So far in this series, we’ve looked at the pitfalls of trying to handle all aspects of your freelance business alone (part 1) and in part 2, being unable to say no to work that doesn’t offer the satisfaction or financial return you want – which I ended by promising to explain why, even when the work you’re offered is interesting and well paid, it may be still best to say no.
Sounds crazy, I know. But bear with me.
Fail 3: Mismanagement of your Workload
It’s tricky to get your workload right, but if you find yourself with way too much work to do, I’m guessing it’s probably for one or more of these reasons – most of them the cause of my own workload overloads in the past:
You applied/pitched for several jobs, never expecting to get all of them. It’s because you didn’t expect to get them all that you applied for so many. Surprise!
At one point, I was having so many pitches accepted that I found it hard to keep track of and was sure I’d been hired to write a book on Alzheimer’s, when I’s actually been hired to ghostwrite a novel.
To avoid this, you have a few options:
From the start, try to pin down deadlines on the projects you pitch for and aim not to pitch for too many with similar deadline dates.
If the work is coming in thick and fast and you already have enough work to keep you busy for a few weeks, contact those clients you’ve pitched to but not yet had a response from. Explain you’ve been offered more work than you predicted, and so, regretfully, you need to withdraw your pitch – but that you’d still love to take on their project if the deadline isn’t imminent.
But if everything happened so quickly that you had no time to put the brakes on for any of the projects you pitched for, what do you do?
You may have to be brave and decide which of them you can let go with minimum pain or damage to your reputation. Try contacting one or two clients you feel might be most sympathetic to your plight and asking them if there’s any flexibility with deadlines. If there’s not, it could be crunch time.
Of course, you’re probably thinking that you could just work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for a while – ignoring your domestic and family responsibilities, never seeing your friends and recording the entire series of The Walking Dead on Sky+. However, while theoretically this might work, chances are you will become exhausted and nothing you do will be your best work. You may end up delivering sub-standard results on most or all of your projects, and may still find that you don’t hit all your deadlines. Even worse – can you imagine the spoilers for TWD?
You took on work without looking at existing deadlines and workload, and how they might clash.
I think I’m innocent of this one. Phew!
How to avoid it:
Timetable your workload precisely, keeping track of deadlines and milestones and referring to your work diary before taking on new work.
If your client hasn’t set milestones, do so yourself to ensure you’re on track with each project.
Where you can, plan to deliver one before time to avoiding a last-minute scramble to complete multiple projects for the same date.
You took work on without looking ahead and considering what upcoming events – birthdays, appointments, laser eye surgery, Christmas shopping or having the conservatory built – might eat into your work time. I learnt the hard way.
Avoid this by adding any event you suspect of reducing your working time into your work diary. Better to presume you’ll have less time than overstretch and disappoint a client.
You took work on without allowing any redundancy in your schedule for unexpected phone calls, work/domestic/ family emergencies or sickness (yours or a loved one’s).
Ah, Tales of the Unexpected. My favourite: I was sitting in the lounge on the sofa with my daughter, having a lunch break, when a Mini crashed through our front wall – shunting the sofa, and us, across the room. We had to move out of our house temporarily, the insurance company were useless and it took nearly a YEAR to repair the damage. There was no way to plan for that one!
Avoid this by building in a little redundancy to your schedule every week, giving you some breathing space and reducing your stress when an unexpected event occurs (and life may be stressful enough). Fear not; when those planned slack periods crop up, you’ll rarely be twiddling your thumbs.
The brief was thorough, but you didn’t bother to assess the work involved properly; you’ve now got far more work than you thought and underestimated the time required (and maybe your fee).
I once took on a research project after the most casual of glances at the spreadsheet I’d need to populate with data and the brief instructing me how to input my findings into the backend of the client’s website. How hard could it be? On starting the job, I noticed that the spreadsheet had another 12 pages…
How to avoid this: always think a project through as thoroughly as you can and realistically estimate how long it will take. If you’re working on a one-off fee basis and the work takes 50 hours rather than 20, your highly paid job can quickly turn into working for peanuts; if you’ve given a client a ballpark estimated hours figure, you’re left with the choice of charging for more hours and hoping they’ll still talk to you /pay you/offer you work, or sucking it up and doing at least some of the extra hours for free.
The client changed your deadline or gave you an inaccurate/ far too brief, brief! You’ve taken on far more than you bargained for.
I ghost-wrote a novel on a vague brief once; given the idea, I thought it sounded like a rom-com and the publisher said ‘fine’. Later, I discovered it had originally been promoted as a forthcoming sci-fi – and the publisher, who’d never even hinted at this, had passed off the discrepancy by describing it as a creative, last-minute whim of the author!
How to avoid it: You may think that there’s not much you can do about this one, because you’re not in control – the client is. It’s their fault! Not so.
Vague brief? Make a list of questions and ensure you get answers; exactly what they’re expecting, how it should be delivered and when, what decisions you should make yourself and which you should refer back to them, and how and when you’ll communicate. If you’re managing a project or collaborating with others, make sure you’re clear about how far your responsibility goes. Are you responsible for overseeing just the project or the contributors too?
If you find the client is expecting a lot more work than they originally outlined or they attempt to drastically bring forward the deadline, be polite but firm; you have other projects and clients, and while you’ll do your best to be flexible and obliging, you can’t guarantee to complete the work to the standard and stage they now require by the new deadline.
Hopefully, you’ll now have some ideas about how to control your workload rather than letting it control you.
In part 4, we will look at freelancer finances and how failing to prepare for a rainy day could leave you drowning in debt.
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