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It’s embarrassing to admit — particularly as I host a podcast about this very subject — but I dramatically dropped the ball when it came to booking in projects for this past spring. It just suddenly happened. I was finishing up two major contracts and had the next one in the pipeline. Then out of the blue that client postponed indefinitely and my two big contracts finished and I was left with no work — nothing, zip, zilch.
I’ve been here before for a week or two at a time so the panic didn’t kick in immediately. A week passed and I caught up on a few things and wrote a bit. I updated my portfolio and recorded some podcast episodes. When week two rolled around with no enquiries I put out a lazy tweet saying I was looking for work at the same time as contacting some previous clients and colleagues to see if they had anything that they might need me on. Still nothing. Then week three and week four came and went rapidly and by the end of the first month I was feeling physically ill with panic and worry.
By the beginning of month two I’d stopped sleeping. I was round robin-ing friends and colleagues in wild eyed desperation hoping that they might miraculously have an answer for me. I felt isolated and scared. I was also scattergun-ing job advertisements for anything — full time, contract, part time, freelance — something that would end the worry. And that was the strangest thing of all. The worry wasn’t just financial — financially I was okay for a little while — it was also centred around what this lack of work said about my abilities and my worth.
I just kept wondering why this had happened. I blamed Brexit, the patriarchy, my sex, my age, but more than anything I blamed myself and my obvious huge lack of talent. Why hadn’t I realised it before, why had no one else realised it before?
While this inner turmoil was going on I was maintaining an aura of calm to the outside world as I didn’t want anyone to realise I had spectacularly failed. I didn’t want anyone to know how I’d gone from being a relatively successful designer — who’d worked on some brilliant projects with some brilliant people, who wrote about brand design, who hosted a successful podcast, who got asked to speak regularly on the subject of design — to being found out as a talentless fake. I can’t put into words how isolating this was. Feeling it was impossible to be honest about the position I was in to the majority of the people I cared about. I think a few people guessed and I was honest with others close to me but I was in a downward spiral of shame.
As I always do when things are tough I decided honesty was the best policy. I thought I would write an article about the position I’d found myself in and the impact it was having on my mental health. I didn’t want to write a how-to-find work piece — there are a million of those — but a piece on the mental implications quiet times can have. Firstly though I needed to talk to other freelancers about their experiences and what better place to do that than on Twitter.
So I asked the question:
I’m writing a thing about freelancing and the feast or famine merry-go-round. If you’re a freelancer what’s the longest period you’ve been without work/new project coming in?
— Liz Elcoate (@liz_e) June 26, 2019
It’s fair to say the answers took me by surprise. Not only had other freelancers been through this but they had also had significant periods of time without work, it was far more common than I had realised.
Times varied from one month to six months to two years without paid work. Most common was around two to three months. But quite a few people also mentioned that they had sustained periods where they had work but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills (something I had definitely experienced). It was also suggested that the quiet times are seasonal which seemed obvious when mentioned but not something I’d really thought about until then.
One person who replied had had to go on benefits, a few others had taken full time roles (of course with the result being that the minute they accepted the position they had a deluge of enquiries from new clients). There were others who had had to use tax money to live on.
Some freelancers had taken on alternative types of creative work such as writing, journalism or creating their own courses.
It was clear that I was not alone and that this was a common pattern for a lot of people. The thing I was most concerned about though was how people coped with this from a mental health stand point. Did it affect other people as dramatically as it effected me?
So I asked Twitter, “What did you do to stay on top of the anxiety and worry when work was dead? Did you manage or did it impact your mental health?”
This to me was the most important question of all. Until this point I hadn’t realised that my self esteem is utterly tied up in my work, so when I’m busy I think “Brilliant, I must be pretty good at this” and when it went quiet I immediately thought “Everybody has realised I’m a talentless idiot”.
Worryingly it seems that I am not alone and this is an all too common feeling. Pavithra Muthalagan replied saying that
Sometimes I feel unemployed even when my bank account is telling me things are fine.
… There’s some ingrained mentality defining “success” in a extremely limited/limiting way… imposter syndrome is always hovering over my shoulder
I get this on all levels, it was exactly my experience. My bank account was okay but I felt profoundly unemployed and unemployable. This was far more worrying to me than just the financial impact. I was deeply disappointed that my self esteem and identity were so tied up in how many projects I had on.
Katherine Cory replied to my question about the impact these quiet periods have had on her mental health:
It definitely can. Just the worry of not being able to pay bills can be paralysing but then it becomes a downwards spiral. You take on work you probably wouldn’t normally (jobs with red flags) just to be able to pay the bills & then that impacts your mental health even more.
— Katherine Cory 🐝 (@KatherineCory) June 26, 2019
This is a scenario I have also experienced in the past, taking on difficult clients for little money just to get some work in but then the whole project being a nightmare and ending up worse off financially and mentally.
