This is a guest post by Dorothee Racette; Dorothee is a past president of the American Translators Association. Based on over 20 years of experience as a successful freelance writer and translator, she trains small business owners in time management and productivity. In her blog, she shares her insights in making the most of her time. She invites you follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or to like her Facebook page for more practical time management advice.
Getting beyond Feast or Famine – Planning for 2016
As independent contractors and freelancers, we often make the mistake of passively accepting whatever workload comes our way. We tell ourselves that “feast or famine” is part of the experience, perpetuating the myth that there is little we can do to plan ahead or manage the flow of our business. Such myths often put us at a disadvantage when it comes to optimizing our own working conditions.
Early January is a perfect time to plan your business capacity for the coming year to make targeted decisions about the work you want to accept and solicit. While there will undoubtedly be some fluctuation in the demand for your services, here are some planning steps you can take at the beginning of the year to make the most of your freelance business.
Look at past years for patterns
Your business statistics of past years (e.g. in the report function of your accounting software) probably show certain patterns. For instance, business may be slower in July and August when clients are on vacation, followed by an uptick in September. Knowing the cyclical properties of your workload makes it easier to schedule breaks, predict cash flow, and plan specific marketing activities.
The order history of past years is also a good indicator for your true daily output. It is not uncommon to overestimate the daily hours we can work without disruptions and in full concentration. (I had to learn that lesson the hard way one year when I accepted a job without looking at the calendar and had to work on a major holiday). Taking into consideration steps such as reviewing and finalizing high-quality work along with invoicing and client correspondence, your output may be smaller than you think. It is helpful to base your sustainable capacity–the volume you can reliably produce every day–on a conservative average.
Plan ahead for the year:
Armed with a better understanding of your business cycle and daily output, you can now set informed goals. Where would you like to be in financial, technical, and professional terms by the end of the year?
In many ways, time and financial planning is the easiest of these tasks. When you look back on 2016 a year from now, you will probably want to have positive memories of vacations and quality time spent away from your desk. Because you may feel compelled to work with few breaks, mark your annual vacation and other days off in your calendar now. Blocking certain weeks and dates at the start of the year will be particularly helpful in situations when you have to decline urgent projects from key clients. In addition, knowing in advance how much time you want to take off makes your income projections more realistic. Industry-specific calculators such as US Calpro can help define how much you can expect to earn.
Unless your business is still in the start-up phase, your freelance activities should yield enough income to save for retirement and other financial goals. That should also include funds to pay for professional memberships and to attend local, regional or national industry events.
With scheduling and financial cornerstones in place, you can now take a good look at the technical side of your work. Technical proficiency not only offers an important competitive edge in fields with high price pressure, but can also save significant time. Outdated hardware and software may put you at a disadvantage when it comes to working efficiently and reliably. For example, if your CAT tool version does not have an autosuggest function, you may be spending unnecessary time and effort typing the same text over and over. Similarly, the failure of your old computer that “still works” could cause major headaches in a tight deadline situation.
Learning about your equipment should not be limited to Googling an error message (“X has encountered a fatal error. Details saved to crash.txt”). Define specific steps you will take to learn more about your equipment. Are there functions you haven’t had a chance to explore? Did you hear about new apps from colleagues, but haven’t looked at them? The time invested in getting a better understanding of your work software easily pays off in higher productivity.
Professional goals are the third and most important aspect of planning ahead for the year. Without professional growth, your business is likely to remain stagnant. Since freelancers work in relative isolation, staying at the cutting edge of your field requires a special effort. If you don’t have a specialty area yet, pick the most interesting or challenging project of the past year. What do you need to learn/change to acquire more projects of the same kind? If you already have a niche or specialization, plan specific ways to advance it further, through groups, online courses or reading. Although social media can offer a lot of useful information, nothing beats face-to-face networking. Make it a point to schedule and attend local networking events, both with other freelancers and with representatives of the industries that use your services.
In addition to expanding your expertise in your chosen field, make plans now to sharpen your business skills in 2016. Freelancers who understand the principles of marketing, networking, and cost calculation are in a much better position to find good clients and make a steady income. To plan realistically, keep in mind that professional advancement requires continuous investments of time and money.
Whether you want to make new networking connections, send applications to interesting clients, share ideas at events, or write about your work practice, you will need to dedicate a portion of your working time to these goals. The good news is that the daily practice of continuous improvement is the best way to end the feast or famine cycle. Here’s to you!