Freelance Overload: How To Deal With Too Much Work

handling-too-much-workAs freelancers we often face the dilemma of “feast and famine,” alternating between having too little work and too much. Here at Freelance Folder we’ve even written articles on how to avoid the cycle as well as help with avoiding the famine completely, but there will also be times when you are overwhelmed with work and more projects just keep falling into your lap.

Having too much work is a better problem to have than too little, but it is still a problem many freelancers face. With too much work, you risk getting burned out while working very long hours and not sleeping enough. You may start missing deadlines or be less accessible than some of your clients would like or need you to be.

So what do you do when your schedule is full to the brim, but clients keep calling and requesting new projects, updates or proposals? There are some simple steps you can take when you inevitably find yourself in this position.

Know When to Say “No”

As a freelance worker, it is sometimes difficult to tell a client that you are unavailable for their project. There is always a bit of doubt about whether you can get a new project when you need it, so there is a strong temptation to take every project that comes your way. Resist that urge. When your work schedule is already full and the phone keeps ringing, carefully evaluate new jobs and make informed decisions to accept them or pass on them.

With some of your larger clients, it may be worth it to say “yes” just to keep your client happy and coming back to you for more. With a brand new client that you are looking forward to working with, you may want to make room in your schedule to make a good impression. However, with new clients that seem like they will need constant meetings, consultations and endless revisions, your busy schedule provides the perfect opportunity to pass up work from an imperfect client.

Warn Your Clients

Freelancers almost always benefit from a little bit of transparency in their day-to-day operations. Telling your client that you are overwhelmed with work at the moment may prompt them to delay their project until you are ready, or they may be a little more courteous with deadlines and constant phone calls.

Sometimes your clients don’t much care about your schedule as long as their projects get done on time. However, even knowing this about a client is valuable information as it helps you prioritize your work.

Tell Everyone Else How Busy You Are

Transparency isn’t only valuable to use with your clients, but also with your friends and loved ones. If you’re married, your spouse is probably already used to the ebb and flow of your work and knows what to do when the busy times strike. Don’t be afraid to tell them how you’re feeling and ask for help. Maybe they’ll help pull your weight when it comes to laundry, doing dishes or running to the grocery store. Just don’t forget to return the favor when the slow times hit!

Prioritize

You’ve already warned your clients that you’re busy. You likely got a range of responses that should help you figure out which projects can be put on the back-burner and which need to be moved to the forefront. Some of your clients won’t mind a delay in the projects, but some will be very upset if their projects are postponed.

You may also have some projects that will take weeks or months to complete, but others that will only take a couple of hours. It sometimes helps keep you motivated if you can start crossing off some of those quick projects and getting them off your plate.

Find Extra Time

Finding extra time in your day may be one of those things that is easier said than done, but if you know which opportunities to look for you may be able to squeeze in some extra work time in your day.

Does the lawn need mowed? How about paying the high schooler next door a few bucks to do it for you. House need cleaned? Check Craigslist for a cleaning service. After all, you’re so flush with cash from your busy times that you can afford to pay someone to handle tedious tasks for you. Just make sure that your hourly wage for working is considerably higher than the hourly wage you’ll be paying someone else to do your chores and you’ll get the benefit of not having to do them and making money instead.

Outsource

If outsourcing all your daily chores and errands doesn’t buy you enough time to get everything done on schedule, it may be time to look into outsourcing some of your work. For more information on this, check one of Freelance Folder’s previous articles.

It’s important to remember that when you send off your work to another freelancer, you make the switch from “service provider” to “client.” You are responsible for prompt payment, clear direction and more. You’ll be running interference between your client and your freelancer, making sure deadlines are met and avoiding the dreaded scope-creep. Weigh out all the pros and cons of each project before deciding which projects to send out.

Be sure to find a freelancer you trust. If the person you’re outsourcing to doesn’t do a good job or misses deadlines, you’ll end up looking bad in your client’s eyes.

Whatever It Takes

When it comes down to it, you have a certain amount of projects and deadlines for each. It is your responsibility to maintain as many client relationships as possible while hitting as many deadlines as possible. Using a clever combination of outsourcing (either work or various errands), prioritization and turning down new work, you should be most of your way into a sane working schedule. If you find that you’re still overwhelmed, it’s time to use the “whatever it takes” strategy. This may mean setting your alarm an hour earlier every day, skipping your favorite TV show or trips to the gym in order to hit those deadlines.

