Too much work? How do you choose what to take on?

Freelancing is becoming a really popular way to make money. Sites like Upwork and Fiverr are booming. But how do you decide which jobs to take on? Here are three questions that might help you decide whether to take on some work you’ve been offered.

Question 1: Do I need the work?

Obviously, when you first start out in freelancing, you’ll be grateful for all the work you’re offered and you’ll be happy to take it all on. But, if things go well, you will eventually reach the point where you’re offered more work than you have time to do. At this point you have three options:

  • Politely tell the client that you have no capacity to take on any work currently — but also let them know when you will next be available (they might be happy to wait).
  • Subcontract the work out to someone else — but don’t forget to allocate time to manage your subcontractors and carry out quality checks on their work.
  • Work into the evenings or at weekends in order to finish the extra work. This might be ok occasionally, but remember that one of the reasons you got into freelancing was probably to have more control over your working week and to spend more quality time with your friends and family.

Of course, in order to know when you’re getting near to your capacity, it’s important to know what your capacity is. You need to be good at estimating how long each piece of work is going to take. One reason why I don’t like the third of the options above is that I save evenings and weekends for contingency when an estimate goes wrong and planning to use that time for work removes that contingency.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re consistently in a situation where you’re turning down work because you’re at capacity, that just might be the universe trying to tell you that it’s time to raise your prices.

Question 2: Is this work I really want to do?

Being at or near your capacity is a good reason to reconsider the types of work that you do. Perhaps there are bits of it that you don’t enjoy as much as others. This might be a good time to specialise.

Maybe you design book covers but the covers you really enjoy designing are for children’s books or chick-lit. Then stop taking on commissions for science fiction or war stories. Maybe you’re a copywriter but you find there are particular subjects that you prefer writing about. Carve out a large enough list of topics around your areas of interest and only take on work in those areas.

Or you can gently steer your work towards jobs that stretch you in certain ways. Freelancers don’t often take time for training themselves, but you can find ways to learn on the job. Maybe you create WordPress themes and you want to learn more about programming in PHP. Choose jobs that concentrate more on development and less on design. Change your job description from “WordPress theme designer” to “WordPress theme developer”.

Change your marketing materials appropriately so people stop asking you to work in areas that you don’t enjoy as much. You might have old clients who come back to you offering new work in the areas that you’re trying to cut out. You can decide on a case-by-case basis, but if you want to stick to your new specialisation, you can just say “I’m sorry but I don’t take on that kind of work anymore”. If you’re feeling particularly helpful, you might direct them to someone else you know who works in that area. That’s worth a commission payment, isn’t it?

Question 3: Is this a client I really want to work with?

We’ve all had “that client” who you never want to work with (see Clients From Hell for hundreds of examples). Well, if you’re working at capacity, then you don’t have to work with them again. When they approach you, tell them you’re fully booked up for three months.

But it’s not just individual clients that you have personal experience with. Maybe you find there are types of clients that you would rather not work with. Large corporations tend to move slowly. They might have complex procedures for signing you up as a new supplier and a seemingly infinite number of people who have to sign off on your work. You might decide it’s not worth the hassle.

On the other hand, some smaller organisations can be understaffed. Will your contacts be too busy elsewhere to give you timely feedback on your work? It can be frustrating to wait a week for someone to tell you how much (or how little!) they like your work.

We all have our personal preferences in this area. I’ve done work for some of the largest investment banks in the world and also for tiny internet start-ups. Given the choice, I’d go with the small company every time.

Or you could make a choice based on the client’s policies in various areas. Maybe you want to know their policies on looking after the environment? Or how they encourage diversity in their workforce? Or which political parties they make donations to.

Perhaps it’s actually what the client does that makes you want to avoid them. Are they involved in the arms trade? Do they enable rich people to avoid tax? Are they excessive polluters?

In all of these cases, if you decide not to work with the client, you can decide how you will tell them. You could use the standard approach of telling them you simply won’t have the capacity for several months or you might get a little more satisfaction by explaining exactly why you don’t want to do business with them (just don’t expect that your little protest will have any effect!)

Of course, having too much work is a great problem to have. But if you’re in that situation, I hope some of the strategies above will help you. Are there any other strategies that you use? Let me know in the comments.

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