Like being too rich or too good looking, there are some things in life that you can file under ‘great problems to have’. For a freelancer of any kind, having too much work is right up there.
When I was first starting out, I used to read the humble brags by established copywriters on Twitter, about how they ‘simply didn’t have enough time in the day to complete all the work flooding in…etc.’ I’d check my empty inbox for the fifteenth time and reflect on just how out-of-my-mind, ecstatically happy I was for every single one of them.
But then, as these things will if you keep at it, the work started to creep in and I’d find myself daring to empathise a tiny bit, as a few weekend hours were sacrificed to hit a deadline. And then a few late nights during the week. Then a whole weekend (usually when the weather was nice).
As a newbie, you try not to panic when you feel like you’re reaching capacity and tell yourself that you just need to learn how to be more efficient. You get up a little earlier, work a little later, organise more. Anything that means you don’t have to start turning work away.
Just the idea of saying no to a client sends a chill down your mortgage repayments. You remember the seemingly endless struggle to reach this stage and, understandably, you find yourself reluctant to jeopardise it all just for a few hours of missed sleep.
So, other things get left behind. You start slacking off on your marketing efforts, because clearly you are now so in demand that you’ll never need to advertise your services like some common tradesman ever again. You stop updating your blog for 4 months or so.
For example. (Ahem)
But eventually you realise that the freelance life you have now, and dreamed about for years while you were slogging away for someone else, has turned into harder and more stressful work than when you were a wage slave. If you let it go on unchecked for too long, then the quality of your work suffers, which will eventually solve the problem for itself, but not in the way you want.
However strong the reputation you’ve built up, it won’t survive missed deadlines and substandard products. Once, maybe. Twice, if you’re super lovely and a joy to deal with. But very soon, your hard won clients won’t give an arse how lovely you are–the work is all that matters.
So how do you deal with the problem? It can be a tricky one and tends to split opinion. There are some freelancers who say you should never turn away work, even if it means insane hours, missed sleep and neglecting family and friends. Personally, I went freelance to avoid those things, but each to their own.
To be a successful freelancer, you have to be able to deal with a certain amount of uncertainty. There will always be peaks and troughs with how much work comes your way, especially as more and more people are taking the plunge and competition for jobs gets more intense.
So here are some quick tips for those times when the phone won’t stop and everyone wants a piece of their favourite freelancer.
Prioritise Your Best Clients
The hardest thing to judge is knowing when to say no. For me, most of the time that decision will be taken depending on who the work is for. You know who your best clients are–the ones you want to keep happy no matter how pressed for time you might be. I have two or three who will always get first dibs, regardless of any other factors.
But if you’re really up against it and a new client comes along, things get more complicated. With your established contacts, you’ll have built up a certain amount of trust over your ability to get the job done, cutting down on the time that needs to be devoted to updates and phone calls. With a new client, you’re both entering somewhat into the unknown, and you need to be able to judge the amount of extra time they’ll need before they’ll have enough confidence in you to let you just get on with it without interruptions. If it’s a project you can get excited about and that you think will lead on to other things, it might be worth that additional time investment. If it’s just a one-off or you can sense they are going to need more reassurance than you can realistically give them time for, it might serve you better to take a pass. The ability to make that decision comes from instinct, and your instinct gets stronger with experience.
I have a sneaking suspicion these days that the humble bragging copywriters of Twitter had an ingenious ulterior motive for posting just how swamped they were. I could be completely wrong, but it might have been a subtle way to let their regular clients know they were snowed under, in order to delay any new projects coming their way, or at least to be a little more flexible with deadlines. Like I said, no freelancer wants to turn down work, and communicating with your clients can often bring a little leeway. Twitter wouldn’t be my first choice for that kind of thing, and like I said, I might be doing them an injustice. But keeping the channels open with clients, with emails and phone calls, can often smooth the way and prevent you from having to disappoint them and risk them going elsewhere.
And it’s not just at work that clear communication can make things run a little smoother. Letting family and friends know that you’re up against it at busy times can often cause them to pick up the slack and give you a pass on some household chores.
My great and dear friend, Rachel Ingram, is one of those writers who’s always in demand. A few years back, she found that putting in 14 hours a day, 7 days a week wasn’t quite enough time to get through all the work she had coming in. She’d seen some of my stuff and was confident enough in my abilities to recommend me to one of her clients, rather than have to leave them hanging. It gave her her first weekend off in months and was a big boost to me, putting me in front of an agency I would have struggled to attract on my own.
If you are completely overwhelmed, it can be a great option. These kinds of unspoken reciprocal agreements between freelancers give me warm, fuzzy feelings and I’ve vowed to return the favour to Rachel if she ever gets a clear five minutes in her diary. Hasn’t happened so far, but the offer will remain open until I can pay her back.
The important thing to remember is to choose your outlet valve wisely. Whether you’re simply recommending a replacement, as Rachel did with me, or outsourcing the work yourself so you, in effect, become the client, it’s still your reputation on the line if there’s a foul up. Do your research and make sure your stand-in can complete the work to your own standards before handing it over.
There are other things you can outsource too, in order to free up some more hours in the day. Hiring a cleaner to come in and take care of the housework is one less chore to worry about and gives you a clear run at your to do pile. Similarly, a handyman to mow the lawn or fix the guttering that you still haven’t gotten around to could be an option, providing you’re not spending more on them than you’ll be making at work.
Just Get It Done!
Sometimes, you’re just out of options and all you can do is get up earlier, work later, sacrifice your ‘free’ time and suck it up. Unscheduled and probably unpaid overtime can be something of a downer when you’re a freelancer and you thought you’d left it behind in your old cubicle. But sometimes needs must, and however much you love your new lifestyle, a job is still a job. Just remember, the person who’s commissioned you doesn’t have the option of nicking off to a midweek matinee when they’ve cleared their inbox and the fancy takes them.
Very few freelancers can say that they have exactly the right amount of work to do 100% of the time. Mostly it’s a case of feast or famine, so if you can occasionally hit a comfortable balance, you’re doing well.
Those crazy times when there doesn’t seem to be an end to the demands on your time are achingly preferable to an empty diary and the endless repeats of Top Gear on Dave.