Purposeful porpoising: Working smart when you gotta work hard


A few weeks ago I repeated a tired lament to a longtime colleague: I am so busy providing the same services to the same group of clients in the same sector that it's tough to position myself to offer new services to new clients in new sectors.

"You're porpoising," she said. "You gotta stop doing that."

I'd never heard of porpoising. My colleague explained: "You disappear underwater for weeks on end working hard for your clients, and then when you come up for air, you realize you haven't generated any leads, and there's no work."

Well no, I told her. That's not what's happening with me. Usually I come up for air, take a deep breath, then dive right into the next round of projects. That's why this blog is Freelance Feast, not Freelance Feast and Famine.

But I got to thinking about it, and I realized she is right. In a way.

A steady current

Providing the same services to the same clients in the same sector is a risky way to run a business. It's always necessary to draw new clients into the constant-steady-occasional current. As new clients occupy a larger proportion of your portfolio, potential drop-off of old clients is less threatening. And when you welcome new clients in new markets you are opening the door to more interesting work and potentially higher earnings.

And yet I porpoise. I stay underwater so long that I don't take enough time to scan the waterscape for something new. I know why I do this. It's very simple.

When porpoising has a purpose

I am a single parent with a lot of responsibilities. I need to keep the money coming in while caring well for two wonderful daughters, one of whom has special needs. Lately, each time I resolve to devote more time to skill-building, blogging, and marketing to new types of clients, new waves of parenting busyness capsize the plan.

When the waters calm, it's time to dive back underwater again. Because no matter what life throws at my family, after I tend to their needs, I make sure I do great work for my clients and get it in on time.

So yes. Sometimes I am a porpoise. But I am a porpoise with a purpose.

"Start breathing immediately"

After an enormous September storm on the homefront that swamped my workweeks, I posted on Facebook, "A lot of things are sorting themselves out, but I'm overwhelmed with everything I need to do in the next six weeks before I can breathe."

My wise friend Chris was quick to comment: "No, no, no. Start breathing immediately."

After another storm a couple of weeks later, she asked me what I needed. A walk? Some chili? Too busy for a walk, I asked for the chili. It made me feel so much better, and after I ate I enjoyed a great burst of productivity.

This porpoise needs to breathe a lot more regularly. In two ways.

It's important for freelancers not to become too isolated during busy spells. We need relationships and we need refreshment. When I disappear for an extra long work season, eventually I hit a point of diminishing returns, and I struggle mightily to stay focused. I need to get some fresh air, spend time with friends, set my mind on different tasks or no task at all.

I also need to come up for air more often professionally. I need to take a deep breath, scan the waterscape, and learn the habits of new kinds of fish. I may still need to dive in the same spot a few more times, but once I have the opportunity, I'll be ready to dine in tastier waters.