I can’t say no to clients, and my success is destroying me

A reader writes:

I’ve been an independent contractor for nine years, and I’ve finally found financial comfort and fulfillment in my work. This did not come easy. I was barely scraping by the first couple of years. I took sleazy corporate work for investment bankers and lawyers because that’s “where the market was,” and I had to sell myself short to be competitive.

Not anymore. I don’t have to hustle. Gigs fall into my inbox like candy out of a pinata. I have built rapport and trust with steady, well-paying clients who respect my expertise. I work on projects that excite me and make me feel like I am making a difference in the world. One client does educational development projects for the MENA region and it absolutely feeds my soul.

This is great! This is the dream! I am so lucky! Yay!

Except that it’s ruining my life.

I have no semblance of work-life balance and the stress is eating me alive. I’m constantly breaking down, there’s a pit of guilt in my stomach over not spending time with my partner or even coming to bed most nights, I have no social life or hobbies, I barely have time to eat, I rarely leave my house.

It’s not about time management (often the huge issue for contractors). It took forever, but I have largely figured that one out. Now I can stay on task, avoid procrastinating, etc. It’s about being too terrified of losing a client to say no. This regularly results in workloads that are so staggering that I have to work more than 80 hours — sometimes more than 100 — and pull several all-nighters a week just to stay on top. And when I manage prompt turnarounds because I want to keep my client company happy, I get praise for being “seemingly always available” and then they give me more work from a new program, which seems a cruel irony.

Sometimes I try to convince myself this is fine because it’s the trade-off and “it comes with the territory.” I have so, so much autonomy and flexibility. I can travel, I can work from anywhere while doing anything I want as long as I have a computer and some software. And then I also try to convince myself that it’s fine because the super high-stakes, high-stress deadlines come in short bursts, and I can rest and do whatever I want in between. I can work around the clock for a week and a half then take two whole weeks off and still make very good money. Who else can say they can just take weeks off regularly? I should be grateful.

Except it’s not working. The stress is so high I don’t want to even exist when one of those bursts is over. I feel utterly destroyed afterwards. I grow numb to my partner’s concern. I spend the time off recovering and hibernating, not living.

Then I go back to work and tell myself it will be different this time, that I will say no to some of the projects, that I won’t let my clients push things on me that I don’t have the time or heart to do. But I just can’t seem to make myself do that. They say words like “urgent” and “high profile” and I cave. I get terrified that I will lose it all. That if I don’t say “how high” when they say jump, they’ll find someone else who will. That they won’t renew the contract at the end of the fiscal year, they’ll stop looping me in when there’s high-volume work for an important launch event that might literally change the world because I can’t handle the volume, and bye bye dream projects, bye bye.

On some level I know that this is not true, that I am actually valuable enough to them for them to want to retain me, that they would probably be horrified if they realized just how much stress I am under, and that even if they split the projects with another contractor, I would still get plenty of work.

But I am so afraid of burning any of these bridges that cost so much to build and that I am so attached to that I can’t seem to say no. Any of the scripts I try to come up with feel too risky and I can’t go through with them. (Unfortunately the solution is not to thin down my workload by dropping a client for lots of reasons I won’t go into).

If I turn projects down, that absolutely means they will find someone else to do them. It would feel like putting the first nail into my own coffin. Especially because I have a bit of imposter syndrome going on. I don’t have certification or training in my line of work and my skillset is entirely self-taught, and most of the time I am not sure how I managed to land the projects I have. I’m just waiting for them to discover that I’m actually a fraud.

I don’t know what I would do if it all falls apart. I am attached to the work itself. Sunk cost aside, I’ve never had a “real” job, the thought of trying to transition into conventional employment in the U.S. job market with only a resume full of contract work and adjunct gigs and a degree from a third world country makes me want to faint. I have a chronic health condition that would make it very hard for me to keep regular office hours anyway, which is why I quit teaching and started to work from home to begin with. Even academia isn’t flexible enough for me. I don’t have a social safety net to fall back on because I left my country and am estranged from my family. My partner is underemployed and I support him. I am alone.

Please help me figure out how to assert myself without feeling like I’m jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I can’t keep doing this, but if I don’t I feel like I stand to lose it all. This sounds melodramatic, but I’ve already lost it all once before and I can’t do it again. Sometimes it feels like this job is all I have.

Oh my dear letter-writer, I want to bundle you into a cocoon of blankets and give you tea and let you take a days-long nap on my couch, because I know how very, very much this sucks.

But the house of cards here — the thing that is not real and not solid — is not your work or your skills or your reputation. The house of cards here is your belief about what would happen if you pulled back a little.

Clients who value you as much as yours sound like they value you aren’t going to dump you because you reveal that you are human. But they will keep giving you as much work as you’ll accept, because they like your work! They’re counting on you to tell them where your limits are — and you get to tell them you have limits. That will not surprise them or make them think less of you. They have worked with other humans and understand how it works. They’re telling you that when they comment on you always seeming available. And they’re assuming you’ll say “enough” when it’s enough, and it’s very likely that they’ll accept that and make do.

At some level, you know this. It’s why you wrote that they’d be horrified if they realized how much stress you’re under, and that you know you’re valuable enough that they want to keep you.

But you’re not letting yourself really believe this because you’re terrified.

And of course you’re terrified. Being a freelancer is scary. All your work could go away next month, and then what? And for you, it’s compounded by how much you’re devaluing your own skills — you’ve convinced yourself that what you have now is a special arrangement that you could never replicate again — that because you’re self-taught, your skills don’t “count” as much, and so who knows if anyone would ever hire you to do this work again if your current arrangement falls apart.

But that’s BS. It’s an illusion that you’ve convinced yourself is real. It doesn’t matter if your skills are self-taught once you have years of putting them to excellent use. Look at your track record. Your skills are real ones, and they get results and people like them (and you). After a certain point, it doesn’t matter how you acquired those skills; you have them, they’re valuable, people want them, and you can sell them. The evidence of that is the incredible success you’ve been having.

Your fear is also being compounded by how precarious your position feels, with no family for a safety net and with a partner who relies on you financially. Freelancing is scary under the best of circumstances, and it’s terrifying when you throw in those factors.

But you’re doing it, and you’ve found success.

You’ve found success.

What if you let yourself trust that? What if you let yourself trust that if one of these clients did go away, you’d find more work to fill the space (or even could enjoy leaving that space free)? What if you trusted that what you’ve built isn’t going to suddenly collapse? Or that if it did, you could build it back up just as you built it the first time?

I know how scary it is to trust that, because what if you’re wrong? What if you let yourself trust it and then things collapse anyway? But the alternative is doing this non-living you’re doing right now — spending every day exhausted and guilty and frazzled and feeling like you’re stretched so far that there’s barely anything left of you. The weeks/months/years of non-living are weeks/months/years that you’re never going to get back. They’re weeks/months/years that you’re spending without seeing friends, without being present with your partner, without being present for yourself. They’re weeks/months/years that you’re spending inside, stressed or recuperating from exhaustion, rather than outside in the sun, rather than laughing, rather than traveling, rather than living.

At some point you’ve got to decide if that’s the life you want to choose. Because right now you are choosing it. It’s not just happening to you by default, not after it’s gone on this long.

If you decide that it’s not what you want to choose for yourself — and I really, really want you to join me in deciding that it’s not — then this is what you need to do:

1. When you are asked to take on work that will require you to work excessive hours, you say this: “I would love to do this project but realistically wouldn’t be able to finish it by (date). I could finish it by (later date) though, if that would work. Or I could do (piece of project) by the first date but not the whole thing. Would one of those options work instead?” Sometimes they’ll say yes to your counter-proposal. Other times they might say no because they have hard deadlines they can’t move, and that’s okay. If that happens, you say, “I understand! I should pass this time then.”

2. When you can’t take on the project at all without pushing yourself past reasonable limits, you say this: “I would love to do this! Unfortunately I’m booked solid right now so I should pass this time — but please let me know if something similar comes up again, because I’d love the chance to do it.”

3. I urge you re-think if it’s really true that you can’t drop a client. I have felt that exact same way myself, and I know what it’s like to feel like you have no options there. But it’s always an option; it just comes with a trade-off you might not want to make. And maybe that’s the right call! But step back and really think about whether it is; don’t take it as a given.

4. Also, think about taking off a whole month or even more. You need a sustained period of time to recover from what you’ve been doing to yourself — and honestly, a month isn’t enough, but it’ll help you remember who you are, and that can fortify your determination to keep making space for that person once work resumes. If you start planning now to, for example, take off the entire month of December, you can give clients an early heads-up and they will figure out how to make do (and “make do” doesn’t mean “move on and never work with you again” — people go on leave and come back and it’s fine).

If you’re too scared to do what I’m outlining above, don’t commit to all of it right now. Do just #1 or #2 once, and see what happens. You’ll almost certainly see that it goes fine, and that’ll make it easier to do it the next time, and then the next time. You don’t need to change it all overnight. But experiment with it — because you deserve to take your life back.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 192 comments… read them below }

      1. Susana*

        I admit I miss the podcast (what about me and MY needs! ). But I wondered how the heck you managed to do it, with all the writing you do.

      2. Fact & Fiction*

        I completely understand why you dropped the podcast! Self-care has to come first.

        I’m online (casual) friends with the author of this letter, and I was tearing up as I read the letter and your response. We’ve hung out in the same online environments for many years, and I’ve been so proud of their hard work in establishing their freelance career but also hopeful that they could find a happy medium with work-life balance. I’m so happy they wrote to you since I’ve also been following your blog for many years, and I hope that your response helps give them hope and courage to start saying no to clients.

        I’ve also freelanced in the past, and I never quite managed to make a full success of it but did parlay that experience into a full-time job I love in the same industry. Of course, that means I now also juggle my fiction career with the non-fiction writing. But I can so relate to impostor syndrome because I’m still dealing with that in many ways.

        At any rate, I just wanted to say that I fully agree that it’s okay to say no sometimes and to set boundaries! It can be hard, but it’s so worth it.

  1. Kate*

    I don’t have any advice (everything Alison said seems, as usual, spot on). But I’m glad you wrote this. I’m a struggling freelancer who can’t seem to get enough clients to live comfortably, and it’s really stressful and demoralizing. Having too much work is the kind of thing I dream about. It’s kind of nice to remember that everyone has struggles and the people I envy are often just as stressed as I am, just in a different way.

    Be kinder to yourself! And embrace the power of “no”!

    1. Pommette!*

      I just want to add that having experienced one side of the coin (not enough work or money while trying to establish oneself) is a big part of what makes it so hard to say no when the coin does flip. The fear of penury lives on, viscerally, even after you have enough to live on.

      I have nowhere near the writer’s level of professional success (I still go through big bouts of not enough work), but I recently had to refuse a contract. It fell during a busy time, and while I would have been able to finish the work, it would have been at great cost to my health. I said no and I’m still torn between kicking and congratulating myself for it.

      Good luck to you and to the OP both!

    2. JJ*

      I don’t know what industry you’re in, but there are lots of freelance agencies you could look into. A big example in the design space would be Aquent, but there are tons. The work is often pretty ‘meh’ and the agency takes a pretty big cut, but if you establish yourself as a reliable freelancer it can become steady, and take you through the fallow times with the better paying/more interesting clients. Making a few dozen powerpoints is a great trade-off for not having to stress about money all the time. Good luck!

    3. Skeeder Jones*

      Would it be possible to sub-contract out some of the easier, supportive tasks? It would make your life easier, you could still have the sub-contractor submit all work to you and then you would have the final review to make sure it fits with the other work you are doing. In addition to making your own life easier, it might help someone else get started as a freelancer. It sounds like you have plenty of work to share but I am not sure what type of work you do so it is hard to say for sure. This may not work for your industry but if it does, it might help your workload considerably.

