Freelance Life, Recency Bias, and the Truth About How the Universe Works

May 24, 2018
dealing with recency bias as a freelancer

Yes, we’re getting into everything this post title contains, including some of the harder parts of freelance life and why recency bias can make everything worse.

The good stuff about how the universe works is at the bottom but we’ve got to build up to it so no peaking.

Ready for it?

It started with a bad client call this week. I was beyond frustrated with a client who paid me a lot of money and followed what felt like none of my advice from our consulting arrangement.

That’s a big deal to me, because I want to do useful work. (I really believe in what Emerson said about “the purpose of life is to be useful.”)

I want to serve and provide value. When I’m not doing that, for whatever reason, I’m not feeling great — or right, almost from a moral sense of that word.

I don’t want to be a useless line item on anyone’s balance sheet, so I don’t hesitate to tell clients and prospective clients when I think there’s a more cost-effective way of getting something done than to hire me. And when I feel like the value of an engagement has run out, I suggest clients don’t re-up it for ongoing work.

I tried that approach with this client. In the past, I told them they were wasting huge amounts of money and they needed to fire the majority of their contractors — myself included. They didn’t really listen.

This week on our call, I lost my patience as I again told them what they needed to focus on, and they dismissed the advice they paid me to give. I knew I needed to drop them as a client.

But that also meant dropping $1,500 per month from my business revenues.

As a Freelancer, Prioritize Good Clients Over Good Pay

That wasn’t a life-threatening blow to my business by any means. Still, it’s not fun to willingly say, “I won’t be making that money anymore.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of freelancing, though, it’s that no matter how much it hurts in the moment, it’s always better to let go of potential pay than to try to force a poor client fit.

Forcing it is painful for you, it’s not helpful to the client, and it tends to make you look bad in the end regardless of your best intentions. If it’s a poor client fit, you won’t be doing your best work — and you don’t want to willingly put anything less than your best work into client deliverables.

I know this, and I treat it as a rule: it’s one of those DO IT things that I now do almost on feeling; I never think about it too much because I can always find a reason to cling to a bad fit. And that reason is usually “but the money.”

It’s never easy to let go of in the moment… especially, as was the case this week, when the decision is surrounded by a bunch of other stuff that feel like (financial) losses.

One of the Biggest Struggles in Freelancing That No One Tells You About: Recency Bias

I was already feeling a little uneasy about the fact I was looking at two lower-than-average revenue months for May and June (conveniently forgetting I had my best revenue month ever in April — funny how our minds edit that stuff out when we’re feeling down).

There was a lull in my prospect pipeline, with fewer people than usual reaching out to me. I knew that could translate to fewer projects two to three months out (but also didn’t think about the fact that, maybe not. I’ve had months where I haven’t heard from anyone, only to get slammed with requests from my corporate clients that don’t provide steady work but provide a lot of it when they come calling).

And the same day, a different client — a good client — reached out and requested that we slow down from monthly work to quarterly deliverables, which meant another blow to revenues.

It is really, really hard to keep perspective when you work as a freelancer (or even as a solopreneur, or small business owner) because you are so far in it.

It’s hard to pull back and untangle yourself from recency bias, or the belief that whatever is happening now is indicative of how it’s always going to be in the future.

The impact of recency bias is huge because it’s what pulls you into those really high highs and those very depressing low lows. Riding the waves up and down is absolutely exhausting and it will stress you out more than anything else.

I know all this and it’s still almost impossible for me to choose not to ride the wave. And yes, riding it all the way up is just as bad as riding it all the way down.

It’s not the direction you’re traveling that creates the exhaustion and the stress that eventually leads to burnout. It’s the distance — meaning, the extreme lengths you’re going between top-of-the-world and below-down-in-the-dumps.

Those huge crests and troughs are what will kill you, and your energy.

That doesn’t mean never feel bummed about something that didn’t work out or don’t get excited about the good stuff. It just means, manage your expectations — both good and bad.

The Crazy Thoughts You Will Have When You Freelance: A Sampling

Even though I knew better — about letting go of poor-fitting clients, about the ups and downs and cyclical nature of earning a variable income as a freelancer, about the dangers of riding the wave to its extremes — that bad call with the client that wasn’t a great fit for me set me off and pushed me into a tight-wound stress spiral this week.

I rode that wave aaaaaall the way to the bottom. And I’ve been there before. It’s the place where I start thinking things like…

We just moved to a new (more expensive) apartment and here I am willingly kicking paying clients out the door.  I am a massive idiot.

I’m not actually doing what’s good for my business/professional life; I’m just lazy.

I suck, in general.

What if this is the beginning of the end of my ability to make money? Maybe I should go look for a job as a bartender or barista.

Not even Starbucks would hire me. I know, I tried — back in college in the middle of a recession when I had no real-world experience and no connections, so of course it will be the same experience if I tried to get a similar job today.

What if I never get a paying client again?

What if all my current clients fire me?!

What if Eric’s business suddenly collapses too (because mine is gasping its last breaths right now, surely) and we don’t have any money and we run through all our savings and then we have to go live in a hut in the woods and forage for mushrooms to survive?!?!

Literally all of these were thoughts that went through my head while slumped over at the bottom of this most recent down wave. These, and many other, crazy thoughts consumed and overwhelmed me this week.

Because in the moment, recency bias blinded me to what I actually knew to be true about freelance life… and maybe, about life in general. Maybe even a truth about how the universe works as a whole.

How the Universe Works, Every Time

That truth is this:

Losing something you currently possess is a necessary part of the process to getting something greater. 

Good stuff can’t show up for you when your plate is already full. You must make space for new opportunities in your work — and your business, your relationships, your hobbies, your goals, and your life — if you want them to show up for you.

If there is no space, there is no room for growth, change, or improvement. If you always cling to what you already have, you’ll never have the space to get something greater than you already got.

Every single time I get scared about the financial side of my business, and I mean every single time, a new opportunity opens up within a week that either replaces the income I lost or let go of, or provides even more.

And yes, it already happened this week, too.

I had my freak-out; I went through all the crazy thoughts I shared above. And then, the next day: 

  • A client requested we move forward with my most in-depth (and expensive) marketing strategy package.
  • A national organization reached out to me to ask about partnering up
  • A leading publication in the industry I service wants to feature me in their July cover story
  • A well-paying freelance writing client tossed me a new assignment

Those things may not have shown up if there was no space for them. By steadfastly holding that space — which in my freelance life I do through saying “no” a lot and letting go of ill-fitting relationships when they do crop up — these good, better things could come my way.

I have no idea how it works but it does, every time. Letting go of a thing that doesn’t serve you is not a loss.

It frees you up for something better, more profitable, and more energizing.

I’m not going to pretend I know how or why this works. I don’t presume to understand the universe. But I do feel it’s not coincidence.

I don’t know how or why it works, I just know that it does.

What Goes Up Must Come Down (Or Does It?)

Every year since I started freelancing, I’ve made more than the previous year. And every single year I’ve wondered if this is the year I step backward.

There’s no way that’s sustainable, right? No way an upward trajectory can stay that way, constantly without any variation or down periods.

On average, things might be consistently increasing over time. But that doesn’t happen without a few crashes and recoveries along the way.

What goes up must come down.

But maybe that’s not true. It hasn’t happened yet. But even when it does (or if it does), maybe that will finally be the moment I can see beyond the recency bias in my freelance life and actually remember that a drop or what feels like a lack of something isn’t a loss at all.

It’s a space. A necessary space for something greater, something more, something better.

Keep up with the conversation as it unfolds.

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