Dealing With Downtime

-By Dave Palumbo
In absence of any relevant image, just a fun recent little thing.

I've heard maintaining a steady freelance career compared to being a circus performer spinning plates. Despite the added challenge, several simultaneous avenues of business is the best long term strategy for a relatively stable income. You never know when one thing might dry up or stop satisfying your creative needs. With diverse clients and revenue streams, usually, magically, just when it looks like there is no next job to work on, the much needed email comes in out of nowhere and you just pivot to that other thing. If not a job, then a private commission, original sale, crowdfunding campaign, licensing agreement, teaching gig, or any other means of earning income. If you can keep the invoices moving more or less at a steady pace, it all comes out fine in the end.

There are those periods of downtime though when the timing is off and there's dead air between commissions. I might greet this with relief if I've been feeling overworked. Most often though, it can be stressful and frustrating.

On a normal day, I personally find it really helpful to have a focus. Some kind of goal. Having no imminent deadline can leave me feeling adrift. I tend to get anxiety from having no clear direction, so it really helps me to choose a priority to structure my day around when there are no obvious urgent problems to solve.

Very recently, I found myself facing this. I had just wrapped up a big job and turned over a sizable body of work to my gallery and then... nothing much was left on my calendar. Normally this is about the time that a steady client pops in with a new project, but unfortunately days started ticking by and no new projects seemed forthcoming. And so I started looking at ways to build that structure when there aren't looming due dates dictating it for me. I suspect this strategy is probably going to be pretty effective for having a healthy work/life balance when I find myself back in crunch times too.

Looking at all the things that I want to spend my time and energy doing, I found they broke down into five categories. My intention is to prioritize one category for each day to help find that focus I need, but at the same time it's an aspirational check list. If possible, I want to touch on each item each day.

1: Earning Income

This is obviously the single most stressful part of dry spells, so it weighs heavily on my mind when I'm in that situation. I've learned from hard experience that when the invoices stop going out, I don't feel the pinch until a few months later, so I need to get on the ball early.

As a traditional painter, the fastest way to fill an invoice gap is to direct energies into selling originals, which is something I tend to not be as proactive with otherwise. Engaging in social media, following up leads from past collectors, etc. It might also be a good time to redesign a web store or explore new avenues of selling such as joining a new collector site (comicartfans, facebook collector groups, etc.)

I tend to look at selling originals under these circumstances as self-cannibalism though. You're eating yourself to stay alive, and that's not a good long term strategy.

Once basic income needs are met, it's much more beneficial to aim at building long term infrastructure. Looking at how you're promoting, reaching out to clients you haven't worked with in awhile, exploring new possible income streams, or even just amping up showing recent work online (which is something I tend to really let slide when I'm busy on deadlines). And of course, creating targeted samples if there is a client or type of work you want but don't have. This is a good time to reevaluate where you are and where you want to be career-wise because you have both the time and motivation to make course corrections.

2. Making cool things

If invoicing isn't as critical, or I feel it might dovetail with that, downtime is fantastic for personal projects. This is especially true if coming off a long string of jobs and I've really been itching at some personal piece ideas. Of course, making cool things might not be about painting. It might be about collaborating or some other kind of creative project. I've really enjoyed monkeying around in photography, music, and film making over the years and it's a great feeling to explore a creative goal which is decidedly disconnected to your day to day jobs.

Just the other day, I saw this quote from an author named Jon Gordon (not familiar with him otherwise, but it seems he does quite a bit of motivational speaking):

“We don't get burned out because of what we do. We get burned out because we forget why we do it.”

And this is, I think, what Making Cool Things is about. It's rediscovering what you love about creating. In the process, it often also reminds me to keep asking myself: “where do I want my art to go?”

3. Tending to my health

This isn't generally something that takes a whole day, but it's absolutely something that becomes neglected with a full calendar. When I find myself with a bit more time, it's a big priority to get on top of my nutrition and exercise habits. I think this time I'll make them stick (for real!)

4. Tending to my home

Either picking up the house, organizing, tackling home improvement projects, or just taking care of chores and running errands. Again, all important stuff for happy healthy daily life that are way to easy to ignore under a deadline crunch.

5. Recharging my batteries

And finally, I have to remind myself it's OK to have days where I just enjoy some leisure time. Visiting friends, wandering around town, watching movies, reading a book, etc. When it's stealing a day between deadlines, this is pretty easy to justify. When I'm anxious about not having any invoices going out, it can come with a bit more guilt. I'm starting to realize though, the worry doesn't accomplish anything and you might as well enjoy some quality time off because, before you know it, deadlines and life stuff will start stacking up all over again.

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