February 13, 2017

How to make downtime productive

When the work dries up, how can you stay motivated and continue refining your craft?

Too many freelancers think they can chuck up a portfolio site and sit back and relax — letting their portfolio do all the work for them.

I hate to break it to ‘ya, but your portfolio barely does any work at all. It just sits there.

Attracting clients is more than just have a pretty portfolio. It takes guts and determination. But guess what, those freelancers on Twitter who look like they’re inundated with work and always busy? They’re not.

Ok maybe some are, but majority aren’t.

We all experience down times when freelancing — even the best freelancers. Work slows (or sometimes stops completely) and we find ourselves with extra time to ourselves. While these dips aren’t always easy to predict, it’s good to have some ideas stored up for how to stay busy and keep moving forward when the work dries up.

Here’s a few ideas of things I’ve done in the past when my freelancing plate has been light: 

Start a side project

Having a side project is probably the best and most rewarding way to step out of your comfort zone.

Side projects challenge you — whether it’s learning a new skill or starting a recurring project like a podcast.

My favourite thing about a side project is that it gives you creative freedom to explore new areas you’re interested in. You’re not bound to any rules or client telling you what to do. You get to explore something on your own terms and make up your own rules.

When freelancing is going steady (good for you!) it can be challenging to put time aside to invest in side projects. It’s easy to think they’re less important or not serious enough to warrant your time.

I think it should be the opposite.

There are many flourishing businesses that began as side project ideas. Projects like CreativeMornings and Basecamp started out as side projects and are now booming businesses. When Charli and I began Design Life it was just a fun side project. To date we’ve had over 100,000 unique listens, sold out our first product online and now have plans to build a community.

I’m not saying that your side project needs to eventually become a fully blossoming business or passive income earner — but it’s an option. Don’t underestimate a side project’s potential.

Read a book

It’s too easy to spend the entire day in front of your computer, only to graduate from your couch to your phone, then eventually your TV.

I’ll admit it. I sneak in an episode here and there — it’s relaxing and entertaining. Just what we need after a long day of work, right?

Spending all day in front of screens we know is not the healthiest thing for your mind. Switching off is needed to give your brain time to rest and rejuvenate — after all that’s why we sleep!

I recently got a Kindle and started reading non-fiction books. Cozying up with just yourself, a book and a hot cup of tea (I recommend this one) is a great way to unwind.

If the thought of reading non-fiction bores you, I encourage you to try.

There are so many good resources out there that there’s bound to be a book about something you’re either struggling with or want to learn more about.

Reading gives you new perspective and ways of thinking. Whether you want to learn more about business, marketing or creativity — there’s tonnes of books out there.

Here’s a list of some of the books I’ve read recently.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking ‘But Femke I really don’t like reading’. Well you’re reading right now so it can’t be that bad! I’m not a big reading fan either. Sometimes I have to remind myself to get my Kindle out because my default is often the TV or my laptop. I never regret the decision to read because it’s only helping me improve. 

Work on your own brand or business

Down time is the best time to focus on your own brand or business. After all the majority of our time is spent on helping other people’s brands, so it’s easy to neglect our own.

As a busy freelancer it’s common to let your own stuff slip down the to-do list. That doesn’t mean it’s less important than other things on there.

Come to think of it — there’s no better thing you could spend your time on during lull periods than your own business. Perhaps the reason why you’re in this lull period is because of something holding you back or causing a blockage?

Here’s a few questions you could ask yourself to help identify what could be improved:

Is my website up to date? Is it easy to understand what I do? Am I easy to find? Has something in my business changed lately that makes other parts no longer relevant? What blockages do I have in my service pipeline that could be unblocked? Is my client on boarding and offboarding flow working effectively? What is something I do all the time that could be automated?

Collaborate with others

It can be challenging to keep your creative juices flowing when there’s no work coming in the door. I bet you’ve got a skill that’s valuable and that someone else would love to have. So offer it to them.

Collaborating with others in your industry not only lets you keep massaging your skill. It encourages you to make new connections, or stay in touch with old.

Say you’re an animator. Ask an illustrator if you can animate their work for fun. My friend Devon Moodley does exactly this. With an eye for motion he’s always looking at illustrations and imagining how they could be brought to life. So, he asks the illustrator for permission and gets to work.

If you have a friend with a complimentary skill, perhaps you could build something more permanent or work on a side project together.

Not only does this let you exercise your skill and make connections, it keeps you relevant. At the end of the collaboration you’ll have something to share.

Who knows, maybe the right person will see it and offer you work.

Go to events!

Have you ever been to a conference or event by yourself? If so, you know what I’m talking about when I say how scary it is.

You stand in the corner by yourself, hugging your cup of tea in one hand and phone in the other like a comfort blanket — pretending you’re too busy to mix and mingle.

I see this all the time at conferences and events. Those who were brave enough to make the decision to come alone, suddenly aren’t brave enough to meet others. I’m like this too sometimes. It requires a lot of courage to go and talk to someone.

Going to events centred around your industry is probably the best way to meet other likeminded individuals and make new connections. As scary as it can be, these connections could turn into work, friendships or collaborations down the road.

I also find events can be a great motivation for me if i’m in a start of un-motivation. If you’re feeling a bit down and uninspired, find a creative event in your area. Perhaps there’s a CreativeMornings near you, or local Meetupgroup that shares similar interests.

I often come home from events full of ideas and motivation. 

When work begins to dry up, it’s too easy to fall into a Netflix-watching-binge and stay in your pyjamas all day. Once you go down this hole, it’ll be very hard to climb back out.

The ones you see on Twitter achieving success are the ones that always have their eyes open for opportunities. In down time they make the most of it by finding new ways to release their creative energy, learn a new skill or create something just for the heck of it. What will you do next time?

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