Don’t Burn Out: 11 Tips to Help You Survive and Thrive in the Gig Economy

gig economy
pixdeluxe/Getty Images

With more than 55 million people across the country working as freelancers, the U.S is truly desk-deep into the gig economy.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the phrase “gig economy,” you’ve probably heard of some common gigs.

Uber and TaskRabbit are popular gigs, but the term also encompasses a wide variety of work-from-home jobs.

Side gigs are so popular, even Taylor Swift has one.

Unlike traditional full- or part-time jobs, gig economy jobs are typically short-term or on an as-needed basis.

What’s the Difference Between a Freelance Job and a Side Gig?

To be honest, there’s not a lot of difference between freelance jobs and side gigs.

Probably the biggest difference is many freelance jobs have historically been considered long-term because they often require a specific skill set.

But with so many freelancers flooding the market now, there’s always someone ready to step into a vacancy.

Few freelance jobs are secure anymore. Side gigs have leveled the playing field.

More companies than ever are hiring on-demand workers and the gig economy is really beginning to hit its stride.

In fact, the concept is taking root so deeply this college professor tells her MBA students to skip getting a job and just join the gig economy.

Today’s Gig Workers are Yesterday’s Freelancers

A lot has changed since I first hung out my freelancer-for-hire shingle nearly 20 years ago. Back then, finding clients meant a lot of networking and being in the right place at the right time.

Now mobile apps and online platforms quickly pair companies with workers who have the skills they need to get the job done — no networking required.

What hasn’t changed, though, is what it takes to make it in the gig economy. It requires the same survival skills as freelancing, with a couple added extras.

11 Tips for Surviving — and Thriving — in the Gig Economy

Here’s what you need to know to start making money in the gig economy.

Add these 11 tips to your arsenal to keep the cash flowing.

1. Don’t Isolate Yourself

gig economy

Rawpixel/Getty Images

Working gig jobs is a lot like being a firefighter. It’s a lot of waiting around, followed by a sudden burst of “this has to get done now.”

The adrenaline rush of meeting a deadline, completing a task or getting that paycheck is heady stuff — but it can also be an emotional roller coaster.

You wonder, “Will I get another assignment soon?”

“Do they know I’m available for more work?”

“Will I make enough coin this week?”

“Did they like me?”

Being a part of the gig economy means you’re not always sure there will be work when you need or want it. It goes with the territory and it can be very stressful.

It’s easy to pull up the drawbridge in between gigs to conserve energy. You may want to just flop onto the couch or spend the hours on your favorite hobby while you wait for your next opportunity.

Don’t give in to the temptation.

Connect with other freelancers and independent workers. Network with people in your industry. Form a Gig Squad.

Stay engaged and ready to work. Isolation leads to apathy and, trust me, you don’t want to go there.  

2. Get Professional Tax Advice, Especially When You’re Starting Out

Few things will sink your business faster than finding out you owe hundreds or thousands in back taxes because you didn’t pay estimated taxes throughout the year.

Ask a tax pro what you need to know, plan for and pay — before tax season ends.

By then it will be too late.

3. Treat Yo’self (Like a Business)   

Approach your gig work like you own a small business — because you do!

  • Develop an elevator pitch, a 60-second (or less) explanation of your skills to repeat when people ask what you do

Approach your gig work professionally every single day. No one has to know that you actually work in Perry the Platypus pajama pants every day.

4. Make a Schedule and Stick To It

gig economy

gpointstudio/Getty Images

Nothing sucks the joy out of a gig worker more than feeling like you work around the clock.

Accommodating client schedules and even different time zones is an inherent part of the gig economy, but that doesn’t mean you have to be on call 24/7.

The hours you set will depend on the nature of your work. They may even vary by day or week.

Chances are, you’ll probably also work more than the standard eight-hour workday.

Whatever schedule you set, make sure to set at least a rough start and end time each day. Otherwise you’ll end up just working until you fall asleep or ragequit your assignment in a hangry flame-out.

Ask me how I know.

5. Make Your Work Time Off-Limits To Friends

One of the biggest challenges I consistently encountered as an independent worker is impressing upon friends and family that I actually work during my work hours.

A common complaint from people who work from home in any capacity (as a freelancer, gig worker or remote employee) is that people they know think it’s OK to just drop by during the workday.