      1. FallingSlowly*

        This is what I came here to say too. You know your own field of course, and it sounds like you bring specialised skills to the table, but can you consider whether some parts can be subcontracted out, or even if you can hire an assistant to take some aspects off your shoulders.
        That’s how you grow your business, once it’s at the point where you can’t do it all by yourself but there is more potential work and income available – you bring in another person to share the workload, and your increased income pays for them.

        1. Flash Bristow*

          Hear hear. When I had my business I often subcontracted, for a variety of reasons:
          * to share the load
          * to meet specific deadlines
          * to be able to offer specific skills between us.

          Definitely something I’d suggest. Bear in mind it’s sooooo much easier to find someone else self employed who can invoice you and deal with their own tax, etc., than having to register as an employer and carry all the extra work that entails, though!

  2. Amber Rose*

    Saying no to anything takes practice. Can you pick one client who it would hurt slightly less to lose/disappoint and resolve to say no to their next job request?

    Because I think that, for a start, what you really need to experience is saying no, and having the world not fall apart.

    I’m not a freelancer but I am a people pleaser. That first no is the hardest. Do it once and every time after will be a little easier.

      1. another scientist*

        I also think that Alison’s first suggestion is a great way of practicing to assert your limits, while not scarily rejecting work outright. Just gentle pushback ‘sounds so great, but I’m booked. I could deliver the partial thing/by a deadline 10 days later than you asked’ totally leaves room to accept the initial proposal if the client holds firm on the details. I’m not saying that OP should continue to satisfy each and every request, but truly realize that starting a negotiation on the contract parameters does NOT mean you are losing or rejecting the job!
        Not quite the same as your problem, but I have an example of transforming from what in my case was impulsive people-pleasing to protecting and optimizing my worktime by habitually negotiating. not too long ago, I was excited to be invited to each and every work meeting, however impractically it would dissect my day, just to be in the loop (major FOMO). Soon I realized that this impacted my ability to do my actual job (I still don’t mind meetings, maybe I should find a job where they pay me to go to meetings). Now, every time I get a meeting invite, I first check whether this meeting can happen without me. If it’s a weekly thing, I will show up once or twice a month but have no qualms scheduling over it. If it’s a one-on-one, even if my schedule is very open, I always try to go for the day and time that is best for me (not my work-from-home day and after lunch when I’m not super productive). It will be no surprise that most people not only have no problem with my behavior, but are usually able and willing to accommodate me! At this point, it’s transformed from a ‘how can I make this meeting request work?’ to ‘how could this meeting request work better for me?’.

    1. 42*

      That was my first thought. That answer is standing right there and bonking everyone on the head, but it hasn’t been addressed.

      OP is that feasible??

    2. Pommette!*

      That was my first thought also, but… I suspect that hiring an assistant can be its own source of work and stress. You have to find someone, determine what their skills and weaknesses are, plan the work you give them accordingly, and ultimately remain responsible for the quality and timeliness of the work they produce.

      1. MillersSpring*

        But all of that is doable! Stressful in the short term but it could be broken into micro steps as a six-month goal. I agree that the OP could benefit from delegating some work to an associate. It was the first thing I thought, too. Maybe eventually the OP could go from being a freelancer to having a small two-person virtual firm, e.g. “OP and Associates.”

        1. Pommette!*

          I agree that it might be doable, and that OP might genuinely benefit from going that route. (Or not, depending on her personality and on the nature of her work). In either case, it’s definitely worth thinking about.
          But even if it is a real possibility in the long term, the fact is that in the short term, this approach will increase the level of stress and uncertainty, and the amount of work, that the she has to deal with. That isn’t feasible for someone already working 60+ hour weeks. I think that the timelines suggested by Alianora, (two posts below), make a lot of sense in this regard.

    3. Trout 'Waver*

      I think that’s a good long term goal, but would increase stress in the short term. OP needs some short term strategies first, I think.

      1. Alianora*

        Yup, my process would be:

        1. Reduce your workload using Alison’s tips here.
        2. Schedule a vacation to recover from your burnout.
        3. Now that your workload’s manageable and you’re refreshed, add in the project of hiring an assistant.
        4. After your assistant is hired and trained, you can start taking on more work (but not too much!)

    4. Mint Hartke*

      I don’t think OP needs to hire an assistant. It sounds like they have more than enough work to hire a partner, someone with the same skills as OP who can take on half the work. OP, that’s what people do when they have more clients than they have hands – you either get fewer clients or get more hands! There’s no other way that math works!

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        That was my thought, though that also comes with stress.

        And the assumption that OP knows someone in their industry they trust to work at the same high quality they do.

        But OP, if you do know someone you trust to do this kind of work, what would happen if, when you said “no I don’t have time” you followed it up with “here’s the name of X person I know does good work”? I know it sounds like you’ve just selected your replacement but if your clients have this much work what you’ve really done is made yourself even more valuable. Because they can count on you to give them a lead if you’re too busy so why wouldn’t they call you first? You do things right and save them effort.
        And meanwhile if the contractor you recommend is also recommending you when they have too little work, you’ve backstopped yourself in case one of your clients drops.

        Maybe you’ve already done this, or maybe there’s no one in your network you feel strongly enough about to recommend, but it would be a kind of baby step before you decide whether or not the idea of having a partner works for you.

    5. Iris Eyes*

      YES!! This! Or shoot if you are putting in 80-100 hours then there is definitely space for a full time assistant. Or maybe you could find a freelancer who you could sub-contract the work out to and maybe even transition some of your clients to them.

    6. A Consultant*

      I think OP should consider something in this vein as an alternative/addition to just turning down work. In my practice, in the last year, I’ve been balancing a similar onslaught of work (although I’m not at this level). I can also feel anxious about the “If they start working with someone new, and they like her better, I’ve lost a client for good” that comes with just saying no to good work.

      I started by using contractors on a project-by-project basis to whom I could delegate some of the lower-level tasks of projects. It certainly depends on the type of consulting you do, but if there are tasks that could be delegated. Other than identifying a good candidate, this is easy and quick to set-up. (Think about when you were starting out in those first few years, OP… that’s who you’re looking for. Someone not established yet who would be thrilled to assist you – and learn from a pro.)

      If/when you’re at the stage that you have so much work, and a stable pipeline of it, that you could feasibly support yourself and a part- or full-time second person, it might be worth doing. There’s stress in getting it started, but potentially longer-term benefit — again, after finding the right person — in having a stable backstop to help you get things done, keep your reputation, and be able to take on even more stuff. [This is where I am now. It’s scary, for sure. But I’m also thinking about the potential benefits, and they are great.]

      Someone else mentioned getting a partner – someone at your senior level. That’s an option, but I would advise treading very, very carefully before co-owning a business with someone. (If you want to hire a senior person as your employee, OK.) It’s essentially a marriage. I’ve seen people go through very expensive and stressful struggles when they realized their business partner isn’t on the same page as them. I stress “expensive” because you are concerned about financial stability. It’s a really big risk.

      Good luck. And congratulations on how successful you’ve been. Honestly, it’s a testament to your skills, professionalism, and expertise. Try to shake the imposter syndrome. You are a rockstar. (Also, if you are this in demand, are you charging enough??)

    7. MissDisplaced*

      I was thinking a partner actually. If there really is that much work, a partner or junior partner could allow you to take more of that sweet candy from the piñata. In the long term view, this could be the beginning of a business.
      But this isn’t without it’s own issues and risks. And you’d have to have someone in mind.

  3. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Why not get some help?

    Get a part-time admin assistant to handle the mundane details.
    Get a fee-for-service bookkeeper for invoicing, etc.

    Would it possible/sensible for you to bring on a junior partner? Somebody who can do some of the grunt work, which you’d review and add your special touches to before it goes out to the clients?

    1. Zip Silver*

      This was exactly what I was thinking. If OP has 80+ hours per week worth of business, it may be time to start thinking about hiring a part time admin.

      1. 'Tis me*

        Given that the letter writer’s partner is under-employed, I’d wonder if it might be possible for him to come on board in that sort of role, at least temporarily? Obviously working together doesn’t suit every couple, but if he’s got the necessary skills and a “zero hours contract” situation would suit them both (e.g. fit in around his job hunt and relieve some of the pressure the LW is under), it may be worth discussing.

    2. NW Mossy*

      Or if hiring someone’s not in the cards, perhaps there’s a fellow freelancer you trust enough to say “I’m booked, but Valentina Warbleworth is great and she may be able to work with you.”

      Ideally, this would be someone with overlapping but complementary skills to yours – works in the same general space, but has a particular affinity for the projects that are less appealing to you. It’s not always easy to find someone like that, but it might be just the sort of community support you need to help bring things back into balance.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sometimes the work really can’t be done by an assistant; they’re hiring you for your brain and your expertise and there’s not always enough work outside that category that you can offload it. (My family suggests this to me all the time, and it’s just not practical.) That may or may not be the OP’s situation, though.

      1. Mr. Tyzik*

        What if instead of hiring an assistant for admin tasks, OP hired another freelance writer to take on part of the workload? Is that something that is feasible in that situation?

        I ask you directly because you’re very familiar with OP’s situation. :)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think it depends — both on the nature of the work, and on whether she wants to be responsible for managing someone else’s work. In my case, the nature of the work would preclude that, but I have a weird situation.

          1. Annette*

            I meant to reply to this comment. It’s something to consider. Even if you and many others choose differently.

      2. MillersSpring*

        You could train a part-time moderator, as well as audition a couple of guest columnists.

      3. MK*

        However, wouldn’t it help to have an assistant (even a part-timer) to cover everything but the actual work? More like a PA than an assistant-consultant.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think it depends! Again using myself as an example, it’s really the actual work that’s so time consuming and the admin-type stuff is pretty minimal.

      4. Annette*

        Many freelancers use assistants. Just because a suggestion doesn’t work for you (very unusual job). Doesn’t mean LW should not consider it.

        Even your situation. An assistant could sort letters you receive or control comments on the site. Many bloggers have assistants who do this. Not outsourcing = your choice. Maybe not LW’S.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Of course it can work for others, even though it doesn’t work for me — that’s why I’ve been careful to say it depends (and why we have the sandwich rule here!). But sometimes people act like an assistant is the obvious, definite solution, when it’s actually not because of circumstances you don’t realize.

          (In my case, the time spent on hiring, training, and managing someone in the activities you describe would cancel out the majority of the benefit of having the help. The stuff that’s really time-consuming is my actual work, not the admin stuff. And yes, when you’re overloaded, eliminating anything can help — but in this case it would be replaced by a more demanding activity — managing someone.)

          1. Skeeder Jones*

            This brings up the most important question in the history of this blog (I gave myself WAY too much credit there): How do you do it? It often sounds like this site is not your full time job but how can it not be? Just moderating the comments is something that probably needs near fulltime attention. I hope it is your full time job.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s not my full-time job! That’s why the moderation is inconsistent. I also do consulting work, and my columns for other sites.

              The answer to how is … well, for a long time it was paragraph 5 of this letter writer’s letter: worked all the time, pit of guilt in stomach, little leisure time. That’s why this one was so personal to me. I’m really working to change it! (The podcast had pushed me over the edge into “maybe going to have a breakdown” so I’m taking it more seriously now.)

    4. OrigCassandra*

      As it happens, I am waiting-in-the-wings to possibly become a junior partner for a professional friend who has started a consulting-for-a-specific-area-in-a-specific-industry business I’m also interested in. (It’s complicated. My current worklife may or may not change drastically for the worse, and my friend needs to build up the business before considering making it a partnership. We’re on the same page about Not Right Now.)

      One of the reasons I think our partnership could work out well is that I am harder-nosed than my friend is about work-life balance and keeping client expectations manageable.

      This doesn’t necessarily mean that OP should immediately run out and find a partner… but if OP does decide to go that route, this might be a characteristic of potential partners to look for. A good partnership relies at least partly on complementary skillsets!

  4. Tasha*

    Raise your rates! Then you can make just as much money with fewer projects/less work. You will see which clients actually value you and your work.