But it seems these difficult and stressful times can also be used for growth.
Ben Tallon wrote:
Early on, it used to savage me – self doubt, why is this happening etc. These days they often become the most valuable windows to develop/create the work that brings the good stuff in.
— Ben Tallon Illustration Studio (@BenTallon) June 26, 2019
I love this idea and Ben’s attitude. Viewing these times philosophically and finding value in them is a great way to make peace with the up and down nature of freelancing.
Jon Hicks shared his experience:
The anxiety can be crippling, and demotivates you from doing the things you enjoy that can actually help (in my case cycling). I rediscovered birding, and being out in nature has definitely been the best cure.
— Jon Hicks (@Hicksdesign) June 27, 2019
This was a common theme. Getting outside in nature and pursuing your passions or just having a ramble. Running and upping the time you exercise in quiet times was another great suggestion that several people made. Anything that takes you out of your head and into your body and reminds you of the world outside.
My biggest problem was obsessing over the lack of work and how this defined me as a designer and person. Matt Essam who is a business coach said that he works with clients on this and refers to it as a “scarcity” mindset. He wrote:
I’ve found the only cure to be massive, consistent action. Picking up the phone, going networking etc.
I completely agree with this point however I need to acknowledge it is more easily said than done, especially when your confidence is already rock bottom and you’re riddled with anxiety.
There were other great ideas too. Several people suggested alternative unpaid work — maybe writing or volunteering. Others used their time to learn something new — a coding language or design technique.
One particular reply that really stood out came from Jesse Gardner:
I actually started a little side project where I walked the streets of our nearest city and photographed/interviewed people. It brought me great joy in a time of potential anxiety/depression.
— Jesse Gardner (@plasticmind) June 27, 2019
Jesse started a project where he walked the streets of his neighbourhood photographing and interviewing people. There is a lot in this idea — not only does this kind of project keep you being creative and active, it also creates connection with other people, something fundamental to our mental well being. The completed project called Troy Stories: Stories from people of Troy, NY is inspiring and beautiful.
It’s clear from the response I had to my Twitter questions that at times freelancing can be high risk both financially and for our overall well-being. Three months, six months or even two years without work is devastating. Being in a position where you have to claim benefits or you’re forced to use up all of your carefully saved tax money can lead to crippling anxiety and dramatic changes in circumstances. So it begs the question — why do we do it?
Ok another freelance ques. Reading all your answers today about periods of uncertainty, mental health issues, financial challenges begs the question – why do we choose to be freelance? Is it worth it?
— Liz Elcoate (@liz_e) June 26, 2019
My particular reasons for freelancing were complex — family, commitments, location, flexibility. I’m a lone parent without financial support and I live in a location where there aren’t many design agencies — particularly ones who would let me work flexibly. But everyone has their own particular reasons that make the uncertainty of freelancing worthwhile.
Naomi Atkinson wrote:
Absolutely. It can be scary/strained at times.
But the creative freedom, flexibility of working hours (grabbing that walk/park bench to mull things over), control of working with who we want, and the ability to have as many side projects or businesses as we please… priceless 🙏
— Naomi Atkinson (@BrandedByNaomi) June 27, 2019
This next reply could have been written by me. For many people being able to get outside and walk their dog, and spend time with them is vital to their health and well-being.
I second Naomi. I’m a huge lover of having dogs in my life. Without being freelance/self employed I wouldn’t be able to have one. Can’t imagine a employer would be happy with me escaping for 2-3 hours midday to explore with the dog while making my hours up if needed on evenings!
— AnyForty™ (@AnyForty) June 27, 2019
Steve Morgan makes an excellent point that freelance gives him the opportunity to work with the type of clients he wants to work with in a way that he choses and in the hours that suit him. They’re some pretty compelling reasons.
I missed this tweet earlier. For me it’s:
– Having the freedom to pick-&-choose clients,
– Having the freedom to do the work the way *I* want to do it,
– Having the flexibility to work whenever I want, e.g. not feeling forced into Mon-Fri 9-5.
— Steve Morgan (@steviephil) June 26, 2019
For many, employment just isn’t an option as Katie Cory and Adam Greenough confirmed in their replies.
One word: necessity.
— Katherine Cory 🐝 (@KatherineCory) June 26, 2019
Katie sums it up with one word: necessity. As someone who has ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — Katie has to be able to look after her health, take days out and manage stress. Work when she can and rest when she needs to.
As someone receiving ongoing mental health treatment being freelance gives me freedom to be in control of my own workload and freedom to choose work that I want to do.
— Adam Greenough 👨🏼💻 (@adam_greenough) June 26, 2019
Adam’s reply shows that freelancing gives him the flexibility to be able to manage his mental health with ongoing treatment and operate his workload around that.
