Being a career freelancer / consultant is great for so many reasons, but in many ways requires a number of shifts out of the typical 9-5 mindset. You have to switch up some of your mental habits to be a better freelancer.
One mindset you need to acquire is that of being comfortable with times when you’re without work. Being without work when you’re a freelance programmer can be scary and worrisome at first. But once you know how to handle it, you’ll welcome the gaps between projects as time to grow yourself, build your brand and all-out enjoy life.
Being anxious when you’re without work is natural. Your brain’s tendency is to bug out. “I’m not getting a paycheck – oh shit! I’m gonna be late on all my bills, get kicked out of my apartment, be homeless, and my girlfriend will leave me. I’ll die penniless and alone. ”
The truth is, in most cases none of this will ever, ever happen. It’s stemming from a natural sense of worry that comes from not having money coming to you regularly. It will pass. You will get a paycheck. You’ll live happily ever after.
The life we chose
Part of freelancing is uncertainty and variability. Before you even start freelancing. it’s good to get comfortable with the nature of the game. If you’re new to the game, I recommend you read about the Pros and Cons of Freelancing (and if you’re not new, it doesn’t hurt to re-acquiant yourself). Realize that the occasional downtime is just a normal part of the job.
Planning for downtime
Since the occasional downtime is a likelihood, plan hard for it. When you’re on a project banging out features and making some well-deserved cash, store it away knowing that the day might come when you have a few days or weeks without billable hours.
You should already have a sense of what your monthly expenses are. If not, write them into a google spreadsheet ASAP and get some totals in there. You should know a ballpark figure for what you need every month.
This should include the standard stuff, of course: rent/mortgage, health care, groceries, etc. But include the things you need for your lifestyle as well – dinner out, movies, whiskey…whatever you spend on a regular basis, when times are good. Plan for living comfortably when you’re not working; not scavenging and starving.
Now when you are working hard, store away a bunch for times like this. I prefer to keep about 3-4 months worth (or more) of expenses in the bank whenever possible.
What to do with yourself when you’re between projects
If you’ve been working a whole lot, the downtime between projects can be an awesome thing. And you can use it for both business purposes as well as personal ones. Remember – the lifestyle flexibility and extra time you can get from freelancing is part of why you signed up for it in the first place. Savor it and make the best of it. If you use a home office, it can’t hurt to make it more comfortable with a proper desk chair, office plant hire to add some greenery and neat and tidy shelves. But you also need to remember to leave the office at the door and get some downtime.
Here are some things you can and should do with your spare time, whether it’s a day or a month.
Crush some code
Downtime is the perfect time to work on personal projects, learn a new programming language or framework, or contribute to open source. For one, keeping your skills up to par is always vital as a programmer. When you don’t have to work a bunch of hours, you’ve got the whole day to bury yourself in learning. This will get you up to speed with new stuff that much faster.
Second, personal projects and open source contributions are awesome since they build your public credibility up. They’re massively helpful in getting you work in the future (see: Get Hired Again and Again).
Crush some words
If you’re not good at writing, just do it regularly. 750 Words is an awesome tool for getting practice. Even if you don’t do it every day, do it as much as you can and you’re bound to get better at it. Writing on a schedule helps a lot, too.
Original blog posts aren’t the only valuable form of writing though. Quora, Reddit, StackOverflow – basically anywhere that has traffic and technical writing is good for your credibility. Other developers’ blogs (like mine) are great places to add comments. Be genuinely helpful and interested, and observe each platform’s rules of etiquette. But in general, the more online content you generate, the better.
Show yo’ face
As much as online attention gives you access to millions of potential customers and friends, there’s no substitute for the quality of in-person communication. The time between projects is a good time to get your face around the community. Go on Meetup and Eventbrite and find interesting events in your area. Meet people. Listen to their problems. Offer help where you can. Something may turn into paying projects down the road.
Get a hold of your life
When we’re in the zone working a ton, often things of personal importance get pushed aside. Things like doctors appointments, taking care of our homes, regular fitness, or running errands. Fixing that door knob that has been busted for a year. Shit like that. We tell ourselves, “I’ll get to it when I have time,” but we never have time. Then when we do have time, we forget.
It’s good to think of the downtime as “spring cleaning for your life.” Time to really mop up the stuff in your life that just got pushed under the furniture while you were working a lot. And now it’s grown into a 3-foot ball of dust, hair, and tortilla chip fragments. Nasty.
Also: not working in the daytime means you can go to stores (or the bank, etc) at 11am and skip the lines everyone is on at lunch or after their day job. #bestThingEver #freelancePerkBigTIme.
Take a vacation
Hey, we freelance for personal freedom right? Most people work all year just to get two weeks to get away, and they savor it like crazy by flying somewhere they’ve never been. You’re not working right now? Quit freaking out, it’s a blessing.
The cool thing is, since you’ve (hopefully) stocked up money in the bank like a good little freelancer, you can afford to take a reasonably-priced trip. And since your schedule is pretty open, it’s the perfect time to take advantage of the last minute flight deals that typical 9-5 workers usually can’t. Treat yo’ self!
Alternative: make it a workcation
There are tons of valid reasons to take a real vacation – ones that are good for your business. But if you can’t bear to completely tear yourself away from the keyboard for a week, you can always make it a hybrid trip.
There’s also something awesome about taking your laptop to a completely new place and working there. There’s no one you know to distract you, but there’s the potential to meet new people everywhere. The new environment means guaranteed excitement; turn that excitement into really productive energy. Then go have a drink with some locals.
So there it is, your getting started guide to making use of the time when you’re not working – and actually appreciating it. Go forth and conquer. And comment if you’re feeling talkative.