    1. Robin Simons*

      I was just coming here to say this. Also, practice saying no, I’m sorry, too busy in the mirror. But really, raise your rate substantially in order to get people to go away.

      1. Ethyl*

        Yes this! LW, it sounds good, and it’s going to feel goody, but practice your scripts out loud, maybe with your partner. That will help train your brain and make it easier to get out the “no thanks.”

        Also, dear LW, would it be possible for you to see a therapist or counselor? You sound like you could use someone to help you process your fears and anxieties, and having a place to unload all that hour carrying right now could help you get some mental space and clarity. I wish you all the best, you sound like a wonderful, caring, hardworking person and you deserve better than feeling like a zombie all the time. And I believe you *can* feel better, eventually. Hang in there.

        1. Amelia Pond*

          Seconding the therapist suggestion. I’m also a bit concerned with the LW feeling so alone. That can lead some very bad places, mentally.

        2. Ethyl*

          Holy crap I can’t believe I missed the autocorrect fiasco up there. Goofy! Not goody! Good grief.

      2. wittyrepartee*

        And you can even pair it with a “I can’t see myself taking this on until ___, will that work for you?”

    2. BadWolf*

      I was thinking the same. Re-evaluate your fees. Fewer jobs that bring in more money per job.

    3. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      Ditto. I came here to say that exact same thing. You can get away with fewer jobs if you get paid more per job. My previous boss said that this was the best way to “fire” (or in your case, drop) a client because there is no bad feelings or guilt on your part. They will be quitting you, not the other way around.

      Also, as contradictory as this may sound, do this with your biggest client. I am not a freelancer but I did see this at a previous job. It is better to lose your biggest client and have a number of smaller ones than to be dependent upon one client because you may just lose that one client. Having multiple smaller clients is more of a safety net.

      This is of course in addition to the excellent advice Alison already gave.

    4. Lepidoptera*

      100+++. The answer to “too much freelance work” is almost always “charge more”.

      Choosing who or what to drop off your plate is not a decision you need to make, LW–let the higher rates filter people out. Whoever is left is absolutely certain to value your expertise, your pacing, and your workload.

      Just make sure to give plenty of advanced notice, and also have a backup peer to recommend to any client who opts out of the rate hike.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I hope you chuckle, OP. When I met my friend, he was charging $15/hr for the work he did. I told him he needed to go to $20/hr. (Reality, he needed to go much higher but the step was too big for him to be able to even talk about it.) We argued over that $5, OP. We were both snarling at each other before the conversation ended. Finally after about a year of me saying this he went to $20/hr.

      He lost some of his favorite people. It turned out, OP, that these VERY likable folks also preferred to pay very low wages. It felt like he lost a friend. Time eased that hurt.

      A little while later I started in again, telling him that he needed to move to $25 per hour. This was less time intensive and a few months later he bumped to $25. An odd thing happened he started picking up more people.

      See, what we think of our work is reflected in our pricing. By that we mean if we are calculating what it actually costs us to do a job, it shows when we set our rates. This helps people to think about what they really want us to do for them, also.

      Time marched on and one day my friend announced he was moving to $30/hour. I am so proud of him, I did not even mention an increase.
      The rest of the story is that people doing the same work are getting $50/hour. That is the going rate here. So my friend is still well below market rates.
      He picks and chooses his people. They have to be nice first and foremost. They have to live with in a given distance from home. They have to allow him to work when he is able and weather is cooperating. He has all this plus he is making twice what he did when I first met him. In return he is available for free advice from time to time. Sometimes he locates low cost or no cost materials for his customer. He always brings ideas to the table for whatever situation someone has- he never runs out of ideas.

      Think about your own parallel to this story, OP. How does your story so far parallel my friend’s story? My friend stopped and thought about what made him feel satisfied. He landed a few things: how people treat him; travel time and flexibility with deadlines.
      In all this running that you are doing, OP, I would bet my last chocolate donut that you have not once thought of what it is that would feel right for you. Absent that, yeah, you are going to frantically run from job to job and never feel satisfied. If you don’t run your work then your work WILL run you.

    6. designbot*

      This is exactly what I was coming here to say too! Rase your rates! Raise them by a noticable but not ridiculous amount. Think 15% or 20%, not 100%. There will be some clients and some project that doesn’t work for, and that’s okay. It’s what you want, in fact. That’ll cull a few projects naturally, and make sure that the ones that remain can sustain you. If then you still need to drop some projects, create a go/no-go test for yourself. Be willing to say “This sounds really interesting! I’m booked up through the end of May, but could start first thing in June if that works for you.”

      1. designbot*

        whoops, hit ‘enter’ too soon. Meant to say, this way you’re not even actually telling people ‘no.’ You’re just saying, this is what I need to make this work for me, and knowing that some will be cool with that and some won’t.

    7. MassMatt*

      I was going to suggest raising your rates also, especially if it has been a few years since you first set them.

      I would also segment your clients into tiers, A Level clients that you love for whatever reason (best paying, most interesting work, easiest to get along with, etc) B and C level, etc. Almost everyone who does any kind of freelance work has some clients they don’t like. Maybe they’re argumentative, or demanding, or slow to pay, or you just don’t like doing the kind of work they want. Either raise their rates higher to make up for the headaches, or stop taking new work from them.

      I got rid of several unproductive clients a couple years ago and only wish I had done it sooner. One in particular was a huge time sink, I was spending more time with her than any 3-4 clients, meanwhile she produced a fraction of the revenue.

  5. JR*

    All of the above, plus raise your rates!!!! That’s how supply and depend works. You can clearly charge more and still have a full workload. And if you’re worried that will scare off fulfilling clients with a social mission, like the one you mention above, you can have a two-tiered pricing system or offer price breaks to the clients that are most meaningful to you.

    1. Existentialista*

      Exactly. Demand is outrunning your supply, so raise your rates to winnow out your clients to only those who value you the most, and to get more out of each hour you’re spending. If you don’t do this, it’s like you’re stealing money from yourself.

      That should take care of the dollars and the hours, and then you can seek other types of help for your feelings and confidence. I wish you all the very best.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        And if there’s a specific client that you really enjoy working for (let’s say a non-profit doing meaningful work), then you raise those rates and then give them some kind of discount.

  6. Colette*

    I’m in agreement with everything Alison says – but I’d also suggest the OP work on building up her savings while she is over-employed. Having some money set aside may help her feel more secure in turning down work – because even if everything she’s built falls apart, she can pay the bills while she figures out the next thing.

    1. Pilcrow*

      Seconding this. Having a good sized emergency fund can take a huge load of stress off should the worst happen. I have a single income and I got laid off a few years ago; having a full year’s worth of salary socked away was one of the few things that kept me from losing it entirely (I do have family for emotional support, but they can’t do anything for me financially).

    2. Legal Beagle*

      I’m not a freelancer, but I recognize a lot of the OP’s anxieties. Money worries are so real, and so stressful. I second the recommendation of building up savings, in whatever way is feasible for the OP. Something as simple as moving a little money each month from a checking account to a savings account can help as a mental safety net for the “what if it all goes away” worries.

    3. Harper the Other One*

      Yes, I was coming to suggest this! A comfortably padded emergency fund will make saying no much less scary.

    4. Marthooh*

      Like a FU fund, but in this case, we’ll call it a “No, I’m so sorry, but aren’t you kind to think of me!” fund.

    5. Liz*

      I was also going to recommend this! OP, I think all the above recommendations are amazing but I wonder if you have to do some things first to make yourself feel more secure. Things I’d consider:
      1) a hefty emergency fund/FU fund (6 months? A year? Whatever feels good to you)
      1a) can you make yourself a back up plan? Sometimes writing out a specific plan helps with my anxiety. For example, “if I lose my clients I will cut back on x, y and z. I will tap into this fund. I will consider offering q service if I don’t have a new one in y date.
      2) could you email some of your clients some sort of “warning email” along the lines of “I wanted to give you a heads up that to maintain my high quality of work my wait times are going to increase”? That way when you still get requests you can have your proof that it’s okay (and can tell yourself you can back track if needed)

      1. Liz*

        Oh! And one more
        3) can you give yourself set physical limits in terms of a calendar? For example if you want to start by dropping down to 60 hours a week (or even just maintaining the 80 without going over for right now) write it out on a weekly calendar where this time is coming from WITHOUT squeezing stuff in or overestimating how quickly you do things. Then every time someone offers a new job reply with “let me check my calendar” and physically find the space for it.

    6. Lee*

      Yes! This was crucial for my sanity when I was consulting. It allowed me to get through fallow periods and turn down unattractive work. My husband had a serious health issue so I suddenly became the sole support.

      Also build in 30 minutes a day to just breathe or walk.

    7. Not So NewReader*

      Yes, yes, yes.
      There are formulas for almost everything, OP.
      How much to have in your emergency fund, how much to have in your long term savings and so on. It can all be figured out by numbers.
      Even life insurance has a formula. (Used to be 8 years pay, perhaps still is?)
      Do you know how much annual income you need to pay the bills? Or to have a nice trip once a year?

  7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Oh, OP, my heart hurts for you. The only additional advice I have is this: turning down exciting, world-changing projects now will not mean that you don’t get to work on similar projects in the future. I say this as another person who struggles to say no when it comes to projects that make me excited about making tangible progress that improves people’s lives.

    There is so much good work to do, and it’s far too much to try to do it all on your own. In my experience, my relationship and prior work for my clients has meant that they’ll keep coming back with opportunities, even if I turn some of those world-changing opportunities down. (And it kills me to turn down projects!) I strongly suspect the same will be true for you.

    You deserve happiness. You deserve balance, sleep, time to recharge, and the chance to spend QT with your partner. Don’t let your fear keep you a prisoner. And if you’re willing, consider talking to a therapist. Having a neutral, confidential third party to vent to can lift some of the stress-load you’re carrying.

    1. Kimmybear*

      Yes. Every time I kick myself for turning down an awesome opportunity because I can’t do one more thing, I see a similar or better opportunity soon after. Unless you work in a field that is closing it’s doors (journalism, film manufacturing), there will be more work later.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’m an attorney who also sometimes works as a consultant (and has consulted in the past). :)

  8. EditorExtra*

    As someone who works with freelance contractors all the time: I promise, you won’t get dropped if your work is good. Here’s what’s happening behind the scenes.

    Me: Would you ask Fergus to copyedit the Annual Teapot Report? I’d also like to get Cersei to do the cover art and graphics.
    My coworker: I did, he’s not available. I’ll check to see if we could get Sansa instead. Cersei can do it, but she won’t have final art for us until the 17th.
    Me: Ok, well ask Fergus if he can carve out time for my Saucers and Tea Accessories brochure in June.

    Any reasonable person does not expect that contractors are endlessly available. If you’re good: we come back.

    1. EditorExtra*

      If it isn’t clear, I’m saying that I have a list of people I like to work with, and I don’t expect that they’re immediately able to take on work. And when they aren’t, they don’t get dropped from my list.

    2. Parenthetically*

      Yes, exactly this! I’ve done the same. If I call Kevin to help with our gallery bookings this season and he’s not available, I’ve got a list of other bookers! I would be sad, because I like working with Kevin and he’s great at his job, but Michael is also great, and Laura has some really useful contacts… etc. etc. That’s just how it goes.

    3. JJ Bittenbinder*

      Yup, the contractor I work with most just said no to a deadline we requested. Rather than thinking “I’ll never send work her way again!!”, I idly wondered if she has anything cool and exciting she’s working on, and got back to figuring out what to do with our business needs.

      No relationships were destroyed.

  9. LMNOP*

    It may be time for this person to find another freelancer in the industry whose work they admire, and begin making referrals. If there’s someone else who hasn’t quite “made it” and OP can work out a referral fee, this could take some of the load off.
    We have a contractor that we love at my org, but who is incredibly busy, so he recently started developing a pool of contacts that he refers us to when he isn’t available. Because he knows what we like and how we work, he coaches that person a bit on our needs and it works for all of us. Win win.

