The month you launch your new freelance business, you’re likely to be (or have been) a jittery, double espresso-fueled, intimidated mess. But you’re also so high on adrenaline that you can crush that initial wave of projects like breakfast cereal and network successfully at conferences, Meetups and happy hours in the same day. You’re inhaling opportunities and exhaling business cards. Excitement alone will carry you through, electrify your smile, polish your elevator pitch and close deals.
But if you count on adrenaline to sustain you throughout the decades ahead – or even just first year – then you’re probably inching closer and closer to crashing, which may be followed immediately by burning.
A critical ingredient to success is sustainability. Just ask Cher, who is currently touring at age 69. If you’re going to continue to support yourself – and possibly others as well, not to mention retirement – with your business, you need to approach freelancing like a marathon rather than a sprint. You’ll need the emotional resolve to keep on grinding even when things slow down, and you’ll need the physical strength to maintain the pipeline even when it’s been a grueling month.
Here are six freelance career sustainability guidelines to follow, which will keep you on the thriving side of the burnout equation.
- Make Decisions Like a Ninja
What’s your most pressing business development task? Not such a cut and dry question, right? Since we are living in a world of seemingly infinite options, it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis. The long and the short of it is that entrepreneurs know that all it takes is one terrible decision to tank a precarious fledgling business.
In order to avoid overthinking, face two facts. First, perfection is not the goal; rather, your aim is progress. Second, there are big decisions which warrant study, comparison and thorough consideration, and there are little decisions which do not and cannot occupy too much of your time and focus.
Once you internalize both of these premises, embrace a time limit on all decisions. Yes, do your homework. Be neither hasty nor flighty. But you must default to action rather than non-action. Challenge yourself to limit the research-documentation- debate phase, and mark a proper deadline on your calendar. Forge a replicable process that works for you, and move on.
2. Break Projects into Chunks
When your to-do list consists of full-on projects instead of sub-tasks, it will soon become overwhelming, and you may find yourself unable to make progress on anything at all.
To help manage realistic expectations, maintain motivation and keep the pipeline moving, break each of your larger projects into smaller chunks that will only take a few weeks, days or hours to complete. This sustainable productivity tip benefits you in two ways. First, it renders your workload entirely more manageable because it will be less intimidating, and second, it provides incremental rewards throughout the project.
- Say No and Mean It
Let’s face it – it’s better to say no politely than say yes today and have to fudge it or drop it tomorrow. Constant yessing has significant drawbacks: overwhelm, disappointed clients, reputation hiccups and resentment for all parties involved.
Your first months and years as an entrepreneur requires a lot of yes. Yes, I’d be happy to join your speed-networking event. Yes, I will find that referral you need. Yes, I’d love to speak for free as part of your panel of niche experts. Looking for an unpaid guest blogger? Absolutely – yes!
These activities will enhance your brand awareness, equity and maybe even land you clients. Business Karma dictates that the more you give to your professional community, the more will come back to you. But you’re going to have to draw the line somewhere and start setting limits. Those mounting requests for “a quick coffee to pick your brain.” Meetings – the endless meetings. A second, third and fourth free consultation. Getting pulled into a colleague’s brain trust for a passion project that just doesn’t align with your business goals. It’s imperative that you remain focused on progress rather than getting wrapped up in an infinite cycle of other people’s needs.
4. Keep Your Eye on Scalability
Hopefully, exponential business growth will sneak up on you faster than you plan for. Yes, the initial stages of your business’s life cycle involve relatively light demands in terms of infrastructure, staffing and even physical space. But it’s entirely possible – it’s probably your goal, even – that a colossal client is hiding around the corner, and the second you land that contract, you’ll need to expand. So be prepared.
Keep an eye out for a stellar assistant. Once you hire that assistant and things are going swimmingly, keep your eye out for a backup, since life happens and you can’t count on that stellar person forever. Network shrewdly with those inside and adjacent to your field, so you can assemble a team in an instant if necessary. If you’re doing business internationally, familiarize yourself with the labor and financial laws of your second location.
Yes, be prudent by not over-hiring or otherwise expanding too quickly. But ready yourself for contingencies.
5. Take (Just a Little) Time Off
All work and no play doesn’t make Jack a dull boy – it makes him a bitter, hot mess that can’t enjoy the entrepreneurial process. James Altucher’s advice that you make sure to get enough rest and “Don’t buy into the 20 hours a day entrepreneur myth” is worth printing out and tacking up on your wall. Or at least saving in Evernote.
Some of your days are going to be exceptionally long. But you cannot keep that up permanently. Burnout avoidance needs to maintain a holy place on your priority list.
Have lunch with a friend and don’t talk about work. Attend a concert and don’t bring your business cards. Spend the evening with your spouse rather than your laptop. Go on a long weekend mini-vacation. Take the dog for a walk without your phone and enjoy the stars. It’s more than just a cliché – it’s a matter of survival.
6. Make Peace With Failure
Full-on failure might not happen in your first year. Setbacks happen. So do challenges. But you cannot completely negate your awesome progress just because there is something standing in your way. Or because you made a wrong decision. Or because your business partner just turned out to be fudging the books.
There will always be bumps in the road. The true measure of first year success is overcoming these obstacles. Find a way around them. Exercise your creativity. Flex your problem-solving muscles. Wallowing in coulda-woulda-shoulda is not going to solve your problems. Move on and do it better.
You’re Up for It
Adrenaline is addictive. But as with all addictions, there is a dark side to this one. Your freelance business isn’t always going to provide the rush that it does when you first set out, so make sure you’ve got the strength to keep going when those drops start to occur.
Conduct your business in a sustainable manner, with a shot or two of adrenaline and espresso, and you’ll rock your clients’ projects for decades to come.