Just like in most careers, freelancing sometimes requires mandatory overtime. Most of us got into freelancing looking for a little freedom in our lives and schedules, so it’s not always easy to accept that we need to work late to complete a project on time. Take comfort in the fact that you’re still making your schedule, and you can still take a long break in the middle of the day if necessary. Just keep your eye on those deadlines.

Stay Sane

The most important part to remember is staying sane throughout the process. Working 18 hours per day for a week straight is a good way to send yourself straight into burnout mode. Find out what it takes to keep yourself sane and indulge yourself. That may mean keeping your daily walks with your dogs, or finding a way to spend time with your spouse.

Now it’s your turn. How do you deal with too much work?

Top image by dylanroscover

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Comments

  1. says

    Great post! I’ve had this “problem” the past few weeks myself. After working 12 hour days and on weekends, I looked forward to the 5 day break I took for thanksgiving. If it continues like this, I may take another week or two after Christmas. I don’t mind working long hours, as long as I get equally lengthy breaks in between. It’s all about balance!

  2. says

    Great suggestions! You are right, it’s tempting to say “yes” to everything, but for your own sanity, sometimes you need to just (gently) say “no” — or “not right now.” Being too busy may prompt the client to reschedule, or that urgent deadline might turn out to be a little more flexible than originally proposed.

  3. says

    Wow this is spot on! Being stretched amongst two companies on regular basis (half a day for one, half a day for other give or take) + trying to push some of my own projects + sometimes my old projects tend to haunt me about upgrades, simply burns me out to the bone… 4-5 hours of sleep, tops, during every day of the week just can’t replenish your reserves.. I’m just soooo bad at organizing, which was actually proved by a simple test I recently took on left-right brain sided :D Turns out I am the right one, which basically means chaos all the time :D But a Virgo (order mostly) in horoscope? All that is also a relationship killer as I get into fights with my gf all the time recently, and I have so little time for friends :(.. Have to write “Learn to organize better.” 100x on the board… :) Thanks for the tips…

  4. says

    Tim,

    I take breaks every 2-3 hours without exception. Unless I’m on the phone I drop what I’m doing immediately and chill for 10 minutes to a half hour. Keep in mind that my work day spans from 5 AM to 8 PM. I wouldn’t advise half hour breaks for someone who works from 9-5, more like 10 minute breaks with a longer lunch in between.

    I’m convinced that most burn out or get lackluster results because their work is forced for hours on end. Hard work alone will get you more hard work, for years on end. This is because force negates.

    Smart work coupled with frequents breaks improves quality of life. You’ll get more done in less time since you’ll be thinking more creatively. The goal is to be efficient, not to ‘outwork’ people.

  5. says

    Loved this post Tim.
    It occurred to me that you could turn being “fully booked” into a marketing coup.

    I’ve often found clients seem to want more from me when they see I’m busy. So I routinely will place on my site a “Fully Booked for 10 Days – Notify me at xxx@xxxx.com if you would like to schedule your project for my first opening.”

    This creates “social proof” that others find my services valuable while taking the load off a bit. It also smooths out the feast to famine cycle.

  6. says

    Good post. For me it’s important to get enough rest and eat well when I have too much work. In the long run I get more done in less time when I’m well rested and well-fed.

  7. says

    I find that when I have too much work on my plate nonstop that I tend to prefer to drink way too much, and cry myself to sleep at night while I roll in all the cash I have stacked up on my bed. ;)

  8. says

    I just happened to glance at the headline while multitasking and saw the headline and it drew me in. OMG – you have nailed it. I have spent the 4 months working around the clock and wonder why I end up not being able to get out of bed for days. Why I keep having to send my clients ORDER UPDATE emails and just waiting for that nasty email or call…….

    THANK you so much for this article. I am posting it on my blog, fan page, you name it – with your regards of course. It brought tears of relief to my eyes.

    Sherri
    Designer Label Gal
    sherri@designerlabelgal.com

  9. says

    Thanks for the comments and tips everyone!

    @Ryan – 5AM to 8PM seems like a crazy long day, but I work 9:30AM – 2AM typically, which is almost identical. Many breaks of varying length is the key to long days!

    @Stan – Great idea! If I had time to update my site it’d be even better. Like you I notice that clients want me more when they see I’m wanted. It’s like being married.

    @Jake – Rough life, buddy… It’s tough being us, huh?

