Many people find the idea of working as a contractor, putting together income from various projects and sources, to sound freeing and flexible—and it can be! But not knowing when your next check will arrive, or whether a new project is around the corner once your current one comes to a close, can also lead to stress. The key to turning a few gigs into a career that works for you is to seek out the stability within the seemingly unpredictable contractor lifestyle.
When Sagan Morrow first started working full-time with various contract work years ago, she managed to get a couple of big projects for clients as a writer, editor and social media manager. “It was great, until the contracts wrapped up. At that point, I realized I had no idea what I was doing!” she says. “I was overwhelmed and terrified at the idea of not having a steady income.”
Panicked, Morrow jumped back into the first 9-to-5 job she could get and continued to pick up a bit of contract work on the side. Years later, she wanted to try working independently again. This time, however, she knew she needed to find stability within the contractor lifestyle to make it work for her. Thanks to the structure she set up for herself the second time around, she was successful. In fact, she was so successful that now she runs a business in Winnipeg, Canada, coaching other freelancers and contract workers on how it’s done.
Start on the right foot
Morrow suggests setting up a few systems for stability before you launch into a full-time contract lifestyle, if possible. First things first: if you’ll be taking on more than one contract or gig at a time, Morrow says, try to set up your first few clients before you quit your 9 to 5. “This will make the whole transition seem much less overwhelming,” she says.
As you get started as a contractor, think about yourself as a business, and create clear strategies for how you’ll run that business. Maybe you’ll frame yourself as a generalist and have multiple contracts going at once, or your goal might be to market yourself to recruiters as a highly specialized resource to lock down for longer-term contracts. “I’m a huge proponent of customized strategies,” Morrow says. “It’s one of the most important things I teach my students.”
Write out a business plan, a detailed plan of action, and goals that are customized for what you want for your business and your career. Drawing yourself a map ahead of time of what comes next means you’re less likely to get stuck like Morrow did when her first projects finished.
Creating stability as a contract worker is possible, even over a long-term career. One of the best ways to create that stability right away is through long-term projects. Morrow suggests seeking out work that recurs monthly, like writing copy for a website or a newsletter. “Even having just one or two long-term contracts will take the pressure off a little,” she says.
Strategies for success
If you’re already in the middle of your career as a contractor and feeling that overwhelming sensation of instability, Morrow suggests taking a couple of deep breaths before figuring out what exactly you’re worried about. “It’s important to understand what exactly makes you feel uncomfortable about the idea of instability so that you can take steps to deal with it before it happens,” she says.
For example, maybe you have a big-picture plan, but your daily tasks are overwhelming. In that case, try creating stability by spending the time to break down your goals into manageable weekly and daily tasks, Morrow says. If you’re feeling like you have a handle on the day-to-day, but the big picture unsettles you, take a few hours to return to that personal business plan and look for ways to give yourself more control. It may be time to learn a new skill, stretch for a different kind of contract, or—if you have the resources—take a few months off to recharge and do some research on new avenues to explore. Diversification can be a really sound strategy, especially in the fast-changing workforce.
Another excellent way to keep perspective is to find a community of others in your professional boat. “It’s really helpful to bounce ideas off one another, to get feedback on your work, and to keep each other accountable, and encourage each other to keep moving forward when it all feels so daunting,” she says.
And, yes, ensuring stability in the future as a contract worker gets easier as you go along, Morrow says. With every successful contract, you strengthen your resume and gain valuable client hiring manager references or referrals that help you connect to your next gig, and the gig after that. Knowing you can tap your growing network of peers and former colleagues when you need it should make contemplating the end of today’s contract a little less stressful.
And a little less stress, for those living in the contractor world, will make all the difference when it comes to professional wellbeing.
Maggie Mertens is a writer in Seattle who covers issues related to gender, work, money and sport. Her writing has appeared in FastCompany.com, Refinery29, TheAtlantic.com, The Seattle Times Jobs and Glamour, among others. She tweets @maggiejmertens.
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