Personally, if I wanted to I am in a position to go back to being employed (my daughter is now at University) and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tempting after the last few months. The thought of a regular income and being able to focus on the creative side of my work without the worry sounds very appealing. But there are also all the things I love and take for granted about freelancing — having time to spend outside, structuring my day how I want, the feeling of accomplishment when a project launches, the autonomy — so for now I am still on this crazy freelance merry-go-round and I’ve learnt a lot over this difficult period.
The Feast Or Famine Toolkit
So what can we keep in our physical and mental tool kit for those inevitable times when work is quiet?
Don’t attach our value to our lack of work.
We must define success for ourselves. It is ludicrous to feel worthy when we have a lot of work on and unworthy when we don’t.
This is based on an outdated limiting model of what success should look like, created during and peddled since the industrial revolution. We are one of the first generations trying to do things differently and redefine “success”. Success that encompasses life and health as well as work, and we should be proud of ourselves for that.
Drop the scattergun approach to finding work.
Don’t do what I did and sit at your desk everyday for 12 hours applying for literally anything — full time jobs, contract, freelance, temping, dog walking. Whilst I think that action is important, it has to be structured. I had got to the point where I had lost direction and was just taking a “throw enough mud at the wall and something will stick” approach. I feel the only thing I was projecting to potential clients/employers at this point was an air of desperation.
Schedule a specific amount of time each day that is dedicated to finding work. Determine your desired market and then target them in a way that works best for you. One book I read during my time of quiet was Anti-Sell by Steve Morgan. It has some brilliant tips for finding work and generating sales for people who hate selling, like me.
Connect with people.
Kind people have saved my life and my sanity over this period. My mate Andy was always up for a dog walk and let me moan at him, my friends on Twitter were amazing (shout out to Dave Smyth and Naomi Atkinson). Try and attend events where you can meet up with other freelancers. Evenings like Design x Business are great because they remind you why you do what you do and are filled with other freelancers. Never underestimate the power of a good freelance podcast too, there are tons out there.
Keep learning and studying in your chosen field.
Use this time to read some of those design or CSS books you bought but never had time to look at. Think about doing a course — they don’t need to be expensive, places like Skillshare have an enormous choice of brilliant subjects.
Create time in your day to do the work you really want to do.
Set a design challenge (like we used to have in the old days). You could create a brief for a made up dream client and a problem they need solving. Then go to town! Enjoy it, be creative. Remember why you chose this career. It’ll be fun and you’ll have something of value to add to your portfolio.
The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.
— Jessica Hische
Get out in nature, it is life saving and it is free.
Studies have proven that nature-based activities have a direct and positive affect on mental health, anxiety and stress. Gardening, conservation and walking are all incredibly good for your mental and physical well-being. If you are able then exercising and running outside is also a great way to combat depression and help with sleeping.
Pursue your hobbies — creative or not.
This was a big one for me. I became locked into nothing but my inability to find work. Going back to the hobbies I enjoyed helped so much. They don’t have to be expensive. Films, cycling, painting, model making, knitting, woodwork, pottery, cooking — whatever takes your fancy. And never underestimate the joys of a good book for pure escapism.
Most importantly, don’t be ashamed.
As my conversation on twitter proved this happens to EVERYONE at some point or another. Even people who we assume are constantly over booked with work. Speak to people and be open and honest. It’s important to let people know you’re available for work. Constantly peddling this outward appearance of being super busy and successful can backfire and mean that people don’t approach you for a project as they assume you will be booked up. I know this has meant that I’ve missed out on exciting things in the past as potential clients assumed I’d be too busy.
Finally, try to grow a financial buffer.
I know, I know — easier said than done. If you’re reading this during a quiet period of work and you’re struggling financially then you may feel this is a case of closing the door after the horse has bolted. And if that is the case then try to focus on the points above and not too much on money. You’re more likely to get out of the dip sooner and with your mental health in better shape if you stay positive and don’t get in the scarcity mindset that I did. Money worries are so pervasive, I know whenever I experience them they can render me completely ineffectual.
With that in mind, when work has picked up again (which it will) start setting aside a little each month for a financial buffer. It is so easy to set up a savings account online. Sometimes you don’t even need to do that. Banks like Starling let you set up Goals on your current account which are like little individual pots that you can save money in and then just shift into your account when you need them. I was lucky I had some savings, other people tweeted stated that they used money they’d saved for tax (which can be a little risky depending on the time of year). The point is, that if you can have an account with a couple of months of money in then that will definitely ease the anxiety.
It is always worth remembering that a quiet period will pass, work will come back in — maybe even tomorrow. My biggest regret is that I let it affect my self esteem and self worth so much and made me doubt all of my accomplishments. It isn’t that your work is rubbish or everyone has finally found out you know nothing. Its just that at this particular moment in time you’ve not reached the people you need to reach or your services just aren’t needed. But rest assured they will be again very soon.
First posted here: Articles on Smashing Magazine
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