  10. says

    Hi,

    I like the post a lot!
    Few days back i face similar problem. I took too many projects from my clients and then was unable to make all clients happy by meeting the project deadlines.
    So i lost two of my projects :-(

    I advise all freelacers, not to take to much work at a time. It will not only burn you and your mind but will also keep you away from all your daily social activities.

  11. says

    Perfect article, this became my standard situation in the last 3 years because I’m working as consultant for a single important client for the whole working day!
    Sometimes I followed several other projects in the meantime, but after two years I realized that I was not living at all! And I have also lost my girlfriend… :-\
    It’s very important to find a balance between your work and your life, they are BOTH important, but they are not the same thing! ;)

  12. says

    What a fantastic article.
    I am definately one of those people who struggle to say no to work – especially since I have had some really lean times.

    Very nice pointers, thank you for sharing these.

  13. says

    Excellent Article! Past experience has taught me to do whats in front of you. When work is pouring in like a brush fire it’s usually a good idea to take and do all that you can. The universe is fickle, and if you decide it’s time to take a break sometimes you’ll get your wish.

    3 years ago, I was faced with 2 large site projects that required a lot of hand holding, phone calls, and a nearly constant barrage of messaging back and forth. Add to that trying to juggle 5-6 smaller site projects who all seemed just as demanding, but at a fraction of the cost.

    I stopped all my new marketing and just decided I had to do anything necessary to put all the work out. I was already pretty burnt out and figured I would take a couple of months off when I finished…to escape and recharge. Well, 6 months later I grudgingly turned over the last of the small projects and disconnected the phone. Physically I was not in good shape but the work got done. The price that we are sometimes willing to pay for independence is great. Meanwhile all of my “Employed” friends had worked regular hours and had weekends off.

    Still, the idea of having to go someplace in the mornings to work (away from home) is not something I ever want to do again.

    james

  14. says

    Luckily I’ve also had this problem recently. Aside from improved discipline / efficiency, I’ve been checking out the jobs more carefully before saying yes, and rejecting things that I know will cause me more stress than they’re worth, or raising my price so that it’s worth my while or the client goes elsewhere.

    I’d love to be able to outsource, but I haven’t found anyone I’d trust with my ‘brand’ who’d work for much less than I’d be getting paid – and I’d still have to spend time checking what they’ve produced. I’m a proofreader, and would love to find a cheap, competent firm in India, the Philippines and so on, but so far I haven’t even found a well written website.

  15. says

    I’m in the middle of a busy period as well. In addition to regular breaks during my work day (which runs roughly 8-8), the best lesson I’ve learned is to take it easy during the downtimes. When things are slow, I shorten my schedule – 4-6 hours a day – and force myself to take time away from my desk. This helps the freedom and flexibility of freelancing seem much sweeter and the crazy times seem less insane.

  16. says

    You certainly hit this one on the head. There are days when I can write upwards of 30 articles. Then there are other days when I can only put out 4 or 5 articles because of the overwhelm, and because I have other things to do. I usually make all my deadlines, but there are times, like during the holidays, when I have to tell clients that I’m going to need an extra day to get things done.

    Luckily, no one has ever griped when I’ve had to tell them about a possible delay, and that’s a great thing.

  17. says

    Said no to three jobs that I knew would make me unhappy and gave them a list of competitors.

    I got into this so that I didn’t have a boss, and one of the main problems with a boss is being put into unpleasant / unacceptable situations with no way to say no.

    I like working hard, but not on jobs that make me hate having chosen this way of life, and there are enough good clients out there who appreciate a fully motivated me.

  18. says

    Great Article.

    I’m currently away for a month to get married (that’s like a Decade in “designer-years”!), and leading up to this trip was crazy. 14 hour days for a month does not a happy, camper make. But the key was to get down to the nitty-gritty of what keeps you ticking. Gym: Once a week minimum. Day off: Once a week minimum. Sleep: 5.5 hour minimum. Figure out what you can get by on, and do “Whatever it takes”.

    Also, I FULLY endorse outsourcing. I found my most recent contract programmer through craigslist of all places, and so far it has saved me NUMEROUS headaches and given me the chance to take one WAY more interesting work. I agree that it’s hard to trust someone who’s working on something that will have YOUR name on it, but it’s worth the search!

    Good luck fellow freelancers,
    may the schwartz be with you.

    (…. i need a nap.)

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