    1. De-Archivist*

      This is a great idea, and I love it. Extra cash in from very little work in the form of a referral fee. The opportunity to develop a network of professional contacts.

      It’s not a quick solution, for sure. But it would be a long-lasting solution to OP’s workload. Plus, if OP did decide to hire an admin in the future (or an employee, for that matter), this would give OP some great contacts when they started looking.

    2. Weegie*

      This was going to be my suggestion – I worked freelance for 10 years, and my network of friends/contacts was always passing work on to each other. When I decided to drop one area of my work altogether, it gave me the chance to help others just starting out in the field by recommending them to clients.

    3. nnn*

      Yes, that’s what I came to suggest! And by referring your client to someone who can take care of them, you’re be making sure they’re still taken care of rather than leaving them in the lurch, so your reputation is still safe. (Isn’t that what you’d want if someone whose services you depend on couldn’t provide you those services any more?)

  10. Jilly*

    This sounds so hard. I think Alison has given you some good advice as have other commmenters in re getting a part time assistant (virtual assistants are totally a thing!). I would also suggest maybe exploring some professional coaching options. These are people who can give you one-on-one help to develop your scripts to say no. They can help you map out what path you want to take in the next year, 5 years, 10 years. Maybe if you have a plan that’s actionable, you’ll feel a bit more confident in execution.

  11. Jack be Nimble*

    I know a freelancer that raises their rates if they start feeling overwhelmed–they’re a fairly in-demand creative, so even if they lose some clients, the ones who remain are enough to cover their expenses.

    I don’t know if this is feasible in your field, but it might be worth considering!

  12. patricia*

    Can I put in a suggestion to find a cognitive behavior therapist? I’m sure finding time to see a therapist feels overwhelming (been there, done that), but a CBT practitioner can help you re-write the scripts in your head that are telling you your skills aren’t valuable, your success is fake and you could lose it all. As Alison points out, these things are patently not true, and a good therapist can help you start telling yourself a different narrative. They can also help you practice using the excellent scripts Alison has suggested for reducing your workload, and help you process the terror that will undoubtedly accompany using them.

    My thoughts are with you, dear LW. I’m in a client services industry myself and choosing to downshift because I’m also not living, and sick of it. It’s scary. But so necessary.

    1. CoveredInBees*

      Yes. This!

      If a therapist doesn’t work for OP for whatever reason, try to find someone who has freelance experience to talk and just give a reality check. Someone whose word you’ll accept as not just saying things to be nice. At the very least, an online group of other freelancers who can give honest, anonymous feedback.

      I’ve been through this in a somewhat different setting. I was driving myself nuts in trying to be all things to all people without letting anyone know how this was effecting my physical and mental health. It seemed the more I accomplished, the farther behind I felt. People praised my work and I just brushed it off because it felt like everything was about to fall apart at any moment. It took someone who had no motive to blow smoke to help me find perspective.

    2. LilyP*

      Yes, I agree. This level of anxiety is absolutely not typical for most adults and it isn’t something you just have to accept (as “normal” OR as “the price of success”). I see a lot of negative thought patterns in your letter (playing out worst-case or slippery-slope scenarios, discounting evidence in favor of your skills/success while over-counting evidence or worries about negatives, etc). A professional can help you realign with reality and escape some of those cycles.

    3. Róisín*

      Yep, I was also coming to say this. LW, you sound like you need a therapist like, yesterday. They can absolutely help you with the negative self-talk and imposter syndrome, and put one more person on your Team Me so you don’t feel like you’re completely alone.

  13. MK*

    OP, Alison gave you excellent advice, but I think you should also consider getting yourself some therapy sessions. A lot of your issues sound psychological and you are projecting huge amounts of anxiety; I was getting stressed just reading your letter.

    1. EH*

      This! I had the same thought. I recognize several thoughts in OP’s letter from my own anxiety. It’s totally normal to have this kind of thing after such a traumatic time in the past, but OP, you don’t have to keep going this way. You can be kind to yourself. Allison’s advice is great, and I’d add therapy to it.

      If nothing else, check out the app Quirk, which is all about helping you recognize and rewrite cognitive distortions in your thinking.

  14. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Do you know and trust someone who does what you do? Could you guys partner up, form an LLP, and tackle these together? Hire an admin or at least get a consultant on board for the admin/bookkeeping issues.

    Success like this often means you’ve got a great business idea.

  15. EPLawyer*

    Oh OP, I feel you. I started my law practice living rent free in a friend’s spare bedroom with just a laptop, a legal pad and some file folders. I was living on $8 a week in groceries. It was HARD.

    It also ingrained some mental habits that are really really really hard to break. I don’t want to go back to being broke. I am quite comfortable now. But I still remember those days (they weren’t THAT long ago). You feel you have to say yes because next month you might not have any income. People are saying hire some help. But the back of your mind is still telling you, you can’t afford it. That what happens if you can’t pay the person? I get all that.

    But you have to take care of yourself or you WON’T be able to work. Start simply. Just explain to a client when you can realistically get to their project. Most will say “That’s fine.” Most know you can’t live on just their projects alone. I say most because you would be amazed how many clients are irked they can’t get me 24/7 because I might, gasp, be in court or preparing for court on another case. But the majority of clients get it. If that doesn’t fit with their timeline, it doesn’t mean in your business they won’t be back later with another project. In fact, you can even say that “I’m booked up right now, but come June it looks a little easier” or whatever. Give them information and let them process it.

    But remember, you can’t work 100 hours a week forever.

    1. Parenthetically*

      “But you have to take care of yourself or you WON’T be able to work.”

      Yep, you can take some voluntary time or your body’s going to force you to take time. One of those is more pleasant than the other.

      1. Matilda Jefferies*

        Yes, yes, yes. This is so important! We can all see the signs of burnout in your letter – and you can see them yourself, or you wouldn’t have written it in the first place. So I hope you can find a way to get on top of all this, before it gets on top of you. Please find a way to do it soon, in a way that lets you control the process and has minimal impact on your partner. Because if you don’t, as EPLawyer and Parenthetically have said, you’re going to find yourself having to do it anyway, possibly on a schedule that really doesn’t work for you and your clients, and that has a significant impact on your partner.

        Sending you love and blankets and hot beverages, and fluffy kittens if that’s your thing. You deserve to take time off and rest.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Breaking old habits.
      This is where it would be cool to have a calendar and show the jobs each week. At the end of the year you can look back on the calendar and demand of yourself to find the days you had no work. Where are the days with nothing in the pipeline?

      Sometimes, OP, we have to deliberately retrain our brains. “I used to have long periods of no work. That is over now. It’s in the past.” We have to say these obvious statements out loud to get it to sink into our skulls.

      1. Ethyl*

        Yes 100% to retraining brains! That’s why a large portion of CBT is literal worksheets, where you write down your thoughts and sort of go through them to identify the wonky ones. And LW — CBT is incredibly effective at helping with this type of thing. I waited way, way too long to do it and I wish I hadn’t. I think it is truly possible for you to feel better than this.

  16. Carlos*

    As someone who’s been on the other side of this – my team contracts artists to design promotional materials – I can absolutely confirm that your clients are expecting you to set the boundaries! Moreover, when an artist I’ve worked with before and have an established relationship with says they have to pass on a project, you’re correct that we’ll find someone else for that project – but our established contractor is still our first call next time!

    1. Isben Takes Tea*

      I second this–my job for years was dependent on farming out projects to freelancers. Some of my favorites were frequently unavailable for a project, but they were still always the first person I offered the next project to!

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      OP, print this (and any of the other answers that ring true for you) and stick them up on the wall in your workspace.

      Clients can adjust. Clients can handle boundaries. Maybe they’ll work harder at getting on your calendar sooner so they can lock you in. Maybe they’ll be happy to work with a trusted colleague you’ve recommended on some of the projects. Maybe that trusted colleague will budget a coffee date with you every Thursday morning to make sure that you’re each doing enough self-care to stay sane and healthy because if you are your business, you can’t afford to collapse. Or maybe a coach or counselor will check you a bit.

      Do you stop going to your favorite bagel shop because they ran out of everything bagels? Or did you say, drat, I’ll have your reasonably good substitute? Or I better get there sooner next time?

      Also, set calendar items every week to protect your self-care. You can move them, but don’t delete. Pretend that you are one of your most important clients.

    3. Le Sigh*

      +1. I work with a handful of outside vendors. For projects I know I want them on, I ask in advance so if they have scheduled vacations or weeks when they’re slammed, I can build my project around their availability. If they’re not available at all, I just work with someone else or ask for a referral if I need it — but I still go back to my other person next time.

      There are some clients who are unreasonable, but most of us know you’re only human. You need a break! And I want you to have a break so you can bring me your best work when you’re back. :)

    4. Not So NewReader*

      My friend who I mentioned above worked long hours. He was grumpy from lack of rest. It took quite a while for me to convince him that most tasks go quicker if we are rested. Things actually take longer to do when we are tired and our mental clarity looks more like fog.

  17. almost empty nester*

    You desperately need to hire someone to help you! You may find more balance in mentoring associates to perform some of the project work, and only personally taking on select projects that you feel strongly about.

  18. Forrest*

    LW, in addition to what people have said above about raising your rates, get therapy. At least two of the problems that you’re talking about – chronic inability to recognise your own value and expertise, and to say no to clients – are therapy-worthy.

    Consider this an investment in your business. To make it sustainable, you need someone who is going to coach you on how to set boundaries and say no, and given the levels of anxiety in your letter it’s probably going to take more than reassuring words from Alison. (Everything Alison says is exactly right! But it will probably really help to explore this in more detail with a paid professional.)

    1. prismo*

      Yes! I work full-time and freelance on the side and therapy has really helped me manage the associated anxiety, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you identify specific behaviors that are contributing to stress and then develop strategies for eliminating or reducing those behaviors. It also really helps you get out of your own head and identify which problems actually exist in the real world and which are just anxiety-induced panic scenarios (hint, probably 90 percent are the latter).

      Also, I say no to my regular clients when my full-time work gets too busy, and it is not a problem at all. They just ask me to circle back when I’m free (my main client actually puts a date on the calendar and checks in with me then). It really, really is normal practice.

    2. Matilda Jefferies*

      Seconding. And if you can’t get therapy right away for whatever reason, you can start by blocking off an hour a week in your calendar just for you. Banish your phone and your laptop and everything associated with work, and spend the time doing something you enjoy.

      You could also block off a chunk of time just for you and your partner – three hours every Wednesday evening, or whatever. It’s not much, but it sounds like more than you’re getting now. Baby steps.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Just tossing this idea out, OP. Perhaps what you really need is to sit down with a financial adviser. If your concern is not having enough money, it makes sense to me that you talk to someone about what “having enough money” actually looks like. It could be you are chasing a goal that you do not even know what the goal looks like.

  19. Alex*

    Just want to chime in as a person who works with freelancers regularly.

    We always want freelancers we know. Even if we can only have them a little bit, if we know them, we want them. We want what they can give us. Some accommodations we’ve made at my workplace to keep freelancers we know and love: Adjust schedules. Give only their favorite projects. Split projects between them and someone else. Given them a raise.

    We do all these things with the thought process of “Oh crap, we don’t want this person off our radar.” Never in a million billion years would we ever think “Eh, this person has less availability than we’d like. Let’s not bother with her.” That just isn’t how it works, because a freelancer that knows your work and has done a good job in the past is something you hold on to no matter what! Finding and building relationships with freelancers is a LOT of work and businesses would always rather make accommodations rather than start fresh with someone new.

    Your inner imposter is telling you that you are not one of these favorites, but obviously you are if you are being given more and more work. You don’t even have to be a superstar to be someone your clients won’t want to lose (although I am not at all saying you are NOT a superstar.)

    I’ll also add that a thing that CAN make you lose clients is if you take on too much and your work starts suffering as a result, or you don’t meet deadlines you say you would, etc. That outcome would be much more damaging to your career than saying no to too much.

