Overcommitment issues: How to bring balance back to your freelancing

Susan Guillory
Susan Guillory
October 16, 2017

Does this describe you? The minute your eyes pop open, your stomach churns with dread. You know your day will be jam-packed, and even if you put in 12 hours, you won’t get everything you need to do done.  Clients are yapping at you, demanding to know where their finished work is. You feel like you’re drowning.

Becoming overwhelmed with work is, unfortunately, a reality for many freelancers. More often than not, it’s due to you overcommitting.  You don’t want to turn down any work (and possible revenue), and so you say yes to every project that comes your way. That, sad to say, isn’t always the best strategy for success as a freelancer.

The downfalls of overcommitting

You might think it’d be a good thing to have more work than you can handle. The opposite is true, actually. Overcommitting means you have more work than you can competently do in a reasonable amount of time. Your work may not be on par with its usual quality, and customers will notice. You may lose out on future projects because you fail to impress clients, who will then go elsewhere for their next project.

It doesn’t do your stress levels any good, either. While constantly worrying about how much you have to do, you can easily lose sight of one of the reasons you decided to get into freelancing: to have a flexible and free schedule and not be saddled to a crazy workload like you had when you were an employee.

Signs that you’re in over your head

If you’re a Type A personality (as many freelancers and business owners are), you may have trouble discerning at exactly what point you’ve overcommitted. You may be tempted to continue down this path, only to jeopardize your own ability to make money. Here are some warning signs to look out for.

If your work is interfering with your personal life in a significant way, such as you missing out regularly on spending time with family and friends, you’re working too much. If you’re losing sleep because you’re up worrying, you’re risking your health unnecessarily.

Have clients complained about the quality of the work you deliver? That’s another warning sign of overcommitting. And if you see a sizeable number of clients jumping ship to work with someone else, that’s another red flag you need to pay attention to because it indicates a pattern that shouldn’t be ignored.

How to get your workload back in balance

Now that you have acknowledged that you are, indeed, overcommitted, it’s time to get back on track to a healthier balance of work and play. Start by turning down any new projects until you can come up for air, or letting clients or new potential business know that you can’t even look at another project for X weeks. Some may be willing to wait; others will not. Accept this and move forward.

Sometimes a major factor in being overwhelmed with work is simply being disorganized and unable to prioritize what to do next. Take some time to do just that. Look at all your projects and due dates, then break out your day so that you tackle the most pressing issues first, then move on to others. If you’ve been scattered in working on one project for a few minutes, then switching to another, try blocking off larger chunks of time to really focus on one project and maybe even finish it in one sitting.

You can also hire help! Being a freelancer doesn’t mean you have to do all the work yourself, especially if part of a project isn’t in your wheelhouse. Hire out work so that you can focus on applying your expertise to projects, then oversee others’ work to ensure it meets the quality you would have delivered. You might, in fact, find that having help makes your work so much more enjoyable that you decide to do so permanently. This is a great first step to running a full-fledged business!

And while it may seem counterproductive, take some time off! Working 60-hour workweeks will quickly fry your brain and make it impossible to be efficient. Having even just a few hours out of the office to lay on the beach or just read a good book can recharge your brain and make you more productive when you return.

Preventing overcommitting in the future

So you’ve rectified your current overcommitment issues. But what if it happens again? Don’t let it. First and foremost, learn an important word: no. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying no to projects sometimes. Focus on the ones that you will enjoy the most and that you will take the time to really do right. If a project doesn’t light you up inside or you know it will be a lot of work with little reward, politely decline and refer the client to someone else.

Get firm about your work hours. Even peeking at your work email in the evenings can lead to a spiral of late-night working, when you need to be recuperating for the day ahead. Setting boundaries can make you feel more balanced.

And don’t be uber-aggressive with your deadlines. Yes, you want to make customers happy, but you’ll do the opposite if you sent fast deadlines you can’t possibly meet. Give yourself a few buffer days for unforeseen circumstances, like getting sick. If you finish your work before the deadline, you’ll look like a rock star.

Pay attention to those warning signs that you’re overcommitting, and set your intentions to change the situation before it gets too serious. You may, for example, realize that an early warning sign is when your eye starts twitching at work. Feel that twitch? Take action and get a plan to back off from overworking immediately.

Not overcommitting takes practice. Saying no may make you uncomfortable at first, but over time, it will get easier. As you get to know yourself and how you work best, you’ll find that equilibrium.

Freelancers, don't stress about getting paid by your international clients.

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