Managing Those Work Ebbs & Flows

Learn how to survive and thrive in the feast-or-famine freelance cycle

If you’re an independent contractor, you’ve likely experienced peaks and valleys in workflow, which can then become cash-flow fluxes. Maybe your work is weather dependent, you go through various busy or dry seasons based on your industry, or you’re at the mercy of changes that occur within your client base. Whatever the reason, finding a way to anticipate and manage ebbs and flows is imperative for your budgeting needs as well as your sanity. 

The money
Some months your accounts might be flooded with incoming payments, while in other months you find yourself stretching to make ends meet because work has dipped or you’re waiting for clients to settle up on invoices. A little planning ahead can help alleviate these budget nightmares.

First, set an income goal of what you need to bill out every month to make ends meet, put money aside for quarterly tax payments, and save for cash-flow slumps. (If your work is dependent on seasons, you’ll need to adjust the amount upwards during busy months to account for the months when you won’t be making much income.) Check your profit-and-loss statements in your invoicing system frequently to make sure you are meeting your billing goals.

Next, create a spreadsheet with monthly columns—dating about six months. List your clients or projects down the left-hand side and write under each month every payment you anticipate to collect in that month. Keep an updated total at the bottom of each column. If the total for a certain month doesn’t match your income goal, you’ll need to drum up more business in the months prior to make up for it. You may not have the full six months filled with payments when you start this process, but over time, you’ll fill them in and have a better feel for what to expect financially as the year progresses.

The work
You can create a financial picture, but that doesn’t necessarily help you gain a handle on your workflow. Sometimes you’re slammed with several projects all due at once, and then other times you’re left wondering when the next job will come in. Either situation can lead to unproductive stress. Create a picture of your workload, which will help you with your scheduling efforts.

Viewing a task management app, to-do list, or even a calendar doesn’t always give you the best snapshot. A color-coded spreadsheet can be helpful. Build your columns as week-long (or two-week) periods listed across the top. Then list your clients or projects down the left-hand side. Make a color block underneath the week in which you are scheduled to work on a project. Be sure to plan enough time to complete projects before deadlines. Color code in red project blocks that will take more time, and use lighter colors to denote smaller-scale items.

If you see a lot of red during one week, that means you are slammed and cannot take on more work. After using this method for a while, you’ll get a feel for how much red you can and want to handle. You’ll also see lighter shaded sections, which could mean an opportunity to tackle marketing tasks, take on more work, or even head out on a much-needed vacation.