    1. Legal Beagle*

      I’ll also add that a thing that CAN make you lose clients is if you take on too much and your work starts suffering as a result, or you don’t meet deadlines you say you would, etc. That outcome would be much more damaging to your career than saying no to too much.

      I also struggle with saying no and turning down opportunities. For me, what Alex suggested can be a good way to start setting boundaries that I feel super anxious about. When you’re in this headspace, it’s really hard to set a limit for your own sake (“I’m so stressed right now – but I should just power through”), but looking at the big picture and the interests of your client (“I can’t do the work well if I’m stretched this thin”) can give you the validation you need to actually turn down an opportunity. Obviously this isn’t ideal, but it can be a good baby step to start controlling your workload!

  20. Natalie*

    I cosign the suggestions to see a therapist or a counselor for some support on the intense anxiety. Logistical strategies – raise your rates, find someone to refer people to, hire an assistant – are all super useful and definitely something you should put into place. But your anxiety doesn’t sound like it’s only a response to situational stressors, and that often means that just changing the situation isn’t enough. You have to start doing some work to change the thought patterns, and a good therapist can help with that.

  21. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    My mind went to an assistant as well, however I have a bit more than just a straight up admin or PA, you’d want to find someone who wants to break into your business and could use this as an opportunity to become a consultant as well. That way they could do some of the work that relieves you and gives them a chance to start growing within your area of expertise.

    Granted I’m in accounting and that’s exactly how I started, as a clerk/assistant. Since you’re also self taught, this can be paying it back and rewarding as well.

    I understand depending on the field it varies if you can source things to an assistant but if you have a lot of transcribing to do or just someone to help you say “no” or push your schedule, it’ll be a large burden off your back. If you have a trusted EA who can juggle your schedule and say “No seriously, you cannot take this project or it needs to be done two weeks out because you’re swamped”, it will take that burden off your back of being the one to say “no”. It doesn’t have to be no, it can be “Yes but not now, will that work for you?” Often we assume that a consultant will do this! So I don’t know you’re drowning and that you’re not just always available because you didn’t tell me! I’m not in a rush…I could wait two weeks but you said “sure right away”.

    1. Forrest*

      I think there are two possibly options here:

      1. Someone who starts as an assistant, takes on some of the basic-level work, with the longer-term possibility of taking over the higher-level work.

      2. An office manager or PA, who takes over the sales, marketing, booking, invoicing side of the business, is comfortable being assertive with clients, and leaves LW free to concentrate on the work product itself.

      LW, both of these are completely feasible, and it’s completely up to you to decide what work you’d like to concentrate on and what you’d like to hand over. You can get someone on a temporary basis one or two days a week to see how it works out, and increase their hours/responsibilities if it does.

      You are in a really, really strong position here: you just need to find the confidence to believe in it. If that sounds impossible, consider getting a therapist or coach to help you get to that point.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I just want to reiterate what I said above: This will work for some people/types of work and not for others. It wouldn’t work for me, for example, and I’m endlessly having to explain why when people suggest it to me, so I want to flag that it’s possible it won’t work for the OP either. But who knows, maybe it will.

        1. Forrest*

          Yes, of course – I was sort of starting from the point of “if an assistant would work for you, there are two possibilities…”

          But I also think that the problem is probably not “an assistant wouldn’t work”, but “LW is currently too stressed and busy to step back and analyse whether an assistant could work for them”. I definitely think that a therapist or a coach would be a good starting point to get them to a position where they can look at the situation without the fog of stress and overwork. It’s SO hard to find solutions when you’re in the middle of it.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Exactly, it depends on the entire picture of the freelance gig that’s she’s drowning in for starters. Is it the documentation side of things? Is it the billing side that sucks up another 20hrs a week that she’s dealing with? Is it the follow up and tracking down clients?

        But I also have a background in setting up micro small businesses for people at this stage so that’s why my mind went to that direction. I’ve seen a lot of people resist hiring additional support because they are scared to see their business explode to bigger than they can handle on their own and handing over responsibility is hard AF when you’re used to doing it all.

  22. RUKiddingMe*

    Not a work anecdote but maybe this will help(?).

    The first time I allowed my son to surf alone (I am/was a surfer in my younger years) he really wanted to do it but was apprehensive…naturally.

    I told him, “be careful, safety first, make sure you ate as prepared as possible snd then do what you want to do. Be cautious but not do cautious that you only exist rather than live.” He was eight years old at the time.

    OP you are letting fear keep you from living. You exist to work instead of working to live. That’s not sustainable. I understand imposter syndrome. I have three big fat graduate degrees including a PhD…one of them is from an ivy school. I still feel like a fraud every single day even though I an way aware how much work I put into them. We all have it to some degree.

    Like Alison said, your skills ate your skills…how you got them is irrelevant. One of the smartest, most capable, could do anything, completely self-taught, never stopped learning new skills until the day he died was my dad. He had a 10th grade education. No one ever doubted his abilities.

    You have a proven track record. None of your clients is going to doubt you at this point. You are not a fraud, you are burning out. Take Alison’s advice. Start turning stuff down sometimes. And take a real vacation. Leave all your tech at home and go to Bora Bora.

  23. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    Practice saying no with a friend. Roleplay a phone call. If you need someone with you to hold your hand while you write an email turning down work, ask them for that. This is the time to ask for support from the people who care about you.

    I wish you so much luck and strength in this path. Please don’t work yourself into an early grave. You deserve to live a happy and stress-free life. There’s a lot of good advice here. Take care of yourself and let us know how you get on. Good luck, we’re cheering you on!

  24. AM*

    I use a particular independent contractor, mostly for editing help on insanely long technical reports, with a similar work ethic to what you describe. Her reliability and quick turnaround have saved me on several occasions.

    When she has been unable to assist, I’ve never questioned her motives or been tempted to cut ties with her. “I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to work on that! My workload is full through the end of May.” If anything, I’m kicking myself for not reaching out sooner in order to get on her schedule.

    1. EditorExtra*

      EXACTLY. I have gotten spoiled by having a rotation of freelancers who I never have needed to schedule—and when they rightfully (because they’re talented!) start to get more work and have limited time for me, I kick *myself* for not planning ahead, I never think I should stop trying to hire them.

  25. animaniactoo*

    OP, it sounds to me like you already know the wordings and thought processes that Alison has given, and your issue is bringing yourself to speaking them for fear that it all comes crashing down like a house of cards.

    So, while I recommend talking to a therapist about this – and therapy does not have to be a long term process, it can be short term as a place to land and talk, and get feedback and make detailed plans while you carry through a change in your life – I’d recommend a couple of different exercises to help you get perspective and a place to start from.

    1) Make a list of your clients and rank them. You want to identify 2 categories in particular. Which ones you get the most business/money from and are the most sustainable, and which ones you most enjoy working with. If there is crossover between those two, then great. For the moment, those are your “no go” clients – you don’t try out anything new about accepting work from them right now. The rest – look at who lands at the bottom of each list. Those are the clients you can most afford to lose. So it’s okay if you lose 1 or 2 of them while you are figuring out how to restructure yourself. These will be your target clients for practicing saying some version of a “no”.

    2) Fish first. Instead of saying “I can’t get that done by X”, start with “Getting it done by X would be hard with the other projects I have right now. Would Y be acceptable?”. By doing that, you’re not committing to X is not possible. You’re only inquiring whether it really needs to be X. And it gives you the room to evaluate how you feel about committing to X depending on what their answer back to you is.

    Not that fishing should be your new permanent M.O. But it’s a way to get your feet wet without giving yourself a panic attack.

    Others here have good ideas about referral partnerships, which are a two way street – as much as you refer out, at points people will refer back to you when they are swamped, and that helps give you coverage for the “dead” time. Again, start with the business you can most afford to lose when you refer out though.

    The goal of this is for you to have some confidence that you have some choices and control into both what you potentially lose, but also what you definitely keep.

  26. Pilcrow*

    OP, you have multiple clients of varying sizes*, right? If so, try practicing saying no on one of your lower-stakes clients, one you could afford to lose if they went out of business tomorrow. This can help you get a sense of how your other clients may react. You may find it’s not so bad as you fear.

    * Sizes in this context is how much income they represent to you.

  27. Yourethicsconfuseme*

    The hardest part about being self taught is getting that first person to think you’re competent and take a chance on you. Once you have that and a track record, how you acquired your skills don’t matter anymore! It isn’t that your skills are less valuable, that’s not why it’s hard to make it in a business with no formal training…it’s hard because people don’t like to take risks! You’ve already gone wayyyyy past that so don’t ever worry about “making it” in your field again if you do happen to have to start over.

  28. AdAgencyChick*

    Great advice from Alison, and another thing to add:

    If you are in touch with others who do what you do well, it can also help to refer your client to another freelancer if you have to say no. “Right now my schedule won’t allow it, but Valentina Warbleworth would be a great choice. Here’s her contact info.”

    This may feel scary. You’re giving your work to someone else! What if they fall in love with Valentina and never want to work with you again?

    Remember, you have way more work than you can handle now. There will still be people beating down your door if you do this. The difference is that it will feel a lot less like burning a bridge and more like helping your clients out. The ones that love you will still want to work with you again.

  29. Otillie Rae*

    **I am stealing time from a crushing 800-pound gorilla of a freelance deadline in order to write this. Reader, I hear you.**

    I could’ve written this almost verbatim. I still struggle with it continually. Two things help me:

    — Allison’s suggestion #1 — negotiating deadlines — WORKS. I stumbled on this without trying when a client had a particularly wonderful project I wanted to work on *so hard,* and I could not bring myself to say no, so without even thinking it through I said, “Not by Monday but maybe by Thursday?” The client said yes. Now I do this all the time and it can help so much in wrangling an 800-pound gorilla of a schedule under control.

    — Over the course of YEARS (my brain is a stubborn wolverine) I learned to reset my own inner expectations of how long a project will take me. That is, ten years ago, I’d get a request from a client, think “That would take me three days,” and say yes. Now, after huge amounts of inner work, I think “That would take me SIX days.” It has prevented some horrible bottlenecks I otherwise would’ve gotten myself into.

    Because — one last point — I DID get myself into trouble by not saying no at one point. I reached a point where the only way I could meet my deadlines was to rush through the work. And eventually it started to show, and my clients took me to task, and that was a hard, hard lesson I never want to repeat.

    Schedule management has been the biggest challenge of my freelance life. I still have to be constantly vigilant. Saying yes feels *so good* for the next five minutes, but saying no feels *so good* for the next five weeks…months…years.

    1. EventPlannerGal*

      Ugh, so much yes to all of this – and I’m another one who’s gotten into trouble in a similar way.

      OP, you mention that you have your time management skills under control, would would it help if you tried to reframe saying no or negotiating deadlines as just part of your time management? Because really, that’s what it is. Good time management isn’t about just doing whatever it takes to get the task done by Friday, even if that means all-nighters and anxiety and no personal life. It can also be about asking why it has to be done by Friday and if it can be Monday instead, or whether it has to be you that does it. Just asking those questions can be so powerful.

      And honestly, I know it can be hard to believe when you’re in that horrible mental space, but it will shock you how many people will be okay with what you’re asking for. When I first moved from a really toxic old job to my current place, I was *terrified* of even asking; if someone asked me to do something, even if I had no idea how to do it or how long it would take, I would just say yes and try to figure it out later. It took a while to get past that, but it honestly shocked me how many people would be like, “oh no you can get it to me next week” or “oh that’s fine I’ll ask Jane!” or whatever if I just explained that I had a lot on my plate and would need more time. Obviously in a freelance environment the particulars might vary, but I promise, OP, if you can get yourself to a place where you can ask these questions it is so worth it.