That’s so not cool.

Give yourself permission to let your texts, personal calls and ringing doorbells go unanswered while you’re working.

Don’t let friends push you into popping out for a long lunch or staying on a long social phone call unless you really can spare the time.

Remember, if you’re not working, you’re not getting paid.

6. Limit Work-Related Phone Calls

Try to limit the amount of time you spend on work-related phone calls unless you can bill your client for the calls.

“Sophisticated low-to-no-cost tools have been created that facilitate significantly more knowledge transfer, collocation of resources and time-and-space coordination than a phone call allows,” explains longtime freelancer Jessamyn West.

Whenever possible, try to hammer out the details of a job or assignment in writing. This accomplishes two things.

  • There’s a written record of expectations that both you and the client can refer to during the project.
  • It reduces the need for small talk, chatter and dead air while you or the client search for the right idea, thought or words.

7. Don’t Work For Free

gig economy

MagMos/Getty Images

Let me say that again: Don’t work for free.

This includes:

  • Doing an unpaid project for a potential client “to see if you’re a good fit.”
  • Submitting a bunch of project ideas or pitches “to see if you understand the nature of the work.”
  • Completing a project for free in exchange for “exposure.”
  • Agreeing to collect payment for a project only if it reaches a certain metric (page views, likes, shares, etc).

Stay alert for gig requirements that don’t offer clear and reasonable payment for the work you perform — with no nebulous stipulations.

8. Ask Potential Clients for References

Unless a potential client comes highly recommended from someone you trust, don’t hesitate to ask them for references.

Ask to be put in touch with other freelancers or gig workers they’ve used, then be sure to follow up and contact each reference.

Ask each reference about the nature of the work they did for the client, whether they communicate expectations well and if they pay their invoices on time.

If a potential client can’t or won’t furnish references, you might want to take a pass on the assignment.  

(If you connect with your clients over a platform specifically designed to match clients and workers, you can probably skip this step. They’ll already have a communication system you’ll be expected to use and a process in place in case the client doesn’t pay.)

9. Select Your Jobs Wisely

When you’re offered a gig or assignment, take a critical look at how much you’ll earn for the time you spend doing it.

That might be obvious advice, but it’s easy to go all heart eyes over a gig that pays $100 — only to discover it takes three days to complete.

Assuming a standard eight-hour work day, that’s $4.16 an hour, far below minimum wage in every U.S. state — and not worth it.  

That time could be better spent networking and promoting yourself for gigs that pay a living wage.

10. Choose Your Workspace Well  

If you work from home the majority of the time, you have one thing in common with freelancers and employees who telecommute.

You’re at increased risk of insomnia and work-related stress.

It usually occurs when we don’t get far enough away physically and mentally from our workspace.

Before we know it, our work hours bleed into our personal lives and it feels like we’re on the clock 24/7.

The solution is to set up your workspace in a way that makes it easy to put away at the end of your work day.

Even if it means closing your laptop for the night or shutting the door to your home office, every bit of distance you can put between work and downtime helps.

11. Take a Vacation  

gig economy

AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

Speaking of downtime: Schedule a vacation every once in a while.

I know I keep saying any time you spend not working is time you’re not getting paid. It’s true that I believe in maximizing every work hour to its fullest so you can earn the greatest dollar amount for your effort.

However, in much the same way I encourage you to shut everything down during your off-work hours, I also encourage you to take a vacation if you get the chance.

I don’t mean a half-vacation where you drag your laptop to the hotel and spend a few hours a day working in the lobby.

I’m talking about dedicated time off, where you don’t check your work voicemail, email or messages sent via carrier pigeon.

To make this work, you need to give yourself a paid vacation. Calculate the amount of money you need to cover expenses the days you’re gone, then start saving until you reach that goal.

Once you make bank, you’re free to take some vacation time, knowing you haven’t set yourself up for a money crunch when you get back.

It can be hard to justify a vacation when you work for yourself but it’s an important part of your well-being.

You’re no good to your clients or your family if you’re a burned-out, stressed-out mess who hasn’t had a day off in three years.

Your Turn: What’s your best tip for surviving the gig economy?

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves getting to know freelancers and gig workers so look her up on Twitter @lisah and say hi.