What to Do When You Have too Much Work

We all strive to be there–we want to have so much work we never really have to advertise or cold call or do much marketing ever again. We want enough clients so that we can pick and choose the best ones with the best projects. But what happens when you actually make it there?

Personally, I have a tendency to overschedule myself–which is normally a good thing because clients usually take longer than they think they will to get the project to me. However, every so often it seems everyone does decide to start their projects on time and I end up working 15 hour days with little sleep.

No one likes working overtime, least of all a freelancer, so what do we do when we have too much work? How do we get our schedules on track?

Plan Your Day

When I have a normal or a slow week, I tend to be more relaxed about my schedule. While I always have my calendar filled with each client I’m going to be working with each day, I don’t normally ever plan an hour-by-hour schedule.

However, when I’ve found that there’s way too much work for one week, I plan my day out in the shower (make use of all the time you’ve got!). I simply decide which projects I’m going to work on first until lunch, and which are going after lunch. I try to get the small, quick projects done first and out of the way, so I can send them off to the client while I start on the larger projects.

I don’t like starting a new site in the middle of each of my two slow work times (before and after lunch), so I’ll make sure to plan a brand new project first thing in the morning, or right after lunch.

Shut Off Everything

You probably don’t realize how much time you spend every day on apps that interrupt your work. These normally include IM clients, Skype, Twitter, Facebook and Apple’s Mail app. I’ve found that I can be a lot more productive by turning off everything (unless I’m waiting for a client call) except my mail.

I don’t like closing my mail app, because I use it way too often and I like to pop in every once in a while to check it. However, I found that by constantly hearing the “ping” noise Apple mail makes, and seeing the red circle icon with “600” new messages, I simply couldn’t get any work done. I favor a clean inbox so I would immediately answer my emails.

I found that you can hide the red circle notification and remove the new mail sound in preferences. I also decided to only check my mail a couple of times a day, and I really only answer them in the evening or right before lunch. While this has slowed my response time to clients, it’s allowed me to get a lot more work done.

Find Good Music

The type of music I’m listening to also seems to affect both my concentration and speed of coding. Even though I prefer to listen to rock, I’ve found that by turning on some bubble gum pop or poppy rap music, I actually code faster and am in a better mood. If I’m stressed out I’ll turn on classical or techno, but these actually tend to calm me down too much–and consequently I work at a much slower pace.

The same music may not work for you, but it’s worth it to try and listen to different genres and figure out how they affect the way you work.

Work Longer

Working longer hours and on the weekend can’t always be avoided, so this may need to be something you think about. It also seems like you can get a lot more work done during the evening, simply because you have less┬ádistractions. Often a project I’m dreading on starting gets finished really quickly when I start it after dinner.

If you do need to work longer hours, try to get up and take a two to three minute break once an hour. While this seems counterproductive, it actually allows your mind to rest and allows you to concentrate better when you get back to work. Plus, sitting for 15 hours straight isn’t exactly healthy, so it’s good to get up and move around, even if just for a bit.

Give It Away

If there’s simply no way you can get all of the work done, you can always outsource it. It’s up to you whether to inform the client that you’re doing this. If it’s a new client, it’s probably best to let them know you’re bringing on some help. If it’s a client you know well and you know they won’t mind as long as the quality’s the same, you can probably skip telling them.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever overscheduled yourself? How did you make it through? What tricks helped you to get work done faster?

Image by Dru Bloomfield – At Home in Scottsdale


  1. says

    I need to shut off everything and just work. I have work for ten men, and I need to find a way to do it, while getting enough sleep, and still being on top of everything. Thanks for the great post!

  2. says

    Great post Amber!

    I tend to over-schedule myself on a weekly basis (between client work, and growing my businesses). I find that the thing that works for me best is music. It’s normally hip-hop/soul, rock, or latin rock that gets me cranking out work at the maximum efficiency. My strategy is to just lock my door and turn the music way up.

  3. says

    There’s something oddly satisfying about overscheduling yourself and burning the midnight oil to achieve what you need to achieve. It stressed me out at the time, but last week when I had a ‘normal’ eg. 9-5 amount of work on, I didn’t know what to do with myself the rest of the time! I think I got so used to working so hard I forgot what normal was like! Next time I have a slower week I’ll learn to enjoy it more :)

  4. says

    Working longer doesn’t necessary give good results. You may get tired to the point you aren’t able to work. The productivity also goes down. Working more doesn’t necessarily mean you get more done.

    Outsourcing or hiring an extra head may be better.

  5. says

    I have a spreadsheet I use as a project management system. Doesn’t matter what I’m doing or how much it may “pay” — everything I need to do goes into this spreadsheet. Then I prioritize it by it’s costs vs. benefits.

    Doing this allows me to turn down new things in favor of what’s already on my plate. There are free services that will do something different, but I find project management is crucial to help manage both slow and busy times.

  6. says

    Shutting everything off is a great idea. I am constantly inundated with IM’s and FB posts if I don’t turn it off.

    I’ve over scheduled myself right now! I run a blog, am writing a book, query letters and run all my social networking. On top of that, I work a stressful, non-writing full time job. I usually go home right after work and keep the TV off. Then, I start diving into writing/blogging/networking. On weekends, I try to go somewhere away from the distractions of home and just write for a few hours or a few pages, whatever comes first.

  7. says

    Came here to say OUTSOURCE. Build relationships with others like you so that you can turn away the overflow or bring on a fellow pro to take on some of the tasks on the project itself. Trust me, they’ll do the same for you. Collaboration is what kills competition.

  8. says

    Hi Amber — where did you find the option to turn off mac mail’s little red notification under preferences? I looked and can’t find it — and I agree, that would be extremely helpful.

