in knowing how much work to take on, for the time you have available.

(3) Identify when you’re most productive (usually 3-4 hours out of each day) and do your client work in that time (instead of bookkeeping or filing, etc., which earn you nothing).

(4) Watch your cash flow, to save funds for emergency times. Gray-Grant suggests retaining at least three months worth of “salary” (i.e. the income you regularly expect to earn) in savings. That way, if a client reneges on a contract, you won’t sweat it.

Alternatively, if you are well paid for some work, never be a spendthrift: put money aside for a new computer, tech device or online training program, to keep your skills updated.

(5) Seek long-term clients: encourage good customers to repeat by offering special rates and “kid-glove service.” These folk allow you to build a comfortable schedule, instead of having to “hustle” and face panic over how to meet next month’s rent.

(6) Market your services perpetually. Regardless of whether you’re in “feast” or “famine,” freelancers always need to promote their services. So continue to send out that biweekly blog posting and/or newsletter. Or give presentations and talks—aim to make six new contacts who are in your niche area. Constant marketing, she writes, “is the secret to having a life free of ‘feast’ and ‘famine.’”

B. Coping with the “feasts”

(1) Don’t accept more work than you can handle, because work should not
cost you sleep, exercise or relationships with those you love. Also, when the quality of your work declines, you’ll only disappoint those clients.

(2) Delegate work to a colleague—Gray-Grant acknowledges that this can be risky, as the client may prefer your colleague’s work! But to delegate/refer to someone else is better than giving an outright “no.”

Alternatively, you can subcontract part of the work and still supervise the end product.

(3) Don’t live paycheque to paycheque: When you’re lucky to make more money than you immediately need (“feasts”), be wise and save money for the future “famine” times.

(4) Market your services perpetually—which is never easy, when you’re “feasting” and time is in short supply. But you will need to secure work for two or more months in the future. Gray-Grant recommends setting aside a bit of time, each day, before you do that day’s work, for prospecting activity.

C. Coping with “famines”:

(1) Keep your usual routine.  Don’t sleep in!  And keep your routine for daily work, so that you accomplish other, non-paying tasks, that may have gotten short-shrift when you were busy with paying clients.

(2) Update your resume and your online portfolios to save time for when another “feast” period returns.

(3) Spend more time networking, to reconnect with former clients and to meet and impress potential new ones.

Also consider returning to your healthy exercise routine (if it was earlier abandoned).

And read some current fiction (e.g. the latest novel from Margaret Atwood). The “fun” factor here will prime your mind for future creativity and keep you in touch with your creative community.

(4) Again, always market yourself, and do so, even more, when you’re in a “famine” period—try making 10 new contacts a week (instead of only six). Give more talks and/or post more intensively on your blog or social media. Update your website, if needed.

While freelance work can be joyful and liberating (to be one’s own boss), the “feast or famine” cycle endemic to it has often been seen as its major drawback.

There is no silver lining here.

But by following my summary of Gray-Grant’s tips, you can protect yourself from the ups and downs that otherwise can overtake freelance work.

I recommend reading her blog on aspects of freelancing (focusing on contract writing) at https://www.publicationcoach.com/blog/ . Her unique approach to freelancing may illuminate yours.

And now it’s your turn: if you are a freelancer, how do you cope with the “feast-famine” cycle? Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.