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Mind the Gap: 6 Ways to be Productive Through Freelance Downtime

posted by Matt Ward on Mar 23, 2010.

Every freelancer will experience some form of downtime, where business slows down. In this article, we are going to look at six different things that you can do to stay productive during these seasons of downtime!

Any freelancer who has been working more than a few months will probably tell you that it is a career choice which seems to perfectly define the concept old adage: feast or famine. You either seem to be so incredibly busy that you have no idea how you can possibly get it all done, or you’re checking your email every five minutes, hoping for that message that will initiate a new project and get some money back into your bank account.

Mind the Gap: 6 Ways to be Productive When Business Gets Slow

Mind the Gap: 6 Ways to be Productive When Business Gets Slow

Financially, one of the things you need to do to survive is find a way to balance your cashflow. When you’re busy, always be putting a little bit of money aside to help see you through the leaner times. It’s a just a good practice, and if you’re fortunate enough to not have nearly as many slow moments as busy moments, than you’ll still be accumulating a nice bit of money in your savings.

But what about time? Is there anything you can be doing with your freelance downtime, other than twiddling your thumbs, watching TV or eating six meals a day out of sheer boredom? Absolutely! In this article, we’re going to look at six ways that you can stay productive when business gets a little slow.

Write for the Stockpile

These days, many freelancers are also running a blog of some sort. It may be design related, like the Echo Enduring Blog, or something totally different, but the one thing that never changes is the need to be coming up with fresh and interesting content on a continuing basis.

So, when you hit a bit of a lull in your stream of work, take the opportunity to crank out a few posts or articles and set a few of them aside. You know that you’re going to get busy again at some point, and too often it’s during these busy seasons of our lives that our blogs can start to suffer from neglect. By the time we get back to them again, we may find that readership and subscribers have dropped off, and then we need to start building them up all over again.

Having a collection of articles ready to go can help eliminate this problem! When you get busy, just take a few minutes to reference the collection, find an appropriate article and publish it. You’ll help maintain your readership by providing them with new content, without having to sacrifice the writing time when you’re at your busiest.

On word of caution on this one, though: make sure that the things you are stockpiling are timeless. Don’t write an article about a recent event then save it for publication several months later. By that time, it may seem stale and dated.

Get Reading

I think that any freelancer should have at least a book or two sitting on their night stand (or wherever it is you keep books), waiting to be read. When business gets slow, that can be the perfect time to crack the spine and start digging into those books. I think that this has several advantages.

Get Reading

Get Reading

First, as long as you have sufficient light and you’re not putting to much strain on your eyes, reading is good for you. It forces you to fire up the old grey matter and start exercising your brain. More importantly, it’s a different sort of exercise than most freelancers tend to do when they’re working. Generally a freelancer’s job involves creating something – whether it be a design, a logo, an illustration or compelling copy. All of these things require output from the brain. Reading provides a much needed form of input.

Second, it gets you off the computer. I can be pretty guilty of seemingly being physically attached to my MacBook, and recognize as well as anyone how difficult it can be to just set it aside. However, I also recognize that it’s important to get away, and reading a book is a perfect way to do it!

Third, you can learn from experts or people who have accomplished things. Generally speaking, if a book is in print, it’s because the author has some sort of authority in his or her subject area, or has accomplished something significant. Chances are you can learn a thing or two from them, which is always valuable.

Of course, with the advent of vanity publishing, you will want to be careful in this regard. Look for books released by reputable publishers and not print-on-demand shops that allows virtually anyone to produce a book.

Finally, reading can be inspiring. You may read about an idea or a technique that you find particularly interesting, or which inspires all kinds of creative thoughts and ideas in your own mind!

Refine Your Skills

A few months ago, I wrote an article entitled The One Thing You Need to Do to Become a Better Designer, in which I suggested that the one thing that all designers need to be doing is practice. Obviously, when you’re busy and working, you are actually practicing as you work, and often this is the best kind of experience you can hope for. I’ve frequently found that one of the best ways to learn something is to just be thrown into it.

However, when business slows down, you can certainly take a more methodical and controlled approach to your practice. Sit down with either a blank word processor screen or a blank notebook (remember what I said about getting away from the computer) and make a list of all the areas that you want to improve in.

