It can be a bit scary being a freelancer / self-employed. One minute you’ve got no work at all, the next you’ve got all the work in the world, deadlines coming out of your ears, and you’re drowning in a sea of … stuff. To accompany my article on what to do if the work seems to have dried up, here are my top tips on coping with overwhelm – those times when all the work has come in and you don’t know what to do first. Maybe we can even work out a way to avoid that happening in the first place!
How do I cope when I’ve got too much work?
Yes, it’s the other side of the coin, which it doesn’t do to complain about as such, but can be a scary prospect. If you’ve got a lot of work but it’s not physically or mentally too much for you to complete in the deadline, that’s OK for short periods of time. We all get that. I’ve just booked in a large job which will involve doing just one job for just one client, 9 hours a day for 4-5 days. However, you can bet I’ll be taking plenty of rest and cancelling everything else while that’s happening.
But what happens when you just have Too Much Work, too much to do in the time, too much to do without exhausting yourself mentally or physically?
It’s harder to organise yourself into not having too much work. Work does just tend to all come in at the same time: it’s a fact of life.
Here are some ideas for preventing overwhelm building up:
- If you have a client who regularly overwhelms you, for example sending in orders for too many products in too short a timeframe or sending you work with no notice, reguarly, it’s worth talking to them and seeing how you can make the situation more predictable. If it’s really becoming a problem, consider offering to share their work with a colleague or tell them that you can’t fulful their requirements and they will need to find someone else to work with (yes, I know it’s really hard to do this, and you will probably want to have another prospective client lined up before you do this).
- If you have a kind of work which regularly overwhelms you, consider how you can work to make that situation easier. I used to spend a lot of time with a particular kind of customer who tended to involve lots of emails and discussion and handholding. I now work mainly with an agency which specialises in this kind of customer – they do all the emailing, I do the work. It’s a lower rate of pay, but I am pretty sure I make that back in the time saved.
- If you create trouble for yourself by scheduling too many jobs at the same time, keep some kind of record / calendar of what you’ve booked in. I do it on a Gantt chart with a line for each client, with the days I’ve got to do a piece of work or the dates they have booked me for coloured in. In this way, you can avoid scheduling All The Work for the same week.
- If you have trouble with moving deadlines, put terms and conditions in place. This is a notorious problem for editors, as writers’ deadlines often slip back. Make sure you’re covered in your Ts and Cs for saying “No” if a job comes in later than planned and you’re already busy.
There are also three ways to cope with work overwhelm that involve other people …
- Contract out work. This involves having someone who you can book to delegate the work to. In this case, you will end up charging the cliient and paying the contractor. You may need to disclose that you’re using a contractor, i.e. someone other than you is doing the work, and I personally don’t use this method as my service revolves around me, to a great extent. Typically, the primary worker (you) will charge the client a little more than you pay the contractor, to give yourself a small profit on the job.
- Have at least one cover person who can take on work for your clients but act as an individual with their own relationship to the client. This is usually arranged in advance, but can be very helpful in this sort of situation (as well as when you want to take a holiday). If I am booked out and one of my clients with whom I have arranged this contacts me, I say, “I’m really busy at the moment, can you send this over to Laura, please?” They send the work to my colleague, then she will do the work and invoice them accordingly. Yes, I can’t make a little money on the fee, as you can with contracting, but my clients stay happy and the admin is minimal.
- Outsource work to someone else – for example, my journalist clients might usually transcribe their interviews themselves, but if they’re in a rush, they will send me the tape to transcribe while they get on with something else. You could either outsource the work itself or aspects of running your business that take up time – your social media updating, your filing, your invoicing … You may or may not have to disclose that you’ve done this (a journalist wouldn’t disclose that I’d typed out their interview) but you will generally pay the person you’ve outsourced the work to.
As with dealing with having too little work, there are two principles involved here:
- Try to run your business such that it’s less easy for you to get overwhelmed
- Have plans for what to do when overwhelm hits, and put them into action appropriately
With these tips and the ones on how to cope when the work dries up, I hope that I’ve given you some useful tools for smoothing out the ups and downs of the freelancer’s life. Good luck – let me know which ones work for you, or if you have other suggestions!
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