As an independent contractor, you have no guarantees beyond the commitments you have in place right now. Your broader sense of freedom — compared to someone who works in an office — means you can dictate where your efforts will be spent each day. But it also means you have an ongoing responsibility to your bottom line and self-preservation. Your challenge is to find ways to not just get by today, but to thrive for years to come.
Every freelancer needs to be highly attuned to the health of his or her professional existence, as any long-term success depends on knowing what you're working on next and when money is coming in. Establishing that long-term success begins with mastering your short-term professional outlook. This is achievable through filling your calendar with productive tasks, limiting projects with undetermined benefits, and fighting off your fear of missing out.
Fill Your Calendar
An empty calendar can become a cause for concern to anyone responsible for structuring their own time. Some people may think freelancers solely live in the moment, working on projects as they come up, but in reality a great portion of a freelancer's time is taken up by administrative duties that seek to eliminate uncertainties while simultaneously facilitating opportunity. This can include scheduling project milestones, assessing budgets, liaising with collaborators, or pitching new clients — the list of non-craft related tasks seems never-ending.
It's naïve to think you can intuitively manage all of these responsibilities without falling short in some areas or stressing out. Managing your calendar is a must for freelancers, and filling it with immediate productive challenges — whether they're for your clients or your own self-improvement — helps to tighten up your short-term productivity. Staying busy means maintaining forward momentum, and that keeps you hungry to take on new challenges whenever they come. Waiting for others to dictate how busy you are creates unpredictable gaps of time, and you should strive to reduce any unknowns in a freelance career.
Good Intentions Are Costly
It's rewarding to be able to collaborate on passion projects with professionals you respect — so much, in fact, that it can feel crass to discuss matters pertaining to money. Without a guaranteed source of income, you have to know where to draw the line in situations where there’s an imbalance between valuable returns and the time required — including favours for friends or family. Working for any kind of undetermined benefit (i.e. “exposure”) introduces uncertainty into your finances, and that's a significant threat to the wellbeing of your career. Good intentions will never pay the bills.
You don't have to totally eliminate working for free, though. The key is to limit the time these projects consume and to also think of compensation as more than just money. Consider unique and valuable ways you could be compensated by requesting a trade of services from your collaborators. If they possess skills you don't have but require (i.e. web design, photography, copywriting), or have a broad industry reach you could profit from, then working for free might make sense in this scenario.
Fight Your FOMO
The fear of missing out is a great source for bad decisions, especially as they relate to the health of a freelancer's career. Fear makes you worry about long-term possibilities when you should be thinking about the reality of here-and-now. It's common to worry about the repercussions of passing up professional opportunities, but since you can’t see into the future you can only assess those opportunities as they appear today. Trust your ability to strategically evaluate whether a project or potential client relationship speaks to your overall goals and immediate material needs. If the time doesn't seem right, then the opportunity isn't right. You need to believe in the potential for doors to open rather than act upon your fear of them slamming shut.
With a positive mindset for the future, you can focus more on pressing concerns in your professional life. The long-term viability of a freelance career is built upon achieving small triumphs each day, and you have significant power to determine each short-term success — it's simply a question of what matters most to your career right now.