Now, start working in those areas. If you want to get better at using Photoshop, you could work through some online tutorials and then practice the techniques you learn. More importantly, practice the same techniques in different contexts. Learn to make the technique more universally applicable, rather than something you can do to replicate a particular graphic or style.

If you want to get better and writing, go back and critique some of the things that you’ve written in the past. Look at the things that work well, and at the things that didn’t work so well. Then ask yourself how you could have done better. Make notes, or maybe even try rewriting certain sentences or passages to make the better or more effective.

The effort you expend in this area will certainly prove valuable when you get busy again, as you will be able to produce even better work for your clients (and possibly even start charging a bit more as your experience and knowledge continue to grow).

Update Your Portfolio

When was the last time you updated your portfolio? When was the last time I updated my portfolio? It’s been awhile, and it’s at the top of my list of things to do once things quiet down a bit for me.

Update Your Portfolio

Update Your Portfolio

I think that most of us would agree that our portfolios (whether online or otherwise) are probably one our most important assets as freelancers. They are the primary evidence of your skill and abilities, and often a good part of the justification for the rates we charge. Yet, as important as they, they also often slip down the chain of proprieties as client projects pile up and find ourselves in that feast season.

So, when things slow down again, take the time to examine your portfolio and update it if necessary.

Now, I also want to emphasize that updating does not necessarily have to mean the same thing as adding. Just because you’ve finished 15 websites since the last time you updated your portfolio, doesn’t mean that you have to include all of them.

If you’ll indulge me in a sporting analogy, I would like to compare your portfolio to a baseball franchise. As a Canadian, my favourite team is the Blue Jays. The Jays have dozens and dozens of players in their system. I don’t know the exact number, and it doesn’t really matter, because when it comes to the big league team, they are limited to 25 players. Obviously, then, management works to select what they believe to be the best 25 players, and, as the season progresses, they will often trade and release players, call some up from the minors and send others down, all in an effort to field the best possible team (though, things are looking bleak for my Jays this year).

The same should be true of your portfolio. You don’t need to show everything you’ve ever created, especially if you have been working for an extended period of time. Instead, work at choosing the pieces that best represent you and your current work. If this means cutting a good chunk of your older pieces, or an entire branch of work that you are trying to get away from (for whatever reason), then so be it.

Either way, whenever you hit a bit of a slow period in your business, take the time to look at your portfolio and determine if it needs to be updated in order to make it a better reflection of you.

Work on a Personal Project

Every freelancer should have at least one personal project. I have at least a half a dozen. That project can really be anything, really, though to really be productive for your freelance business, it should be at least partially related. If you’re a web designer whose personal project is a writing a book all about fly fishing, while I offer kudos for expending the energy in the writing, there’s really not much of a connection.

There are a couple of benefits to having ongoing personal projects. First, they are usually something that you love and are passionate about. This makes it easy to get excited about the project and maintain your motivation. That is not to say, of course, that personal projects will always be easy or free of trials and finicky details. Chances are, though, that you will feel somewhat better about working through the tough parts, because the project is completely and totally your own.

The second benefit is just more creative freedom! While working for clients is great (and pays the bills), chances are that, unless you are really established and well known for your creativity, you will usually be working within the constrains of the client’s vision. In these circumstances, you may not always have the opportunity to really pursue a creative or innovative concept!

An ongoing personal project can become that outlet.

For me, this blog will probably always be at least partially a personal project, even though I do have plans to integrate some ad space and hopefully make a few bucks to help offset costs. I’ve created the design completely from scratch, and can spend hours stewing over articles and content. Some other personal projects include a full length novel (already drafted), a couple other websites that are still in very formulative stages, and even a graphic novel that I’ve been pondering for a while!

Build Your Network

Another important part of the freelance world is who you know, and referrals can be one of the single greatest sources of new business. As such, it’s important to network and expand your ring of influence. Your slow periods are a great time to really get to work on this, and there are two broad ways of approaching it.

Build Your Network (image by clix - click for source)

Build Your Network (image by clix - click for source)

Probably the easiest way is through the internet. I don’t know about some other fields, but the design community is really warm and open and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to start building your own online network of contacts! Twitter is a great place to start, of course, as well as other social media and networking sites.