  30. Kuododi*

    I do feel for you my dear. I spent a few years building up a solo private counseling practice and the stress is very real. (I ended up shutting down and relocating before it really took off.). One of the things I learned quickly during that time was it is often necessary to say “no” to good things in life in order to say “yes” to what would be the best. In my world that meant I couldn’t take every client referral directed to me. It feels great to be needed however, realistically I am not able to provide appropriate care for everyone in my corner of the world. (Some have needs outside my field of specialty and other similar concerns.). I echo others recommendation for a few sessions with a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused counseling or the like. Blessings to you and you are in my heart.

  31. Gloucesterina*

    Kerry Anne Rockquemore writes for an audience of mainly of academics and academic administrators, but her idea of creating an “N-Committee”–a few trusted folks who you enlist to help you decide when to say the “N-word” and motivate you to drop the “N-Word”–feels very consonant with AAM’s advice! Link to Rockquemore’s approach here: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2010/10/04/n-word

    1. Gloucesterina*

      I’d add that Rockquemore has written a lot of work specifically for Black academics, so I think that her play with “No” as the “N-Word” likely comes out of that context/history! Her wordplay is certainly irreverent, but not quite as edgy as it may sound at first!

    2. Trout 'Waver*

      So, your paragraph reads quite differently if you’re referring to the word people usually refer to as the “N-word”

  32. RandomU...*

    I am not nor have ever been an independent contractor, so if this doesn’t make sense my apologies.

    Have you considered a different pricing model that will help you to spread the workload into a more manageable pace?

    You mentioned the Urgent/Critical jobs that come your way, can you price those at a premium to shuffle to the front of the line, then give a discount or keep to your normal rate the lower priority jobs that have more flexibility in the timeline? It may be a way to keep your bread and butter jobs at a steadier pace while allowing room for the urgent/critical ones to come in. This means that you may have to give longer lead times on your less urgent/critical jobs, but you are building in time to take on the ones that have shorter deadlines.

    I can understand not wanting to say no to clients or dropping them. But the only alternative is to build more time into the jobs so that you aren’t burning yourself out.

    I also agree with the focus on saving advice. From the sounds of it, you would have better piece of mind if you have a cushion so you don’t feel vulnerable to loss of income.

    1. Forrest Rhodes*

      My dad always had a sign on the wall of his independent, construction-related business that said:
      “You can have it fast. You can have it cheap. You can have it good.
      Pick two.”
      I keep that sign in mind with my own freelancing.

      1. RandomU...*

        This is pretty much what I was getting at.

        I’m coming at this from a manufacturing lens. It’s taken us awhile to figure this out, but we know we have certain predictable number of drop in orders that occur each month. So we leave a small percentage of our capacity open and plan components for those drop in orders. All of our other orders are scheduled into the remaining (and majority of the) capacity.

        If our drop in orders don’t happen or are less than our average, we just pull in orders that were scheduled later.

        The OP should be doing the same. Instead of booking jobs to maximum capacity, let’s say 60 hours per week, and then increasing by 20 hours for those last minute and urgent jobs. They can book jobs to 40 hours per week and allow that 20 to stay open for last minute rush jobs. If no rush job materializes, then the OP can work on the other jobs in the queue and deliver early. This buffer can also be used for things like unexpected illness/emergencies/and any other situation that would affect the OPs schedule.

        1. RandomU...*

          ETA… Forgot to add the pricing differential will help make up for the open capacity in case that there are times when there aren’t any rush jobs.

          For the customer they are paying a premium for the OP leaving that capacity open.

          Honestly, even if the OP doesn’t want to change rates, they should be at least be building that buffer time into their quoted lead times.

  33. Batgirl*

    Fear is a lying liar, who lies. The Bene Gesserit litany against fear was useful to me in a similar situation.

    Another useful weapon against fear is to cultivate a pile I like to call ‘proof of my awesomeness’. Start with a collage of your professional success (file, scrap book, whatever) then gradually add in some awesomeness variety like photos from your personal life, your interests and your likes/dislikes whatever.

    Right now fear has you foxed into believing that your only worth is what you can make or contribute. I don’t believe that and nor do you. Proof of ‘this is who I am and this is what makes me, me’ is very hard to dispute when you’re looking at it.

  34. AndersonDarling*

    One of my clients is a project manager consultant. She has many, many clients and she simply tells them her current schedule. It goes something like this:
    “We want to convert the Lama Breeding program over to Lama Sculpting software. Can you help with that?”
    “I would really like to, but I am booked out until June. Would you be able to hold on the project until then? Or I can recommend another PM to help you now.”
    Think of it the same way you would be working with your manager if you were an employee. If you are overwhelmed, you would tell your boss to reassign some of the work. That same honest communication makes you a good contractor.

  35. CupcakeCounter*

    Item #1 is great and (to me anyway) feels like the perfect compromise for this LW – not really saying No right away but a little push back to try to get a more reasonable deadline. It seems like the perfect way to start for someone with the feelings that our LW has about their situation. After a couple of times the clients say “Yeah we can push that deadline back a week – no problem” I think it will make taking the next step (of eventually saying no to something) a lot easier.
    Baby steps!

  36. Jennifer*

    I have been in a milder version of this situation, though I’m not a freelancer. As Alison said, if you say yes all the time people just assume you can handle it. You just have to set reasonable deadlines with your clients that still allow you to have a life. I hope the advice helps and that you take that days-long nap and tea break.

  37. LSP*

    Oh, OP, please stop being so hard on yourself!

    I work with contractors a lot at my job, and as long as they are clear about their limitations, I have no problem working with them to make sure their workload is reasonable within those limitations. Sure, occasionally there’s a crisis that needs a bit more from them than we originally discussed, but that’s a rare thing, because I understand they have their own priorities and do not have the same obligations as the full-time employees I work with.

    Your clients will understand if you say, “Hey, I’m going to need to work fewer hours overall, but am happy to be available X hours per week. I wanted to let you know so you can prioritize what work you give me.” My contractors have said that to me, and that’s ABSOLUTELY FINE AND REASONABLE. They do great work, so I’m going to keep working with them, even if they can’t do everything I wish they could do for me. Then I just go through my wishlist and pick out what I most need their help on, and redistribute and/or delay the rest. I don’t think poorly of them, and I would never cut them off from future work because of it.

  38. LaDeeDa*

    Please take Alison’s advice! #1 works almost every time– I have found it works with my own boss. Rarely does anyone not have some flexibility with a date, they just have to run it back up the chain. It really isn’t that big of a deal for most things.
    Good luck!!!

  39. tallteapot*

    Build a 6 month financial cushion. that may also give you a sense of security. I know for me, when I don’t have that, I have a lot more stress about the ‘what-ifs” and the fear that if I mess up, I’ll be foreclosed on, barely scraping by, declaring bankruptcy. Logically, I know that is not likely, but being able to remind myself that I have this cushion, it’s there to provide that security, really helps.

  40. Paulina*

    LW, in addition to Alison’s excellent advice: Could you ask your regular clients to give you more lead time about their plans? From some of what you’ve written, I’m getting the impression that there’s quite a lot of last-minute, can-you-please-do-this-now work coming your way, and then big breaks when there’s nothing and you collapse. Are you able to try to spread things out more, so there aren’t as many emergencies? It can be softer than saying “no”, more like “I would love to help you prepare for your big launch on date X, I would need the fundamental material from you on date X-y. Would that be possible?” to encourage them to plan better in order to stay your client, rather than what they’ve become used to (getting your services whenever they loop you in, and two weeks’ worth of work in one week).

  41. Wing Leader*

    Just wanted to point out that Sue Hendrickson is a self-taught paleontologist, and she discovered the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found. She also discovered three fossilized 23 million year old butterflies (only six in total have ever been found). Self-taught skills are not any less valuable or useful than those taught to you by someone else.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      After today’s letter about “What would she know about fossils?”, this tidbit delights me even more than it would on any regular day.

  42. Falling Diphthong*

    That if I don’t say “how high” when they say jump, they’ll find someone else who will.

    I get why it feels this way, but most of them–the ones you want to continue working for–are asking “OP, would you be able to jump over this hurdle by next Thursday in return for $2000?” And, just like regular offices shouldn’t have no plan for what they will do if Doris is hit by a bus tomorrow, offices that use freelancers shouldn’t have no plan for what they will do if Morris replies that he is fully occupied for the next three weeks–that’s why they talk about a “stable of freelancers.” Them giving the job to someone else is not the first nail in your coffin–it’s the system working as it should, where there are certain people they go to first with certain projects. And if those people say “sorry, busy” they call the next person on the list.

    If you too busy everytime for Amalgamated Llama Groomers, then they may stop calling–that’s called them hearing a soft no, or your business (or health/other constraints) being structured such that you really just can’t handle Amalgamated Llama Groomers given the other demands on your time. And that’s okay. Prioritize the “best” jobs–whether that’s in pay, soul feeding, reliability, or other.

  43. Lucette Kensack*

    Oh god. My heart is racing just reading this.

    It is so familiar — and I’m not even a freelancer (precisely because I would make myself sick with worry in exactly this way). I worked myself into a breakdown at my last job over a version of this.

    In addition to all of the advice above, I think you would be helped by having a network of freelancer/business owner colleagues — not folks that you’d send work to, but other folks who have navigated these kinds of problems. If you were in my region I could point you toward a couple of useful networks, but I’m guessing you can track something down in your area. (Or, if there’s nothing available locally, I bet there’s a great network on twitter!)

  44. Alienor*

    OP, I hire creative freelancers all the time–in fact, one of the items on my to-do list for today is securing a freelancer for a project that just came in–and I *want* them to tell me when they’re overloaded and can’t take something on. Not only do I want to be respectful of their time and health, but I want them to be able to focus on my project and do their best work instead of trying to juggle it with 20 other projects. I would never drop one of my regulars for telling me they’re too busy –which happens pretty often, because the people I use a lot are very good at what they do and are in high demand. Really the only things I’d drop someone permanently for are missing multiple deadlines without notice, consistently turning in substandard work (not just “this didn’t quite hit the mark” but “this is an unusable hot mess”), and being difficult/unpleasant/combative to work with. You clearly don’t do any of those things, so please take care of yourself and don’t worry so much.

  45. I coulda been a lawyer*

    I just wanted to say thank you to the commenters too. I really wish I had a private group of friends like all of you I could bounce things off of at home (starting with Alison of course). There’s lots of good advice here for LW.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      That’s why the Friday threads are wonderful too, we essentially are here weekly to bounce ideas off of ;)

    2. Eleanor Shellstrop*

      Came here to say this. There is so much amazing empathy and genuinely good intentions in this part of the internet and it makes me so happy. I’m not a freelancer but I think Alison’s advice here has some great takeaways for people in any job.

  46. Susana*

    This is great advice, and kudos to Alison for writing a lengthy, thoughtful response. I’ve free-lanced on two occasions – each for five years, one block overseas. And I get it: somewhere in your brain you think WHAT IF I NEVER GET ANOTHER GIG???!! And yet… you always do, right? Too many right now, it seems.
    You have figured out how to build a client base. Congratulations! That is huge, huge, huge. Now you need to manage it. Just as start-ups can fail if they grow too quickly, you can collapse (physically and otherwise) if you take on too much. Alison is right – your clients value you, and you can set some limits. They really will understand, and they will want to keep using you for as much as you reasonably can do. They will NOT try to find someone else who can do (over-do) as much as you are now. I promise.
    Congrats on your great success. Enjoy it!

  47. BradC*

    Whether you are actually able to take on a specific project or not, I’d suggest getting into the habit of your initial reply to a request being something along the line of:

    “Thanks, I’d love to take on that project, let me look at my schedule to see if I can accommodate it; I’ll let you know by (date).”

    This does several things:
    1. Buys you some time to do the proper thinking/planning for the specific request, and also to weigh it in priority/schedule/urgency against other work.
    2. Primes the client that sometimes the answer might be “I can’t do that project at this time” or “If this is a priority, I could probably do it by (date), but that would result in a delay in (other project I am working on for you).” (But don’t delay projects for one client at the request of another; those already on the schedule should have first priority.)
    3. Gives a somewhat more professional image to the client; a consultant that is always free to rush over immediately must not be in much demand.

