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How To Break The Freelance ‘Feast or Famine’ Cycle

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Let me just state right up front that “The Shoemaker’s Children Have No Shoes” might as well have been my tagline for most of my career. If you don’t know the story behind the expression…

A shoemaker is really great at what he does, but he’s so busy making shoes for other people that he doesn’t have time to make any for his kids, so they gotta go barefoot… poor little dirt nuggets! 😢

Too busy helping other people create their client-attracting brands, I rarely put much effort into creating my own–which led to living in a perpetual state of feast or famine.

Why do so many of us work IN our business rather than ON it? Why do we do this to ourselves? What is it costing us?

Those of us with small businesses providing a service use this as the most tired-old, I-can’t-even-anymore excuse:  “I know I need to ____, but I’m too busy with clients!” 🙄

If you think you’re the only one? Ha! Not even close.

It’s common to see…

  • Web designers with a “coming soon” message on their homepage… for the last three years
  • Developers with broke-ass websites
  • Marketers without a marketing game
  • Social media specialists who don’t have very many followers
  • Brand strategists with no brand strategy

I could be here all day, you get the point. But what I really want to address is…

Why business owners don’t work ON their businesses

Did you know that most small business owners spend on average less than 2 hours a week on marketing?

If you’re spending all your time and energy serving clients but you’re not giving any attention to your own business, how are you supposed to generate a steady pipeline of leads so you can get out of “feast or famine” mode?

Or build the kind of brand awareness and trust that will allow you to charge more, be more selective in your offerings, and attract better clients?

I’ve done a little reading up about the psychology behind all of this and I find it fascinating, but it seems there’s no clear answer for why we do this to ourselves. Or maybe it’s just different for each of us.

The reasons could be…

Economic Factors

With only so much time in the day, if money is an issue (as it is for most of us), we must spend as many of those hours as we can billing clients. We simply can’t carve out the time because we can’t afford to.

Emotional Turmoil

We get stuck in our own heads and it’s hard for us to make decisions and take action. It’s much easier to do the work we’re great at for others because we’re not as emotionally invested in the outcome.

For creative professionals in particular, if sitting down to a blank page or a drawing board to work on your own stuff feels like an existential crisis (“Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I get there? What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not good enough? What’s it all for? What’s the meaning of life anyway?”) then there’s probably some emotional stuff standing in your way of doing what you know needs doing.

Market Demand

If your pipeline is always full, if you’re too busy and don’t need any more business coming to you … then for you it seems as though nothing’s broken, so there’s no sense fixing it.

(I considered making the subtitle “shortsightedness.” And I’m not judging you if that stings, that’s the lesson I learned in my own business.)

The Desire to Disconnect

We’re busy doing that thing we do all day and the last thing we want to do is do it some more in our free time. Or, maybe you just don’t enjoy the work you do to pay the bills?

Perfectionism and Insecurity

We know that when we become our own client, we need to do our very best work: this is how we’re going to show the world the result of our very best efforts. Problem is, “doing your best” is a hell of a lot of pressure. Avoiding all that and binging Netflix just feels nicer.


Most things that go cockeyed for small business owners have at their root some version of fear.

Maybe you’re just not ready to put yourself out there in a big way, maybe you aren’t prepared for what would really happen to you if money weren’t an issue in your life anymore, or maybe you’re afraid of feeling stupid, being judged, of people criticizing you.

Maybe you’re afraid if you were to apply your superpowers to your own business, you would become successful. Are you genuinely ready for that?

A Flaw in Your Business Model

The way you’ve created your service offerings and priced yourself will not allow you to work on your business, the things that lead to growth and profit like: creating a steady pipeline of leads through marketing, building passive income offerings, or elevating your brand so you can charge more.

You didn’t build in any time to work on your own business when you created your pricing structure and systems.

(In other words, it’s not about doing all this in your spare time when you should be living your life-life, but creating offerings and pricing that allows you to take care of your business during business hours.)

A Feeling of Unworthiness

We just flat-out feel more comfortable taking care of others because we don’t think we have any right to indulge in self-care — that’s for other people, better people, more-together people.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

If you’re always working in your business but never on your business, it’s always going to feel like you’re working in quicksand…paying the bills but you never quite reaching where you really want to be.

What not putting your business first is costing you…

It’s impossible to focus exclusively on doing the work you really love that makes you that money-money

What if you could just focus on the things you’re really great at, the things you LOVE doing, the things that people love paying you well for?

If you can’t right now because you don’t have enough demand for those particular things, and you “have to do all that other crappy stuff” to pay the bills, that’s happening to you because you aren’t minding your own business.

I know, “But… but!…”

But for real. You’ve done what you needed to do in the short-term, truuuuust me I get it, SO get it… but you’re not building your vision-board version of your dream business, are you. (That’s not a question.)

If you don’t have the skills to do the work you really want to be doing, and never seem to find the time to hone them, same same.

You’ll find it incredibly challenging to raise your prices

For those of us providing a service, we assume all it takes to raise our prices is to have high demand, but that’s not always the case.

It may also require establishing yourself as an authority. (How much time are you spending on the speaking circuit? Writing books demonstrating your expertise? Blogging epic content?)

It may also require that you up-level your brand because good design and messaging have the power to elevate your value. If you’re treating your brand as an afterthought, it’s going to be very hard for you to change how people perceive you.

What could you make happen if you put your own business first for once?

I bet it would be great.

What excuses are you making? What are you waiting for?

Breaking The Feast or Famine Cycle

It really all comes down to making a mindset shift. Do you want to be in the same feast-or-famine cycle a year from now? Five? Ten?

We tend to think about short-term survival instead of building the future business of our dreams–which requires taking regular time to do the following:

  • Create a marketing system you can take consistent action on
  • Create passive income streams so you have leverage over your time (and can say “no” to the things that aren’t serving you)
  • Build your reputation as a go-to expert and get clients coming to you on autopilot
  • Build your brand so you can charge premium rates

How many of these things are you making time for?  What’s your excuse?

I want to leave you with a little paradigm shift: When you make your to-do list and attend to your urgent client work first, the important work (see bulleted list above) will never get done.

Flip it. Do the important things first, and then the urgent things. Trust that you’re going to get the urgent things done because, well, they’re urgent.  

Invest a bit of time IN your business each day — brick by brick — and you’ll not only break the feast-or-famine cycle, you’ll transform your business and be able to run it on your own terms.

PS – If this post resonated with you, I recommend checking out The Client Attraction Mindset and working through the exercises, these are the big mindset paradigm shifts that helped me break out of feast-or-famine mode and build my freedom business.

Freelance feast or famine cycle