Leaving thoughtful and engaging comments on posts and articles on some of your favourite blogs is another great way to start networking, especially on sites that seem to have an active community, where either the blog owner or other commenter are responding to each other. After a while, you may find that a lot of the same people are visiting many of the same sites as you. Several of the contacts that I communicate with on a regular basis are people that I first became aware of through comments (and their gravatars).

Of course, the other way to network is to actually get out there in the real world and start meeting people face to face. I have to admit that this is something that I haven’t done a lot of personally, but it’s also something that I want to get better at. You can join your local chamber of commerce, or an association related to your field.

But don’t think that networking has to stop at the professional level! Join a sports team, volunteer for a charity or become an active member in some other local organization. Personally, I am very involved in the activities of my church, and have actually received a good amount of my work from other members. Many of them like to work with me because they know me personally and there’s a prior relationship of trust there.

So, if business gets a bit slow for a week or two, consider spending a bit more time really interacting with your favourite blogs, or even getting out of the office for some somewhat impromptu networking. The effort can help minimize slow periods in down the road.


These are all great things that you can do to remain productive during your slower times. That being said, however, I would like to conclude with just a few general thoughts.

First, try to strike a balance. For instance, don’t spend all your downtime stockpiling articles or attending networking event after networking event. Approach everything with moderation and try to accomplish a little bit all of these areas.

Second, don’t fall into the trap of saving all of these things strictly for your slow periods. You should be doing them all to some degree on a regular basis (assuming you have a blog. If you don’t, then that point obviously doesn’t apply). I’ve heard it said that the best time to be marketing is when your busy, not when you’re quiet! Doing so can help to ensure that you don’t actually get quiet, or at least that it happens less often. The point I’m trying to make in this is article is merely that when you do get slow, the six things we discussed can help you stay focused and productive until business picks up again.

Lastly, don’t forget to take time for yourself. When we’re busy, the freelance life can seem like nothing but work, work and more work. So, when things do quiet down a bit, it’s never a bad thing to carve out some time for a little R&R. If you spend at least part of your downtime doing the things we’ve discussed in this article, business will be sure to pick up again soon, so be sure to take the opportunity to do the (other) things you love, or to spend time with those who are dearest to you!

What do you guys think? Are there any other things that freelancers can do to stay productive through periods of downtime? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, so please feel free to share!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Mar 24, 2010

sickdesigner says:

Finally, a design lifestyle article that is by no means condescending and gives proper advice. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts, Matt. I’ve been through most of the situations you portray here and I managed to pick myself up during low times in much the same way you describe, through reading, working on other projects, although I still haven’t gotten around to finishing my portfolio :). I wish you wrote this about a year and a half ago, it would’ve saved me a lot of headaches :))
Great read, Matt, as always!

Mar 28, 2010

Chris says:

Some excellent tips – many of which I feel tend to get overlooked all too often (particularly in my case; I’ve only recently started reading again, after letting my pile of books pile up a little too high in favour of focusing solely on practising during my downtime. It’s definitely a good idea to feed your brain once in a while instead of doing nothing but output!)

Mar 29, 2010

Freelance Des9er says:


Here’s an option: http://jobs.designcrowd.com

Perfect for a downturn (or simply a quiet day)

1. find a job
2. reserve a payment (normally $20 or $40)
3. submit a design
4. receive payment
5. (optional) client buys your design for $200 to $1000

I find it’s a great way to a) build my portfolio and b) make a bit of money while I’m doing it!

Apr 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Interesting site, but it looks like crowdsourcing to me. Kudos if it works for you though.

Apr 1, 2010

Kersh says:

Thank you! Very nice article, there are a lot of useful information that I’ll use in my downtime :)

Apr 9, 2010

Matthew Simmons says:

Wow, great article!

I have always had trouble finding a ‘side project’.

Perhaps you could let us in on a few of your own, aside from this blog of course. =D

Dec 21, 2010

Brett Widmann says:

This is a great post. Usually I will work on my skills and try to enhance them by trying different tutorials and learning new techniques.

Dec 27, 2010

Dan says:

NIce article Matt. I just launched my freelance site (http://tiltedsquare.com) yesterday, and I am currently working on networking and building up my portfolio.

Over the past few years, tutorials have been my best friend. It’s amazing the quality and quantity of skills you can learn over the internet.

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