    As others have suggested, you also have some flexibility to charge more for high priority rush jobs that can’t be delayed.

    1. LaurenB*

      Point 3 is something I was thinking about – is there a value in the perception of scarcity? I’m not a contractor at all but I was wondering if it could help to shift clients’ thinking from “We’ll just get LetterWriter to do it,” to “I wonder if we’ll be able to land LetterWriter for this?”

  48. Kaitlyn*

    Hello! I too work as a freelancer, and I too struggle with the idea that saying no places me permanently and irrevocably on some kind of client blacklist. I have since said no plenty of times, and those clients go “okay” and then reach out a week later with a new offer. Their work gets done; mine does too.

    LW, some of the language in your letter reminded me of people in addictions situations: knowing that something is wrong, falling into destructive patterns, promising it will be different next time, feeling out of control or unboundaried, feeling powerless to say no. But you are worth more than the money you make, the client list you maintain, or the relationships you say yes too. Reframing work as something you control, rather than a runaway horse that used to be tame and is now at a full gallop. So, yes, echoing and tweaking what people have said above: you should work on getting a therapist who can work on issues of self-esteem, workaholic tendencies, and fear of failure. Recognize that the strategies that served you when you were starting out are no longer sustainable, and get some help crafting new ones. Think of this as Phase 2 of your career: now that the soil is healthy and the tree has really started to grow now is the part where you prune it into a shape that pleases you.

    Also, the most successful and in-demand people I work with work in teams. They are independent contractors who bring on partners on an as-needed basis. Need someone to help format your reports or photograph your products? Maybe your stumbling blocks are, like, formatting reports or transcribing interviews. Maybe it’s doing the data entry. Identify which areas of which project can become more sustainable if you partner with outside people for short-term help. Entrust some of the work to outside people – either at a level junior to you, or a true partnership – and you are also able to market their skills and their time as part of your package. And having someone in the foxhole with you, when you’re in a crunch situation, can also be very nourishing.

  49. SufjanFan*

    Came here to emphasize two sentences in your response:

    You’ve found success.
    What if you let yourself trust that?

    Thank you for writing them. I (and the LW! and probably so many of your readers!) needed to hear it.

  50. Wendy Darling*

    LW, if literally half your work disappeared tomorrow, you would be working 40-50+ hours a week, which is a normal workload for a human. So even the terrible catastrophizing scenario of “If I say no the client will hate me forever and never give me work again” (which… I know that feeling!)… would that actually be that bad? If you lose 50% of your work that leaves you with… a normal to kinda heavy workload for one human.

    1. Koala dreams*

      That’s what I came here to suggest. If you do ten hours of work a week for a client, and they decide they don’t want to come back to you for the next few years after you say no, then you have ten hours of your life back for that period of time, to use for sleeping, eating or being with your partner. From the outside, it looks like a win-win situation.

  51. Lexica*

    There was a post a couple of years ago on the “On the Right Track” blog by Rhonda Scharf (https://www.on-the-right-track.com/heres-how-i-talk-myself-out-of-saying-yes-without-the-guilt/) that’s stuck with me because it has a useful list of questions to consider when making a decision:
    • Is it the best use of my time?
    • Do I *really* have time for this?
    • If I say yes to this, what am I potentially saying no to? Which is better in the long run?
    • Will relationships be damaged if I say no?
    • Is this a “*want* to say yes” or a “*need* to say yes” situation?

  52. Everdene*

    Disclaimer: not a freelancer!

    I’ve just read a book (Radio Heaven, Dr Sam Collins) where the author is in a similar position at one point. Encouraged by her freelancer husband (who is further on in his career and has been there too) she first gives up working on the weekends, then working Fridays and then working after 1pm each day! And that year she had her most profitable year she had ever had.

    Clearly you don’t have time to read the book right now but you can do this, you can reduce your workload and still be successful. The reduction in stress and increase in social time, exercise, sleep, fun could actually make you more successful?

  53. in a fog*

    Oh LW, I feel for you! I have been the “client” in situations where my superiors wanted something turned around right away, and I felt terribly for unloading more and more work on those vendors. And then one freelancer came back with her schedule and said that she couldn’t fit in our project until a specific date, and I was able to take that back to my superiors as a lesson to them that they needed to plan better.

    Maybe that ends up being your litmus test — if someone comes to you with something that you just can’t reasonably do in the time frame they need it, counter with a later due date, and if they react badly, they are not people you want to be doing business with anyway. Good clients will respect your limits, and those are the ones you want to keep.

  54. TootsNYC*

    I book freelancers.

    When I REALLY like someone’s work, I often go to them first (especially if they have ever helped me out of a jam–they get first refusal). Even if I suspect they will be booked elsewhere and be unavailable to me.

    I do this for two reasons. First, I might get lucky!They might be free, and then I’ll be so happy.

    Second, I know that freelance work can by iffy–what if they just lost one of those regular gigs? I would want to be part of their new workload, because they are on the list of people I care about (note that these are NOT people I go out to drinks with–we are not friends. My high regard for them is based solely on their quality work–but I like people who do good work–I am “for” them.)

    Third, I want to remind them that I’m out here, hiring freelancers. So that if some other gig fades on them, they will contact me to let me know they’re looking for more work and have the capacity to take on more.

    SO…trust your skills, trust those relationships.

    And consider whether you can think of anyone whom you would be willing to have work FOR you, someone who is good enough and diligent enough. And then take those jobs, at a bit of a markup (“I’m pretty busy, but I could get it done for you for $X+1, because I have someone really good I could put on it, and I’ll guide them and look over what we send you”).

    And THEN you have your own business! You can decide how big you want to grow (because growing means less hands-on and more management).
    You have the ability to find the work–that could be something you leverage into more money, and it would make some freelancers willing to work for you, even if you’re getting a cut on top of their (reasonable, worthwhile) wage.

    1. EditorExtra*

      Toots has nailed it. This is the same relationship I feel with my freelancers–mostly professional copyeditors and artists. Fergus is the best, I want him to work on my stuff, I want to give him work if he needs it because talent is talent–I’m “for” him. If money was all that stood between me and getting him to work on my projects, I WOULD PAY MORE just so Fergus would do the amazing job he always does. So let me echo other people who suggest you raise your rates if you’re in demand.

      But, any client who would drop you because you aren’t available is not “for” you, and you don’t want their money. Believe me.

      Have I dropped contractors from my list? Yes. Because they flaked out, did sloppy work, or didn’t communicate with me.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I will say that if someone really good is never, ever free, I do eventually stop calling them first. Because, well, their schedule is full with other paying clients.

      And if that was you, you wouldn’t need me, you’d still have plenty of work and plenty of income.

      But if some of that went away?
      Those freelancers I’ve stopped calling simply because they never say yes are ALWAYS aware that I would love to work with them, and if some of that work goes away and they pop back up, I would absolutely hire them for any openings.

      Or I’d refer them all over the place.

  55. learnedthehardway*

    OP, I’ve been in EXACTLY the same situation – and I understand exactly why you feel as you do. Reality though, is that if you don’t learn how to say no, you’ll crash and burn. And then you won’t have either the relationship or the clients.

    I’ve come very close to losing both – have lost some clients, in fact – because I took on too much. I’m in the process now of rebuilding both relationship and business, after a winter when I simply couldn’t do very much at all. That’s a level and type of stress you do NOT want to experience. I’ve also known people who have had complete mental breakdowns from overwork, and that is not something you bounce back from.

    My suggestion – figure out what you are best at doing, and what makes the most money for the least effort/most enjoyment/whatever metric matters to you most. Figure out which client relationships are critical to you – the most dependable at both giving you work, the best managed/most successful businesses themselves, and which pay you on time (ideally, all three at once). Prioritize these companies. Next, which clients give you the less frequent, but most highly paid projects, that are really fun – those are your second priority. Since you’re a contractor, you probably want to have about 10-15 companies that you do business with on a regular basis. Some of these can be once-per-year projects, others should be quite regular. Some will rotate in and out over the years.

    Then, look at the client relationships that cause you the most stress – why do they cause you this stress? In my case, it was because the person I was working directly with was always unable to get me appropriate information, so I ended up doing rework on projects. I started charging a premium on projects I did for them. Suddenly, they don’t need me as much. But, when I do work for them, it’s worth it to me. They were also the client that always were last minute with their needs – everything was a constant emergency – and late in billing. I’m better off without them.

    A challenge I have is that some clients want to use me for ALL levels of work, whereas I only really want to work on their higher end stuff. I’ve been able to push back with some of it by pointing out that it’s not cost-effective for them to pay me for doing the junior stuff (they then feel that I am being honest with them and saving them money – which I am, but I’m also rejecting work I do not want to do). In some cases, I’ve parlayed this into contracts to train their in-house staff on the junior stuff.

    Look into how technology can help you – I use a number of different tools that reduce the busywork/paperwork.

    Unless you are committed to growing a company and doing business development, however, I would NOT take on staff. I’ve often been asked why I don’t hire people to help me – I don’t, and don’t plan to do so. I’ve known a lot of people in my field who have developed teams, and had their work-product reduce in quality (to the average level of the teams they manage). My clients want ME and MY work. Also, I do the work I do because I DON’T want to be majority focused on business development. I’ve also tried to manage a client’s contractor team for them, and it was a PITA – even if you’re 100% committed as a contractor, you’ll find that a lot of other people simply are not. And I don’t particularly want to train/manage people or be responsible for getting enough work for a team. Also, for me to manage people would take at least 30% of my day (plus administrative paperwork after hours), if I was carrying a full project load myself. The only times it has worked for me to have staff is when I had someone acting as admin assistant, data entry, and basic research – ie. the very limited aspects of my role that are high volume and time consuming, but not high value.

    Finally, yes – your clients will find other people to fill in if you’re not available. But guess what? They have those other contractors on speed dial anyway, and they’ll use them if you can’t make your deadlines / quality metrics, etc.

    You’re better off to refuse a project every once in awhile. In fact, it can really work to your benefit. People want their experts to be well-regarded and highly sought-after. Clients will think, “OMG – s/he’s really in demand. We had better make our requests earlier so s/he can plan to work with us!” (I have clients who call me up to tell me what’s coming down the pipe for them, so I can reserve time for them. And that gives me the ability to push back on other clients who want me to commit/deliver something at the last minute – “Oh, sorry, I’m fully booked for the next month. I can’t possibly deliver on your project. Maybe I can take on a longer term project so that you can focus on this short term need? Okay, lets do that. Hmm… I’m better at X than Y, so let me do the X project…. Great – I have time for the intake on X project on Thursday. Let’s get that scheduled.”)

    I hope some of this helps.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Oh – another thing I did – I started charging clients a minimum project fee for every project. That way, if they cancelled, at least my ramp up costs were covered. I was having a real problem with one particular client giving me work and then changing the project list because their internal priorities had changed, before I really was able to provide any value on any particular engagement. I pointed out that this wasn’t going to look good for either of us, if I had X projects but no work product, and they were paying for work product but not getting value. I suggested that they pass the initial project cost on to the departments that were asking them to start work for them. It worked like a charm – the other departments suddenly realized that they needed to get their ducks in a row before engaging with their HR dept, and my client contact had a way to push back on their demands (which he really needed to do, himself). And, on the rare occasions when a project was handed to me and then cancelled, I got paid with no quibbles. Meanwhile, my stress level and workload normalized quite a bit.

  56. Red Sky*

    I really hope we get an update to this one at some point. I’m anxious and exhausted just reading this, I can’t imagine how the LW must be feeling living it. LW I think you realize something has got to give and it’s better for you to decide how that happens and what form that takes rather than extreme burnout and everything imploding.

  57. Tea Fish*

    OP, I think a few other folks might have commented on this, but I’d like to emphasize it as well– if possible, please start referring out work! If you know anyone else in the same or similar field whose work is good, don’t be afraid to reach out to them and ask if they’d like you to send some business their way. If there’s a job where the deadline doesn’t mesh with your schedule, or where the work is not quite in your wheelhouse, please don’t be afraid to pass it to someone else.

