Posted 15 July 2019
Written by Kate Hollowood

How to survive the dreaded freelance lull

It’s the fear of every freelancer. The work dries up, no-one calls, no-one emails... It feels like game-over. But in truth, a dry spell is an inevitability for the self-employed – whether that’s the annual slow-down, or an unusually quiet few months. And while it’ll never feel totally comfortable, there are ways to ride that wave without feeling completely panic-stricken. Here, Kate Hollowood shares some reassurance and tips from seasoned fellow freelancers to help you navigate those working cycles.

“I panic, I panic real hard,” says London-based multidisciplinary creative Dan Castro. “And that messes me up long past the point where the work comes back. The self doubt, the imposter syndrome!” Oh, the horrors of a freelancing lull. Unfortunately, the anguish Castro feels during a dry spell is pretty universal.

“A quiet month can be miserable,” says London-based freelance filmmaker Phil Cooper. “You can be really busy and looking forward to enjoying a quiet week or two; but then two weeks become four, and all of a sudden you’re kicking around trying to figure out why. You try to drum up work and keep busy – but how? You inevitably feel redundant and have a reasonable lack of self-worth.”

But anyone who has been in the game long enough to know will tell you that things always pick up. So if a dip in work is not really a reflection of our talent or how successful we are, how can we survive the discomfort and even embrace a bit of downtime?

“You can be looking forward to a quiet week or two; but then two weeks become four.”

Illustration by Tom Guilmard

Be prepared!

The boring but obvious place to start is to save enough cash to see you through a quieter period. Having about a month’s worth of earnings put to one side should help ease your anxiety if work starts to dry up.

Certain times of year are more likely to be slower than others, such as after Christmas, when budgets are running low in the run-up to the new financial year in April; and the summer, when clients will likely be sunning themselves in the Med. “August and January are pretty much always quiet,” says Cooper. “In August everyone naffs off on holiday, and in January everyone’s got a creative (and actual) hangover, from the weather and Christmas.”

While building up a nest egg, it’s worth mentally preparing yourself to reign in the spending when you need to. “I am less stupid now and live like a peasant when I don’t have money coming in,” says James Littlemore, a freelance VFX supervisor in London. “Spend when you can see the money, at least on your books. I always break up income into percentages for tax and savings, splitting them into separate accounts. If you can stick to that then you will have money for rainy days.”

Stick to a routine

Don’t let your listlessness make you sloppy, or it will likely only make you more depressed. Get up, get dressed and get out of the house at least once a day, even if it’s just to do some exercise – you’ll feel productive and the endorphins will lift your mood. Use the time to catch up with old contacts, or reach out to new ones and ask them out for coffee. You never know where it might lead.

“I’m quite motivated to get to the studio at the normal time, despite no work,” says Cooper. “I’ll email contacts and subtly beg for work, then edit stills, tinker over old footage, research new kit; and if I’m absolutely desperate I might do my taxes.”

Routine admin tasks can even have a therapeutic effect if you’re having a confidence crisis. “Emotionally, lulls can sting. Unemployment or underemployment rolls in the dark clouds,” says Littlemore. “I like breaking apart my work space so I am forced to clean. Reorganising is good for the soul. There’s something about turning chaos into order that gives the kind of satisfaction you are missing when you’re not working.”

Illustration by Tom Guilmard

Get creative

Downtime can actually boost your talents, if you let it. Research shows that boredom makes us more creative, as it causes our brains to search for stimulation from within through new thoughts and ideas. But, as Professor Sandi Mann, author of The Science of Boredom, told me for an It’s Nice That article on the subject, you’ve got to allow yourself to be bored to feel its positive effects. “A lot of people are frightened of boredom,” she said. “People swipe and scroll boredom away [on their phones] as soon as it threatens.”

With this in mind, quieter periods are the perfect time to get your teeth stuck into a personal project, which, while being more fun than procrastinating in your pyjamas all day, could help you attract more of the work you love. “Personal projects will develop your thinking, portfolio, and bring in work,” says Sheffield-based designer Nick Deakin.

“Downtime can actually boost your talents, if you let it. Research shows that boredom makes us more creative.”

While some personal work might be motivated by passion alone, you could also use the time to create things that will generate passive income. If you’re a designer, you could make fonts or stock images, a writer, an e-book or a project manager, an online course. “Don’t just have one form of revenue,” advises Leicester-based illustrator Brett Wilkinson. “If you have the ability to make something from nothing, then produce products that provide recurring revenue.”

If you’re still left with some time on your hands, it could also be an opportunity to reach out to non-profit, charitable or small-scale organisations you’re drawn to. If it’s a company who wouldn’t usually be able to afford your rates, you could consider volunteering, offering some work pro bono, or at a reduced fee.

However, it is worth noting that carrying out work at a reduced rate, or for free, can leave you open to exploitation and reduce rates across the board. Just be sure you put parameters in place, and ask yourself: Am I financially stable enough to take this on? Do I have a clear idea of how much is involved and what I’ll get out of it? And finally, it’s worth checking that it’s something you care about and has the potential to benefit your work and future projects.

Don’t work at all

If you use the time to recharge, doing absolutely no work can also be fruitful for the months that follow. “To survive a dry patch emotionally, go travelling. I try to leave the UK every January when London’s bleak and I know I’ll be quiet. It soothes the soul and helps you focus in the long run.” says Cooper.

“Enjoy your freelance lulls! Look, listen, learn, read. Revive your mind so it’s fuelled for the next big gig.”

Illustration by Tom Guilmard

If you’re worrying about money, you don’t have to leave the country to get some of the benefits a holiday provides. Fill your mind with new things by visiting galleries or museums, reading a book in the park or listening to a new podcast series. “Enjoy your freelance lulls!” says copywriter Vikki Ross. “Get out and about – there are plenty of things you can do for free. Look, listen, learn, read. Refresh and revive your mind so it’s fuelled and ready for the next big gig.”

Whether you decide to go backpacking in Patagonia, start work on a career-defining masterpiece or just Marie Kondo your sock drawer, the most important thing during a dry spell is to not freak out, and if you can, turn them into something you might even look forward to.


Read more from Kate Hollowood here.

Written by Kate Hollowood
Illustration by Tom Guilmard