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Table Of Contents  The Online Freelancing Guide
 >  Introduction - Online Freelancing Overview, Options, Opportunities and Challenges
      >  Handling the Psychological Challenges of Online Freelancing

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Feast or Famine - But More Often Famine
“And Joseph said unto Pharaoh ... The seven good kine [are] seven years; and the seven good ears [are] seven years: the dream [is] one. And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them [are] seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine.
...
Let Pharaoh do [this], and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.”
-- Genesis 41:25-27,34-36, KJV

One of the traditional benefits of full-time employment compared to freelancing is that in the former case, you know how much work you will have, and how much you will earn. In contrast, freelancers must often deal with uncertainty as to their workload and pay. Of course, with the way the economy is today, I realize that many salaried employees don’t exactly consider their positions secure either. But even so, at least with a regular job, you know that as long as you are still employed, your workload and your paycheck will be there for you week in and week out.

With online freelancing, work is anything but steady and reliable. In fact, it often seems like you are either working your butt off trying to get work, or you are so swamped with projects to complete and deadlines to meet that you can’t catch your breath. In fact, this condition is so endemic to the freelancing profession that the answers.com page for the expression “feast or famine” uses this example: “Free-lancers generally find it's feast or famine--too many assignments or too few”. Too true!

Well, actually, it’s not true, at least, not all the time—good freelancers can take steps to minimize the feast or famine effect, as we’ll discuss shortly. But it frequently seems like it’s always that way, perhaps because of the human tendency to pay attention to the extreme more than the typical. (Ever notice how you remember the really hot days of summer and the cold snaps in winter, but not the cool “refreshing” days in summer and warm, mild days in winter?) And unfortunately, the famines are often more common and longer in duration than the feasts, especially at the start.

The main reason for the up and down cycles of Internet freelance work, of course, is that contractors are dependent on clients to post jobs for them to bid on. Most providers only do specific types of work, and there’s an element of randomness in how many projects in any given discipline are posted on any particular day.

One problem that exacerbates the rollercoaster ride in projects is that sometimes contractors take a long time to actually choose someone and start a project. I’ve had cases where an employer says he needs the work done right away, I bid and say I can do it quickly, and then I don’t hear anything back for a full week; by that time, I may well have other jobs to do. This “hurry up and wait” behavior is all too common, and requires careful management to avoid overloading yourself or upsetting your clients.

There are a few key factors that influence how much a freelancer is affected by the “feast or famine” problem:

  • Breadth of Work Disciplines: The more types of work you do, the more likely you are to be able to find work and stay busy.

  • Project Length and Frequency: Freelancers who work smaller numbers of longer jobs have less variability in their workload than those who work larger numbers of smaller jobs.

  • Experience: Long-time contractors have fewer ups and downs than newcomers, both because they have learned skills for evening out their schedules, and because a higher percentage of their work is repeat business from established clients.

All that said, while the uneven nature of freelancing workloads can certainly be a challenge, freelancers do have some control over their workloads. One of the most important tools is simply adjusting the number of projects you bid on to suit not just your present situation, but your anticipated workload in the near future. Also important is being careful about promising fast turnaround on too many projects that might be awarded simultaneously, and being cautious before agreeing to rush jobs. Finally, sound project management techniques can be used to help smooth out the peaks and valleys to a certain extent.

The uncertainty of job availability is another reason why there can be a significant advantage to combining online freelancing with other forms of work, especially if those are more predictable. Taking myself as an example, I do nearly entirely short-term freelancing jobs, because I am usually involved in several long-term personal writing projects. (You’re reading one of them!) When I have more freelance work, I do less of the other projects, and when the freelancing projects dry up, I focus more on my personal tasks. This style of work isn’t appropriate to everyone, but you can use a similar strategy for balancing freelancing work with other types of projects, or even hobbies. This is an essential way to avoid the feeling that you are constantly “standing around waiting for work”.

As I mentioned earlier, “famines” in freelance work are more common than feasts. It’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t find any work for a while, and start to wonder if the market has “changed” or you are doing something wrong. But this is perfectly normal, and chances are that it’s just a dry spell, so keep plugging away and hopefully things will turn around. No matter how bad it may seem at times, it’s almost certain that your bad luck won’t last for seven years. ;)


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Last Site Update: October 21, 2011

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