  9. says

    Great article!

    I’m having a rare slow week this week so I’ve taken some time to try and improve my own website and also put a few ideas into play to improve my business and get some more leads.

    Having a rare slow week seems really odd to me as these last few weeks I’ve been flat out, and I do feel a little lost. Saying that I think its important to try and take advantage of these situations though if they’re few and far between. Even just finishing up work a few hours early to get some fresh air is a nice change to the normal routine.

  10. says

    just make sure u always give bigger timeframe to accomodate stress, other client’s call and panic situation…take the small project away and keep all ur client’s updated even though its a small update…doing this for past 3 months and still going strong :)

  11. says

    First of all you have to be honest with your clients. Most of my clients feel that they are my only client so what I do when they have a project that needs to be done right now is tell them that I can schedule them for such-and-such date. If they need it quicker than that, my husband is also a designer so I transfer some of my current work to him or I give him the emergency project. He does the same with me.

    By scheduling based on what I know is coming up, I’m able to keep the flow going without overloading my schedule.

    But then there’s the times when a storm hits and knocks out our electricity and I can’t work at all. At that point I’m just at the mercy of the electricity. So I work as much as I need to in order to get each project done and if necessary, I’ll contact my client and let them know what’s happening and push their project back by a day or two. Most of my clients have been with me for so long that they’re okay with me doing this.

    The other thing I make sure of is that when a client signs a contract for a new project, I make sure to let them know that if they take longer than expected on their end, it could throw off their project because I do keep a schedule with my other clients. By being up front with them, they realize that they may end up having their project bumped by someone who was already in my queue. Doing it this way is very tricky but if you’re up front with your clients and they’re in agreement, it should work out just fine. I don’t like stressing about my client’s scheduling mess-ups so I take care of them before a project even starts.

  12. says

    Great post, Amber! I have had the experience so many times of spending a couple weeks making plans with clients and then all of a sudden – bam! Five projects get sent to me at once. Usually a couple of the projects will have very strict deadlines so I’ll make them top priority. It’s nice to have a few clients you can be a little more flexible with. I generally can’t work with music, but for work that doesn’t take as much concentration, mellow music like Bon Iver is great!

  13. says

    I’ve found the balance between knowing when to stop and having very strict business hours is difficult to achieve. If you are getting X amount for current projects, choose to only work 9-5, and realize the month might end below the income goal, then what? Or if you take on projects til you meet that income goal and then realize 40 hours a week isn’t enough? It can be tricky. Add to my freelance web work the fact that I am trying to start up at least two personal websites (which I hope to make high-traffic enough to warrant ads or some other revenue stream), and I also do some local PC repair work, and ay caramba!

  14. says

    Since I use Gmail rather than the mail.app, the best way I’ve found to manage all of those distraction sites is to put them all in a folder of bookmarks — when it’s time to check in (whether that’s twice a day or… a lot more), I can open a new window, check mail, twitter, facebook, and newsfeeds all at once, and then CLOSE THEM all at once.

  15. says

    One of my biggest clients is a company I worked for full-time for eight months before getting laid off. It seems to be feast or famine — nothing for months, and then a deluge of work when their employee quits.

    Last November I was so exhausted from taking care of them that I made it a goal for this year to replace their income with something else so I wouldn’t be so dependent on them for income. And I’ve done that — I start working part-time for a new client tomorrow. Consistent income on a dependable basis, working only Monday through Thursday, no nights or weekends, and absolutely no overtime!

    When the last-minute backups can’t be helped, I prioritize the best I can — sometimes in 5-minute chunks! — and let clients know that if they delay for any reason, they could lose their “place in line” and have to wait until I’m available again. They’ve been very understanding so far.

  16. Richard Bishop says

    I tend to work to the AM/PM schedule, with a communications phase of an hour first thing and then after lunch.

    In that hour I’ll do all the social tasks and communications with clients, prioritising all the way and adding to my schedule. Once the hour is up, even if there’s still items in my inbox, Outlook is closed until the next communications phase.

    It works well for me and allows me to focus on the job at hand.

    It’s interesting to read how others schedule. A good post – thank you!

  17. says

    To shut off everything is something I find tough to do, especially when your work revolves around social networking sites where clicking a link can lead to a few minutes to hour of procrastination while you entertain yourself with the latest buzz on the Social Web. I’ll have to try harder, I guess. Thanks for the tips!

  18. says

    Great post! I schedule the crap out of my days, usually 2-3 weeks out (in blocks of time), shut off everything but email (but use a lot of inbox filtering to keep things from getting overwhelming), and have a “social routine” I’ll run through a couple times a day to get my fix and keep on top of things across the various channels.

    @Christina – I’m doing this as well (even wrote ‘Client Inactivity’ into our contract) and have found success to an extent. From a scheduling standpoint, it’s much easier to keep the amount of workflow even and consistent so you can avoid stress. But they’re allowed to think they’re your only client, it’s your job to manage that and internalize any frustration that comes of it. You’re doing the right thing, though, by keeping on top of your clients with regard to the schedules…that’ll help train them.

    @Lisa K. – try Linkedin groups that match your industry, versus Elance or Craig’s list. Or even here on the Forum…there are some very good people and we’ve made some connections already. The key for outsourcing will be finding the QUALITY people when you AREN’T busy, so you can count on them when you do get busy. For me, job sites are more one-off transactional projects than long-term relationship work (which is what you want for overflow outsourcing)

  19. says

    As much as I hate to work long hours, it seems it can’t be helped. Thanks to my heavy metal music playlist, it gets me pumped up and going. :)


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