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How to stay calm when freelancing jobs are scarce and how not to overwhelm yourself in busy seasons

I'm afraid I have some bad news for whoever thinks freelancing is all about working from home in your pajama and only working when you feel like it. Freelancing is such a demanding undertaking that one can never succeed without self-discipline. One of the most difficult problems in freelancing is its seasonality- some seasons are busier than some others depending on the profession. Take interpreting and translation as an example, November to February are the most difficult months in the year in my personal experience. This is particularly true for Chinese-English language service providers (LSPs), as November and December are the end of a year and January and February are when the Chinese New Year is celebrated. Not many conferences are held and not many translation jobs are available.

Dry seasons come hand-in-hand with self doubt, anxiety, shaken confidence and even panic attacks. When we have fewer jobs to do, we have a lot of time for ourselves and this is not always a good thing. We start pondering- a lot. We may worry about how our income will suffer, what we did wrong even if we did everything right, or even, if we have chosen the right career. I have done all these. Despite having two Master's degrees, at one point I started to wonder if they are enough and whether I should do a PhD to boost my employability. I was worried if I was being over my head and not earning enough to support my family. I was panicking at the beginning of my freelance career because I was terrified at the thought of not being able to pay my rent. These episodes of worrying came and went depending on the amount of work I could get. When I was busier, these feelings were nowhere to be found. The second I found myself having no job to do, they came knocking on the door.

This mindset has far-reaching implications, not only in dry seasons, but also in busy ones. Having experienced the emotional roller coaster during less busy times, you grow hungry for jobs and plunge into a vicious cycle of 'the more the merrier'. You find yourself not being able to move away from your desk. You lose the concept of weekends and week days. You work during the night and juggle through many jobs at once. You are on the brink of burning yourself out, thinking that dry seasons are going to come again and that you need to make as much money as you can to prepare for 'professional hibernation'. I am guilty of having done all these too. I still do it from time to time. Not only is this habit unhealthy, it also jeopardises your professional development. As translators, you need your cognitive ability and logical thinking in full swing to be able to do a good job. If you overwhelm yourself, your translation quality will suffer and chances are you will find your clients returning your translation and complaining about what you did wrong. When you overwork, you find yourself distanced from your family, friends and the society as a whole. This takes a toll on your mental well-being and your relationships with your loved ones.

As I have said earlier, I am as much guilty as everyone else of having done all that. I am by no means trying to TELL you what to do. I am simply sharing some of my tips in the hope that they will be helpful to you as well. When you are not so busy, it is a wonderful time to recharge yourself mentally, physically as well as professionally. I realised that instead of worrying, I might as well do something useful. Remember that you are not alone and that you will be busy soon enough. Oftentimes, when I go through a bleak month, my colleagues would tell me they too have little to do. If you can afford a trip, even to a nearby village or scenic spot, this is a good time to go. If travelling is not your cup of tea, try exercising or anything else that you enjoy doing. This is also a perfect time for you to develop professionally. Freelancing requires a series of skills. Take some time to think about what skills are important to you and do a course. As an interpreter, building a wide knowledge base and large vocabulary are paramount to my profession. Whenever I wake up to an empty inbox, I pick a book and start reading. I read in both Chinese and English and think about how to translate whatever I come across. I then build a corpus of interesting phrases that I can use in interpreting and translation. I dust my Italian textbook and turn a few pages. Anyway, I digress. The point is, when you're less busy, you must remember that work will come and that it's just the lull before the storm. Make full use of this time to relax or improve yourself. Keep yourself busy so that you don't have too much time alone with your thoughts. This is also the best time to market yourself and generate more leads. Build or update your website, polish your CV... The list goes on as there is so much to do.

Now that all the jobs are back and your mailbox is full, you have some thinking to do. Think about how much work you are able to take on and do well. For instance, understanding how many words you can translate per day is extremely important if you're a translator. Be honest with yourself and only accept jobs that you're sure you can do well. Price your services reasonably so you don't feel like underselling your services. Good clients respect you more when you do the jobs you take on the best way you can and turn down some others. If you put a lot on your plate, you put yourself under tremendous stress and start to rush from job to job. Your clients will eventually turn away from you if the quality of your services drops, unless you're the only person in the world who can do what you do. If you keep your clients happy, they will come back to you with more and better jobs. Allow yourself adequate time to rest and spend time with your family and friends. Keep yourself in a good mood and recognise your limits. Success is about sustainability rather than overnight riches.

I hope my tips can help you go a long way. If you have any more tips you'd like to share, please leave a comment. If not, stay happy, stay healthy, know your limits and keep learning.

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