    It can be kind of a frightening thought, isn’t it? Not only are you letting work and $$$ slip out of your hands, you’re deliberately handing it off to someone else. But your workload is out of hand right now, and you don’t want to disappoint your clients. Connecting them with another qualified person doesn’t detract from your value– it only adds to it. Not only are you an excellent llama wrangler supreme, but you also know other excellent llama wranglers– in fact, you have a whole network of them. They won’t pass you over for jobs– you’re clearly still the person to contact first, but if it’s not the right fit for you, you’re still the answer to their problems.

    And you know what other highly talented, in-demand freelance professionals will do when they’re swamped with work? They’ll REFER JOBS BACK TO YOU. By creating this relationship with other professionals– a network of peers, rather than of clients– you are also creating a safety net if your current jobs starts dying down. If the worst happens and somehow everything slips from your fingers and you’re scrambling for crumbs, you’ll have people to ask for referrals from in turn, folks who can keep their ears to the ground for perfect opportunities for you, and people who hold good will toward you– and that can only work to your benefit.

    Please take care, OP. Wishing you all the best.

  58. Althea*

    I suggest raising your rates. It will help to naturally weed out some clients (unless you specifically decide to do pro bono work); and you can build a financial cushion that could alleviate some of your concern about not getting new work. You don’t realize how freeing it can be to think “if I literally lost all clients tomorrow, I could live off savings for a year before having to worry about earning more income.”

  59. tangerineRose*

    I just want to say to the LW, take care of yourself before the stress eats you alive! Right now, you’re afraid that you’ll lose clients. Dealing with it the way Alison suggests is much better than the way most people will deal with it if they get pushed too far with stress. You want to turn down some jobs, so that stress won’t urge you to snap at your ow.n clients

  60. Genny*

    I’m on the opposite end of things. I work for a company that sometimes hires independent contractors for defined projects/periods of time. There have been times when our first choice contractor is unavailable for a certain assignment, but that doesn’t mean we just drop them. If their work is really good (like yours is), we keep them on the list and contact them the next time their skill set matches the job needs. It’s far easier for us to keep going back to the same pre-vetted person even if they aren’t always available rather than trying to get a new, unknown contractor up to speed on our projects all the time.

  61. Hannah*

    OG you may want to consider raising your rates! Basic supply and demand…. your demand is high, supply (hours your willing to work) is lower than the past = higher rates!

  62. LilyP*

    First I want to say I’m honestly so impressed you’ve been able to produce consistently high-quality work (or ANY work) under such stressful conditions! I would’ve been a puddle of tears and ice cream months ago in your shoes. One thought trick for you — you obviously deserve to have a happy and stable life just entirely for yourself, but would it help quell your anxious thoughts to remind yourself that a happy you will produce better work? Those important impactful projects you care so much about? You will do better work on them if you’re rested and fed and calm. Can you consider these steps you’re taking to prevent burnout as an investment in your future success? Like, if taking a class or studying up on a new technology would be worth some time/money/energy because it would improve your work product, going to therapy or sleeping regular hours or taking weekends off should also be worth some time/money/energy because I promise being rested and relaxed will improve your work product too.

    As a side note, in my opinion a job applicant with a strong freelance track record including repeat work from multiple clients would be *very* impressive, so don’t write off getting a full-time job as impossible if that’s something you’re interested in.

  63. phedre*

    Please don’t worry about turning down work occasionally, or pushing back on timelines (e.g., saying to a client “I’d love to work on this for you but unfortunately my current commitments mean I can’t take this on until next month. Will that work for you?”). Reasonable clients will not drop you because of this! I’ve regularly hired an amazingly talented contract graphic designer for years, and when she tells me she can’t get to a project of mine for a month or two because she’s booked with other things I don’t write her off. I either adjust my timeline (if I can) so I can work with her, or I figure out a temporary alternative for that project. I know she’s really good and in-demand, so if her workload is too full to help then oh well, that’s just the way it worked out. I would be horrified to find out that she was working 100 hr weeks just to fit me in.

  64. Luna*

    I want to say this to OP, and anyone who may think about these issues.

    This is something I read in an Alice McKinley book. “Saying ‘No’ can also open doors.” You might question and worry and second-guess how badly things will go if you say no, thinking you are turning your back on a door that could lead to a good path, so you cannot afford to say no. But just remember that saying no may lead you down a different path, but that other path also has its share of doors to open.

  65. The Other Katie*

    Hey letter writer! You know what? A year ago I could have written this and meant every word. A decades’ worth of hard work, building my client base, taking the cruddy jobs, undercutting what I really needed to be making just to get the work.
    I did it for a long time because I had to – it was feeding my kid and paying my grad school tuition and financing my move, after all.
    Then I skidded on for a few more years because it was what I was used to.
    Then I started to realise that I didn’t _have_ to work 60-hour weeks and take urgent projects and accept twice as much work as I could in a reasonable week.
    I finally broke last August, after spending so much of my week’s “holiday” working it actually made my partner mad. (And I really can’t blame him on this point.) I put a hard limit on the amount of work I would accept in a given time, started pushing back on deadlines, and have made a hard and fast rule of weekends off. I also told my key clients that I needed to do this or I was going to burn out and quit and they wouldn’t get anything from me at all.
    It’s been really hard personally, because I’ve had to train myself out of all those bad habits, of working at night and on the weekend and in the hotel hallway after my partner fell asleep. I’ve choked on refusing a few big jobs, even though I know by now there’s more coming along behind that one, because it feels like I’m pissing off clients or leaving money on the table. But you know what? My clients have been pretty understanding about it. It helps that I can deliver deadlines more consistently when they _haven’t_ booked in twice as much work as I can actually do, but in the end, it’s also because I have nearly a decade-long relationship with them. Eventually, I hope to get there psychologically as well.

    tl;dr: You can do the thing. Decide on your boundaries and stick to them, and where necessary explain why. “I don’t work weekends” or “I’m on vacation next week” should be sufficient explanations. It’ll take time and practice and it feels uncomfortable and you might panic, but keep going anyway. Good luck.

  66. Rookie Biz Chick*

    +a bazilion to Alison’s stellar-per-usual-maybe-even-more-so advice. Take all of it. She gives you permission to trust what you’ve built.

    +a bazillion to raising rates!

    But not without a strategic plan. I know time is the hugest commodity right now, once you’ve noped out of some of your work, try spending a day to yourself – check into a hotel if you can – and just write it all out. Doesn’t have to be formal or fancy. What you need to make, what you want to make, what an ideal day looks like, ideal projects, ideal boundaries. Are there ways to move away from the one-on-one client work to packages or courses or coaching in your area of expertise? Could some of the admin tasks be outsourced? Can you commit on your calendar, no matter what comes up, to have lunch or dinner or some other outing with your partner once a week for a little while? Then up to twice or more?

    If you identify as a woman (well, even if you don’t!), check out bizchix.com podcast and resources. They have been a lit-ral lifesaver for me and my biz in situations similar to yours.

    I am so hopeful you’ll find a better balance sooner than later.

  67. Marke*

    To be quite blunt, i would consider 2 things:

    1. Up your rates. Make up some mumbo jumbo about the economy and that your rates are going up. Clients will either keep paying you or move on.

    2. Hire an assistant! If you have 80 hours a week of work… Get an employee to make your life easier!

    1. Ethyl*

      This is actually a great time to raise LW’s rates, if they’re in the US, since our taxes just came due. So clients would probably figure they were adjusting based on reviewing the previous year’s numbers. I say go for it, LW!

  68. Jade*

    OP, you got a lot of GREAT advice! In addition to the ideas of ‘role playing saying NO’ and then ‘starting to say NO to low-impact clients’ mentioned above, I have one more suggestion – Say NO via email, write a canned script using many lines mentioned above and send it to a low impact client in email if phone is hard. Slowly you’ll get used to it that and will be ready for phone conversation of saying NO to low impact clients, then you can work up the high impact clients.

    Saying NO is a lifeskill; it’s a muscle that needs to be developed.

  69. nnn*

    Another thought:

    If you’re having trouble saying no to clients or telling them you can’t do something, sometimes a useful script is to tell them what you can do.

    Examples: “I can get that back to you a week from Friday.” “I’m now booking new commissions starting in May”

  70. Candid Candidate*

    Hey, OP. I’m sure others have suggested therapy by this point, but I really want to touch on something that stood out to me in your letter. You write about being estranged from your family, and “having lost it all once, I can’t do that again.” I don’t want to overstep and psychoanalyze you, but I do think it’s always worth examining the ways that our family life and personal conflicts can influence how we function in other areas of our life, like our work life.

    Familial rejection/abandonment, in large ways and small, have such a huge impact on how we see ourselves and what we think we’re worth. We think we have to hustle just to prove we deserve anything, and when financial safety nets enter the equation, it can trigger a lot of unresolved trauma and anxiety. Suddenly, the decision not to fulfill a client’s request becomes a risk of ultimate rejection and a threat to your livelihood and the end of your life as you know it. That chain reaction, where one small decision to set a boundary leads to losing everything that matters to you? That’s a mental pattern that gets built around big traumatic events, like estrangement from our families. Your brain is trying to protect you from experiencing massive pain and distress again, but functionally, that means you live your life like you’re in the middle of a crisis, like you’re drowning, even though, if you stopped flailing long enough to look around, you’d realize you’re safe. You have to help your brain realize that you’re safe, that you don’t need to panic anymore. That takes some serious internal work with the help of a therapist. I’ve been there, too, and I hope you find the help you need. Sending you love, strength, and support for the journey ahead.

  71. Random Concerned Citizen*

    I’ve been reading your blog for years, and only ever commented once. I just want to say this is the best response you’ve ever given. I have never freelanced and never will, but the work-life balance and imposter syndrome advice really hit home for me. Thank you.

  72. Catherine*

    Hello OP. I feel for you, as I’ve been in a similar position. I started freelancing about twenty years ago and for the first three or four years I barely stopped for breath. Unfortunately, I had spent most of my life up to that point being a people pleaser and the combination of this with freelancing is a killer (not quite literally for me but my usually robust health started to crack and I’m still feeling the effects, years later). Finally, in desperation I tried using the word ‘no’. I’m British so it was ‘no, I’m terribly terribly sorry…’ but in British that still means ‘no’. And guess what? It felt great. I started saying ‘no’ more frequently and got so far acclimatised to it, that I even started telling people I wanted more money. Nowadays, if the price for work isn’t right I negotiate until I get a price I can live with. Or if negotiation doesn’t work I just walk away, no regrets.
    Sad to say, it took me till I was about 55 to perfect the combo of ‘no’ and ‘I want more money for that work’. If I could have a conversation with my 25 year old self I’d have a lot to tell her.
    And the biggest surprise? Nobody has ever thought the less of me when I’m being firm about what I want to do and about the appropriate pay for the work. Quite the opposite – I’m now sure that people respect me a lot more for it.

  73. WantonSeedStitch*

    I love the ideas of raising your rates, dropping some workload, and then considering whether you might like to hire an assistant or take on a partner in order to once again be able to increase your workload, after you’ve had plenty of time to breathe with a lighter workload. And yes, a therapist also sounds like a great idea! If you are in a position where your support network is really thin, having someone to talk to who is skilled in helping people deal with the stresses in their life could be truly helpful. I wish you well!

  74. Reluctant Manager*

    We rely on a lot of freelancers in my work, often multiples for the same kind of work. We have the people we go to first, and then the backup people—and it’s scary to try out a new freelancer. Even though we have options, we don’t just drop one and switch to another. Even if some stop for a while—other work, family needs—we go back to our key people when they’re available again. And if they’re significantly better, we’ll start there even if they’re paid more.

  75. lumi*

    sounds like OP really needs to expand!! hire an assistant, hire junior people and train them! it sounds like you have created a niche that needs expanding

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