How To Avoid Monumental Screw Ups When Working On Projects

Screwing Up A Client's ProjectNo matter whether you’re just getting started in the freelance world or you’ve got years of experience under your belt, it’ll happen sooner or later: you will screw up!

Something will go terribly wrong with a particular project, you will forget to back-up a database, you’ll accidentally delete files from a server or you’ll leave some lorem ipsum on a client’s website for a whole day exposing your major screw up to the world.

They say you learn from your mistakes, and I agree, but how do you deal with them when they happen? And most importantly, how can you avoid making those mistakes again? Here are 4 things you might want to keep in mind to deal with huge screw ups:

1. No Need To Panic

Don’t stress, it happens to the best of us! The last thing you want is to panic, you want to be able to think clearly. The good thing is you can avoid, or at least fix, even monumental screw ups. Of course it can be scary and you might panic a little when you realize you accidentally deleted some very important files from your client’s server, but please don’t panic and call your client in the middle of the night, especially if you’re pulling an all-nighter and are sleep-deprived.

2. Cut Yourself Some Slack

I know you want to make more money and you want to take that new client, but when was the last time you had a good night’s sleep? Work is still going to be there tomorrow! Best way to avoid screwing up is to be alert when you work. All of the times I’ve messed up were either because I wasn’t feeling very good or was very tired. I’m sure your client would prefer if it takes an extra day to finish the project than an extra week for you to fix up the mess you made because you were tired and not focused.

3. Develop Good Work Habits

Always save a back-up copy of your work on another hard-drive after every session. That’s a no-brainer for me. Chances are if I accidentally delete a file, I’ll have a copy somewhere to save the day. That definitely saved me on many occasions. By developing good work habits you can minimize the risk of screwing up, and when you do screw up it won’t be nearly as bad.

4. Ask Your Client For Help

There’s no reason to deny the fact that you screwed up if you actually did. It happens, nobody will die as a result. You’re a web-designer, writer, photographer, developer, etc… not a neurosurgeon! If you can’t fix things right away and you have to tell your client, the first thing you need to do is apologize, stay confident that you can fix things, then simply ask for help — whether it’s actual assistance or just a time extension, having the client on your side is a plus. Your clients are human too you know!

Your Turn To Talk

Did you ever screw up a project? Do you think it’ll never happen to you? If you did screw up a project, what did you do to fix it up? We’d love to hear your stories, tips and tricks! Hey, we all screw up sooner or later, maybe a fellow freelancer is in trouble right now and is reading this post. Why not help him/her out a little? :)

Image in this post by veganstraightedge


  1. says

    One of the best solutions to avoiding screwups is having a clear system and process for projects. If you know exactly what happens next and what’s coming, you can move through the steps, completing each one perfectly while progressing towards the goal.

    Checklists are your friend, too. Create one at the start of a project, and include all those little details like, “remove Lorem Simpum stuff”. Anything that is part of the process. Check off as you go, and do one final spotcheck at the end before handing it over.

    Some of the worst service I’ve ever seen comes from people who are scattered, who have no step-by-step system, who handle everything as it comes, who work way too late at night and who just scramble.

    Plus, they’re always late on deliver, too. Not good, that.

  2. Carsten Nielsen says

    Good points! In addition to backing up, I’d highly recommend using a good version control system such as Git. There is a minor learning curve involved, but it will save your ass time and time again. I store all of my projects and design comps on GitHub, it has been a great workflow for me. For big static files, such as photographs, I store those on Amazon S3 using Transmit, it’s very cheap and once uploaded the files will be there forever. Anyways, just some tips that I’ve learned through hardcore FAIL.

  3. says

    This happened to me recently. I screwed up! Somehow, I hadn’t listened and I completely misunderstood what my client wanted. To make things short, I thought we had agreed on x number of articles; in fact, it was y.

    I apologized to my client, owned up to my error and got to work to correct it. That is, I agreed to deliver more articles than I had included in computing my fees. I suffered some financial loss, but it wasn’t a big deal. I know that the long-term value of a good client far outweighs the short-term loss. Fortunately, my client did not lose faith in me.

    The best way to deal with our screw ups is to admit it and come up with solutions. And whatever you do, do not blame anybody else other than yourself. The client is not interested in excuses. He/she is interested in solutions.

  4. says

    Nice Article!
    It never happened to me.. But I am & will try to avoid it as much as possible.

    And now you have given the list to follow so it will also be useful.

  5. says

    I find that owning up to a problem, but presenting it along with a solution that benefits the client, works pretty well.

    There’s always the chance that the client will see you as a screw-up from that point on, but in general I think it paints you as someone who is unaccustomed to making mistakes, but if one occurs, you also know how to handle it.

