Don’t discuss this with your friends who have regular jobs.
They won’t get it.
Or, they will think this is unfair.
But never mind that.
You and me, as free-range and self-sustaining independents, we cannot think like those salaried folk.
We are not beholden to the unfortunate economics of being an employee.
Here’s our rule:
Set things up so you can survive on three paying work days per week.
Arrange your fees so that just three days of paid assignments a week — like twelve days per month — is enough to feed yourself, pay your rent, and keep you in business.
No, you won’t get rich on that. You won’t be vacationing in the south of France. But you’ll be alive and afloat, paying your bills, and eating regular. You’ll be in no danger of being forced into conventional employment.
(FYI, some savvier, crustier members of my Renegade Roundtable disagree about the three-day rule. “No. Price yourself so that two days’ work will make a decent week’s pay.” They may be right. But I spent too much time drawing that “3” up there. Anyway, two days or three, the idea is the same.)
The reason is there are ebbs and flows in the universe that we can’t predict, can’t control. There will always be gaps and wild peaks in the workflow. We want to be okay in the dry times, and earning lush when it’s busy.
My friend Campbell, who works on huge five- and six-month assignments, will sometimes have a month or two of downtime between gigs. But it’s no problem. Because when he’s billing, he’s billing big. He doesn’t need to work every day, all year long. That’s the “employee” mindset. It’s not how freelancers think.
In fact, most businesses use the same strategy.
A hotel, for example, can remain happily in business with just 60% of its rooms booked at any given time. (Maybe its a different number. I forget. But it’s much less than 100%.) The profit is baked in at a certain ‘occupancy’ rate. It doesn’t bring record-breaking riches, mind you, but survival. They will quietly turn a profit until the convention hits town. Then the money overflows.
As a restaurant owner, you can make decent money even if you don’t fill every table and booth every hour of every day. If you manage to pack the place, you can buy a bigger house.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying to be happy with just a few days’ work. (Unless you live simply and prefer to spend the rest of the time playing with your kids and going to the beach. I applaud that.)
Most of us, we’re shooting for five glorious days of lushly paying assignments. Twenty-one days a month for eight months. That’s where the deep fun is, where you justify your existence on the planet, and get to prove all the naysayers wrong. Where you get to feel you’re running your own life. And if you hit an arid patch (and you will, no matter who you are) you can still make your car payments.
“But wait,” someone says, “I can’t possibly live on just two or three days of assignments each week. That’s not enough money at all.”
Then you need to charge more. Period. Sorry, work it out.
(And it doesn’t matter whether you work by the hour, the project, the kilogram, or the annoyance factor.)
“But my clients won’t pay more.”
Then you need different clients. Clients with more money. Clients who live and die on what you do. You cannot be a nuisance expense, an easily replaceable cog.
Or maybe you need to move up the value chain. Some types of work are worth only so much, no matter who’s paying. Solve more difficult problems, take on bigger tasks, scarier assignments.
I’m being harsh. But there’s no way around this. I’ve had to bite this sour apple several times myself.
Three days (or two) should pay your bills.
Oh, and the other days?
Spend them talking to new people and getting better at what you do.
Then you’ll be booked more. And can charge even more. And even work less if you want to.