Freedom is the most cited reason that employees take the leap and become freelancers. I know that was true for me. One of my happier memories is of my last day as an employee when I stepped out of the building, got in the car, and drove away for the final time. This sense of liberation quickly gave way to the uncertainty of how I was going to make freelancing work. How was I going to get clients? After a few years, I stopped worrying about getting clients and begin to worry about keeping up. This is a typical transition for freelancers as you establish yourself.

Success leads to more and more work until it is queued up at a faster rate than you can do it. You begin to turn away most leads because you are too busy to take on their work any time soon. Often, you have several clients with ongoing projects that depend upon you to move their business forward. You end up constantly chasing deadlines, grinding out project after project.  You’re moving, but you’re not really going anywhere. You’re on a treadmill.

It’s ironic: the reason you get into freelancing is for the freedom and success as a freelancer leads you away from freedom.

The good news is that there is a way out. Actually, there are lots of ways out. In fact, if you’re in this situation, you probably already know what you need to do. You need to raise your rates. You need to fire some clients. You need to structure your time better. You need to pay yourself less than what you earn. You need to take one day off a week to work on your own projects.

Knowing and doing are two different things though aren’t they?

After all, people know they should eat healthy and exercise, but do they?

The truth is that success and accomplishments are like houses. It’s easy to see them for what they are, but you don’t see the foundation upon which they rest. If you’re constantly churning through projects, that foundation is what you’re missing. It’s how you end up in a situation where you’re trudging along on a treadmill the powers other people’s dreams.

The foundation is clarity.  Clarity about who you are, what you want, and where you’re going.

Remember: you didn’t end up in this situation all at once. It came about through a series of decisions. If you don’t have clarity about your direction, you’ll optimize for money. This is how you end up booked solid and working like a lunatic. With clarity, each decision is taken in respect to your direction. Clarity will give you the backbone to raise your rates or fire a client. It will give you the discipline to maintain a schedule or put money in the bank. Because you are going somewhere.

Lack of clarity on the other hand will have you optimizing for money again. Without having a clear direction to spend any time you free up you will fall back into paid work. New expensive clients will replace your old clients and tie up your hours once more.

The first step to getting off the project treadmill then is to achieve clarity.  There are lots of ways you can do this, but I suggest a particularly effective hack: take a personal retreat.

Schedule 2 days away from your phone and email to think things through. If you can swing it, get out of town. Get away from your normal environment and its distractions.

For this retreat, I suggest you answer four questions:

  1. What makes you happy? In the fullest sense of the word, not in the, “eating a tub of ice cream and marathoning Seinfield,” pleasure seeking sense.
  2. What about what you are currently doing drains your vitality?
  3. What long-term goal could you work towards that would contribute towards your happiness without sucking the life out of you?
  4. What is the number one concrete obstacle preventing you from advancing towards that goal?

Some resources to consider before you go on your retreat:

As a final note, remember: “Action drives out thought” – Richard Koch paraphrasing a former boss. Make time to think.