  6. says

    Good post, but it should probably be called “What to do after you screw up,” rather than how to avoid it. My screw-up was getting a source’s name completely wrong, so now that it is something I ALWAYS double-check before sending an article to an editor. And if the spelling of the name or company name is a bit unusual, I include a note so that it doesn’t get “fixed” by a well-meaning copyeditor.

  7. says

    Excellent advice. I agree with James Chartrand: in addition to following the advice in the post, it’s very wise to have systems in place. The less you have to figure out on the fly — especially in a mess-up emergency — the more likely things are to go right.

  8. says

    Great post Jon!

    All of your advice is right on target.

    The best case scenario is, of course, to avoid screwups entirely. However, once you’ve screwed up I think that honesty is the best policy.

  9. Jason says

    I have had 1 major screw ups and this was near the start of freelancing.

    Database was too big to export via phpMyAdmin. No SSH access.. I thought I would wing it.

    I needed to change the format of currency, my client told me there was 1 currency type in the database. I ran my ‘change all’ query. About 15 minutes later the client called back and said he had misunderstood the question. There were 6 currencies in the database… he thought I asked how many currency types needed to be changed…

    Instead of converting dollars into pounds. I had changed all currency types to pounds and multiplied the currency value by the exchange rate. Basically corrupted the whole database…

    I’m never doing that again

  10. says

    James is right — being organized, using checklists and having a process helps stave off screw ups. This doesn’t mean that if a person isn’t an organized freak like I am, you have no chance as a freelancer. It’ll be harder because it’s not something that comes naturally.

    If you do screw up — and hey, we’re humans! — owe up to it and fix it. One time I submitted a press release for a client and it ended up getting the next higher rate instead of the standard rate. What happened is that the service changed their process on me (the service is sneaky about how it adds on — its interface also doesn’t help). So I contacted the service and fixed the problem and received the standard rate.

  11. says

    Great advice, sometimes it’s just impossible to avoid messing up – I’ve always found that it’s how you deal with it after it’s happened that makes the biggest difference in the severity of the outcome!

  12. says

    Hi! You could add to that list “5. Leave Room For Contingency Time!”.

    Since you never know when something is going to go wrong the best practice is to quote a bigger time than what you actually think you need for your clients. The worst thing that could happen them is you delivering the work ahead of time!


  13. says

    Wowee this is good advice. Nobody likes suppliers that try to ignore their mistakes, even worse, cover them up. This totally destroys trust doesn’t it!

    We shouldn’t ignore the personality of the individual freelancer. Some people are pre-disposed to believe mistakes are not their fault. I don’t mean say that to patronize – but it’s a fact. Admitting failure is really, really tough for some people. I have two friends that believe that the world is against them (both freelancers) and it’s a challenge to coach them to admit that the responsibility for failure is their own.

    If this is a character trait you possess (well, psychotherapists would call this a character disorder) then you need to work really hard at minimizing it’s effect (psychotherapy is one possibility, but seeing a quack can seem quite drastic), or seriously consider whether freelancing is a sustainable venture.

    As you say Laura, at some point, we all screw up!

  14. says

    This is why everyone should back up. I know it is a lot easier said then done, but with some basic software most of us (probably not data base professionals or developers – sorry) can back up with only a modest amount of space. I don’t have words to tell you how many times a half a TB has saved me strife.

  15. says

    I used to have a real problem with screw ups. I wanted to do everything perfect! Finally, I have realized that’s not possible. Number 3: Develop Good Work Habits, is so important and can really help you from making a lot of mistakes. I have all of my files, documents, passwords and usernames stored and organized on my webtop with GoEverywhere. Check it out you might find it helpful too!

  16. says

    Great list. I think one of the best ways to avoid making huge mistakes is to not worry about making small ones. One of the best ways to learn is from the mistakes that you make.

  17. says

    Great post and comments.

    I’ve been both supplier as a consultant and now client as a business owner. The fact is mistakes will happen and are, unfortunately, the only and best way to learn.

    Agree with all of the comments about planning, and having the right systems in place. It’s easy to say at the beginning of a project that there are no risks to failure but there always are. List out your risks and dependencies at the outset, sit down with your client and explain these and how you’re going to mitigate against them.

    Of course there will be things that can happen completely unexpectedly and at the point you do need to kick into Jon’s plan. Take a step back, calculate the impact, fess up to your manager, take some time to put a clear plan in place to sort the problem. At that point raise the issue and your plan to resolve with the client.

    Any reasonable client will appreciate your honesty and your commitment to fix the problem, rather than finding cracks appearing 2 months after go live!


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