In the freelance world, there is a delicate balance between looking for more work, and focusing on the work you have. How much is too much? Nearly every freelancer will take on more than they can manage at some point. Here are a few tips on how 3 successful freelancers stay organized, and how to deal with the inevitable burnout.  

How do freelancers stay organized?

Brand designer Abe Zieleniec and his studio partners use tools like Google calendar and Notion to keep track of their projects. But, for his freelance work, “I don’t do any of that. I stick to timelines in my proposals,” but other than that, “It’s pretty much just thoughts in my head.” Zieleniec admits that this system probably wouldn’t “work for the average person.” 

Illustrator Amber Vittoria has a more traditional approach, and schedules time for sketching and finalizing projects on her Google calendar, and keeps an eye on how much she has planned for each day. “If each day gets pretty long, I try to stop.” That being said, “I try to say yes to as many projects as I can.” 

When do you say no to work? 

Freelancers are a passionate bunch, and are often willing to take on anything they find interesting. For the sake of financial stability, most would-be full-time freelancers complete freelance projects before quitting their full-time job. Graphic designer Heather Franzman works on her freelance projects on nights and weekends in addition to her full-time position. “At the beginning, just take everything,” she advises. After that first crack, you’ll know “who your ideal client is.” But she acknowledges this approach can only go on for so long: “For a while I was taking on too many projects – I learned that I have to say no.” 

How does she know when to say no? Franzman says, “If my client is looking for quick work, I will turn them away. You’ll get the best design from giving people the space and time to create, which is hard for clients because they want their design done yesterday.” 

Zieleniec says he turns work away “fairly often,” and tries to keep his work week to around 40 hours. But if there’s a project he really wants to do, he can make time for it. After he has enough work to pay the bills, Zieleniec makes time for projects he knows he’ll enjoy: “I try to pepper in the smaller, more fun branding projects throughout the year.” He recently got a brand design project for Newport Coffee House, a small coffee company with a smaller budget. And yet, he knew he wanted to do it, since coffee shops have so many different applications, from the bean bags to the signage: “It always ends up being a cool project. But they don’t have a big budget, so it’s a balance.” 

How to set boundaries and spot red flags

Freelancers quickly develop a sixth sense for clients who don’t know what they want. There’s a term for a project with parameters that broaden after a price has been set – the dreaded “scope creep.” Vittoria knows that the creep is inevitable, and that “There are always projects where you blow through the scope.” She tries to “nip that in the bud” by sending a precise workflow. “If I send them a workflow and then they agree to it and then they change their mind after the first round – that’s a red flag. That’s when I want to hop on the phone.” We know you hate talking on the phone, Millennials, but it might be worth the anguish. Zieleniec seconds the importance of an old-fashioned phone call, saying, “A lot of people want to email back and forth, but I can get a good sense from a client just by talking to them.”  

And yet, many freelancers like to keep their client relationships a bit more easy and breezy than a 9-to-5 working relationship. Zieleniec doesn’t set hard hours for his clients, since “It’s common that I end up friends with my client. If a client was bothering me, I probably would say ‘Sounds good, I’ll look at it after the weekend.’ But I don’t give people time limits.” 

This tendency to take on a lot of interesting projects inevitably leads to burnout. 

Burnout, and what to do when you’ve had enough

Every freelancer has dealt with burning out at some point in their career. There comes a time they can no longer manage their workload and have any kind of life and regular sleep schedule. Vittoria knew once her work was cutting into her sleeping hours that it was time to fly the coop.  “I don’t know if that’s a healthy way to make that decision, but that’s how I decided to go full-time freelance.” 

“When I first started, I burned out a couple times,” Zieleniec says. “Make sure that you’re putting things in your life that are also priorities. For instance, I really like rock climbing. [When coronavirus isn’t an issue], I’m there almost every day.” In order to be active when his clients are busy, he sticks to a 9-to-5 schedule, even though he often ends up working odd hours. Keeping active is built into his workflow, and he adds that “It’s rare that I sit down for more than two or three hours to work.”

Raise your prices

The best way to prevent yourself from having too much work? Raise your prices, Zeleniec says. “Make sure you’re giving yourself a raise, which I think is hard for some people. I’ve raised my hourly rates multiple times over the past 5 years. It allows you to not work as many hours, and that helps with burnout.” It’s always darkest before dawn, and if you’re feeling burned out, remember – a new day of more dollars per hour is just beyond the horizon.