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Last week I described five of my favorite things about freelancing. It’s not all puppies and rainbows, though, so today I’m sharing some thoughts on one of the biggest challenges to the freelance life: the instability.

The lack of a steady paycheck seems to be the main thing that keeps people from leaving a “regular” job. And it is truly scary to not know where your next dollars are coming from–or when. A few things I’ve done to combat this:

The Worst Thing about Freelancing and 4 Tips to Get Past itPursue intense short term gigs. Last summer, I worked full time for one client for 12 weeks while they were looking for a permanent person. This worked out great for them (no need to make a desperate hire) and for me (12 weeks of steady work is enough to sock away some money for leaner times). I’ve even had some success responding to job postings with an offer of acting as a “stand-in” while the company keeps looking for a full time hire.
Cultivate regular clients. Doing one-off projects is great in that it exposes me to a lot of companies, methodologies, and topics. But I always make time for the client who asks me to write a questionnaire almost every week. Having that small but reliable weekly income is a relief for me, and they like knowing that I know their processes and preferences.
Get a PhD. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it worked for me. When I first started freelancing, I blew through my (minuscule) savings in a matter of weeks and realized work wasn’t going to be consistent for awhile. I knew other freelancers who waited tables or bartended for some regular income (and some who, wisely, had a year of living expenses saved up before they went out on their own), but I decided to go to grad school for Survey Methodology instead. It actually worked out perfectly: my tuition was covered and I got a monthly stipend, and when I wasn’t going to class or writing my dissertation, I took on projects for clients. It took me longer to get a good client base than it probably would have if I had been 100% devoted to it, but after three and a half years I had a solid client roster AND people call me “doctor.”
Use the slow times well. I used to spend lean months either gallivanting around spending all the money I had made the month before, or panicking that the leanness would never end. Now I try to relax, be confident that another project will come in soon, and be grateful that I have a little down time. I also use slow weeks to prospect like crazy, reaching out to my network and sometimes even cold calling. And finally, I work on other things that don’t get much attention when I’m on deadlines for clients: writing academic papers, catching up on industry news, and, recently, developing an online “Questionnaire Design Boot Camp” course for Skillshare.