The “problem” of more work than you can handle

Tom N. Tumbusch 2014Finding enough work to fill your pipeline can be a challenge, especially in the early days of your freelance career. But if you do your marketing work consistently, provide great service, and eat your Wheaties long enough, your business will eventually reach a point where you’re pushing the limits of your capacity.

This doesn’t mean you’ll break free of the “feast or famine” cycle. That will always be a risk, and your best defense is to keep your marketing machine running even when you’re crazy busy.

No, the milestone I’m talking about here is when you realize that taking on additional jobs that you handle personally is no longer a viable way for your business to grow because you’re stretched to the limit—or beyond.

If you think this sounds like the best problem in the world to have, you’re right! The first thing to do about it is to say to yourself: “Congratulations! You’re a success!” But in the next moment it’s time to start fighting for your life, because if you don’t, you won’t have one. Work will consume your every waking moment, turning you into one of those freelancers.

I hit this point for the first time about six months ago, and discovered that I suddenly had a completely new set of business management problems. To my amazement, I found I was so busy that I was starting to fantasize about having enough time just to cut the grass. And I hate cutting the grass.

So whether you’re already overwhelmed by your own success or merely aspire to be, here’s a few quick tips for staying on top of everything without sacrificing your personal time (or your sanity).

Get organized

Pick the organizational system that works for you, whether it’s paper file folders, Wunderlist, Evernote, Basecamp, Dropbox, or whatever. Use it in a way that allows you to see at least a week at a glance and adapt to schedule changes quickly. Knowing your target dates cold will help you plan ahead and minimize the days where multiple deadlines pile up on you.

Triage

Clients tend to set deadlines to fit their convenience, but over time you’ll learn to recognize what really has to be done right away and what can wait for a day or two (or even a week).

Is the project due by the end of the day Friday? Unless your client is a serious workaholic, there’s a good chance she won’t actually look at it until Monday morning.

Be realistic about your schedule

If you regularly find yourself falling behind, it may be because you’re over-estimating your capacity. If you don’t already know how long projects take, track the time you actually spend working on a few jobs. The results may surprise you. Use this data to build your future time estimates, and dial in at least 10% extra to cover your back.

Set expectations

You don’t want clients to think you’re too busy for their work. But it’s okay to let them know you’re successful enough that they might want to reach out early or wait longer for deliverables.

The best way to handle this is to build this expectation into your marketing. For example, I recently updated the part of my FAQ page where I list suggested turnaround times for common projects. Do this kind of work in advance and you’ll have less trouble asking for more time as you add new clients.

Work on your fear of saying “no.”

The temptation to be everything to everyone can be strong, even as your workflow improves, but taking on the wrong clients can tie up time that could be better spent on the work you really want. If you’re not turning away work that’s wrong for you by now, it’s time to start. The best way to turn a prospect down is to refer them to someone else, so…

Build a backup network

Develop relationships with other freelancers you trust, and call on them when you need backup. The Creative Freelancer Business Conference is an excellent place to meet high-quality partners

People in your network can fill in for you at peak times or cover your back when you’re on vacation (you are taking a vacation this year, right?). Early in my career, for example, I was on call as a “ghost” for a more established writer who was raising two preschool-aged children.

You can also refer prospects to freelancers who are hungrier for new business or a better fit for the prospect’s market. I recently teamed up with a group of writers who’ve been in business about as long as I have. We each specialize in different markets and send jobs to one another in exchange for finder’s fees.

Leave gaps in your schedule

Deadlines change. New clients call. Your Aunt Mildred is rushed to the hospital. Surprises will happen no matter how well you organize your work life, so build a little extra time into your schedule every week. If you don’t end up needing it, great! Use it to catch up or take a break.

Remember: you have the right to be unavailable

Proactive boundary setting—both with clients and yourself­—is critical to maintaining a healthy work/life balance at any time, but especially when you get busy. If you have to, schedule your personal time the same way you schedule a client, and keep that time sacred.

Finally, if all else fails, RAISE YOUR RATES!

Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for designers, creative agencies and green businesses. He publishes a free writing tips newsletter each month and periodically shares more casual wisdom on the WordStream of Consciousness Blog. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at www.wordstreamcopy.com.

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