Build It and the Work Will Come

What you do while waiting for work creates a sustainable business — a sturdy container the work can flow into

Waiting for freelance contracts or client work to come in sucks. Wondering when — if — you will get any work, much less the quantity and quality of work you actually need to keep your business afloat and support yourself can induce major-league anxiety. That mental and physical exhaustion is a true energy suck that doesn’t help either. In fact, it’s often a direct ticket to a downward spiral that can leave you worse off.

What do you do instead? Work on building a sturdy container for your business — a sustainable structure the work can flow into. Here are the elements you can work on instead of waiting and worrying. Build this solid place for keeping and nurturing the work that comes your way and the relationships that bring it to you.


Strategy and planning Devote a portion of each day or each week to planning the business you want through expansive techniques like brainstorming, possibility thinking, and idealizing. Follow that with focus and strategizing. How will you bring these things into being? Finally, evaluate what is and isn’t working, what to keep, what to tweak, and what to change.

An ideal schedule Creating an ideal schedule for yourself is a critical piece of building a reliable container for your freelance and solo pro work, and ideal begins with realistic. Realistic means it fits around any other constraints in your life (be they positive, negative, or neutral; imposed or chosen) and provides you with the income you desire while tending to the larger sustainability pieces.

  • A good first place to start with a self-employment schedule is to consider that you’ll only be working 20 hours a week, 20 “billable hours,” at the work itself.

  • The rest of your workday is taking care of all the things this article covers.

  • Make sure to account for time off for sick days, personal days, holidays, and vacation days — you are building a real business after all. Then include some when I don’t feel like working days — you deserve the extra perks of self-employment after all.

  • Here’s some math for you: Six weeks off gives you 46 weeks a year of working 20 paid hours or 920 billable hours per year.

  • Consider your other time constraints (dog walking, kids to and from school, morning run, whatever), most productive hours of the day, and preferred working time, and start fitting these hours into your golden calendar.

An ideal rate Entwined with the creation of an ideal schedule is your ideal rate or range of rates (if, like me, you offer a range of services to a range of clients and/or just like reasonable flexibility).

  • Knowing your ideal rate up front can help you build a sustainable freelance business, one that can be easily maintained over time to comfortably provide you the living you need, working as you wish, while practicing your craft and serving your customers. It gives you the time off you deserve and the money you need to account for the risks of self-employment and the benefits package you’re not getting at a job.

  • If you want to make the U.S. median household income of about $67,000 per year, that’s $72.83 per billable hour based on an annual workload of 920 hours I suggested above. But — big but — if you consider a job that comes with insurance, education reimbursement, and other benefits, use a number closer to $91,000 per year, which requires an hourly rate of $98.91/hour.

  • These numbers are only suggestions — giving you an idea of the rough equations you should be working with when thinking of an ideal and sustainable freelance business. Adjust the numbers for your needs and geographic region.

Systems When the workload is light, work on creating structures and systems for how you work best and for your business to function optimally. These will be tweaked as you go but start with the habit of constructing them and using them. You even need the meta habit of systematizing your systems work. Which checklists do you need for repeat situations? Where will you collect your systems info? How often will you evaluate the effectiveness of your systems? Are your systems supporting you or just another drain?

Rules of thumb Similar to systems, but smaller scale and often just as important to productivity and sanity are the rules of thumb you create and collect for yourself. What might these be for you?

  • If unexpected interruptions derail me, then I will…

  • As soon as I realize I will miss a client deadline, I will…

  • If a customer complains about something, I will…

  • When I’m too tired to do good billable work, I will instead do…

Admin and accounting Set up and refine your systems for staying on top of administrative and accounting tasks — correspondence, billing, collecting (here’s how to get paid always and on time), taxes.

  • Having these systems set up as early and as completely as possible is useful for the day you need to hire someone part-time or full-time to handle them for you.

  • Understanding your finances, the basics of bookkeeping, and the ins and outs of your accounting software are essential for any savvy businessperson even if you offload these responsibilities as soon as you can afford to. Setting up these systems yourself can go a long way in your financial education.

Relationships Cultivate your relationships in the way you approach every human contact that is part of your business.

  • Devote a portion of each workday to outreach and nurturing your connections from here on out. I’ve found that 30 minutes a day is about right if I have a full or almost full slate. If there’s nothing, make it four hours a day. If you have part-time work but need full-time, make it two hours a day.

  • If you need work, schedule outreach for your most productive time of day. If you’re doing the maintenance/business development 30 minutes a day, schedule it for your least productive.

  • Finally, if you’re desperate for work, take this 30-day outreach challenge that should kickstart anyone’s workflow.

Marketing How will you promote yourself, your business, and your products and services? Apply some strategy and planning time to discover the marketing systems that work best for you. Here are routes that have worked well for me and my clients:

Free Free is not a business model, but there are select instances, strategically applied, when working for free can mean real business development. If you don’t have work, it’s something to consider…

One I’ve heard of recently that I buy into is Coach 100: “If you want to have a full coaching practice, your best strategy is to go out and coach 100 people as fast as you can.” This brilliant idea of coaching pioneer Thomas Leonard has you coaching for free until your clients recognize your value (and begin paying you) and/or provide testimonials and refer others. In a short amount of time, you gain real skill, you gain the knowledge of what clients you can best serve and what they respond to, and you build a practice without marketing.

Self-care Finally, a fundamental component of the container you’re building should be self-care, because it’s not easy being self-employed. Your business rises and falls on who you are and the quality you’re capable of delivering.

  • Self-care is being a loving and conscientious guardian of your personal needs. It’s tending to the whole gamut of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social needs in a way that will keep your fresh, inspired, recharged — at your best.

  • Proper self-care and the prioritization of self-care creates a solid and necessary foundation and background for everything else you do.

  • There are at least two awesome bidirectional aspects of self-care: (1) Being attentive to your overall welfare is a measure of your own self-worth — and your sense of worthiness increases as you up your self-care efforts. (2) When you treat yourself well, you show others how to treat you. And, when others treat you well, that reinforces the likelihood that you will continue to take care of yourself at a high level.

Build it and the work will come. Build the right beautiful, sustainable container to hold the freelance or solo pro work you want and get ready for the work that will fill it.