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

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

We have so many updates this year that I’m going to be posting six to seven times a day for the next several weeks — so keep checking back throughout the entire day.

Remember the letter-writer who was afraid to say no to clients lest she lose their work, but was overwhelmed by her workload and spending every waking hour working? (My response was basically a letter to 2018 Alison.) Here’s the update.

First of all, I would like to thank you for how kind your response was. I reached out to you because I knew I needed a wake-up call and I think I was expecting a little more tough love than you gave me, but maybe you could tell I was already beating myself up about it enough? Anyway, my situation has improved considerably! Partly due to luck, and partly because I worked on boundary-setting.

Maybe a month after I wrote you, one of my clients asked if I could take over for someone who had been doing one of the biggest tasks for the company for the past 30 years and wanted some time off. This is a regular, high-volume task with a tight turnaround window that takes about 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. We negotiated payment and did a trial run, I agreed to cover for 3 months and by the end of it he didn’t want to come back, and I was asked to stay on indefinitely. I said yes.

This was a huge break for me because even though the work is stressful, it gives me much-needed predictability and even stability. Even though I’m terrified of putting most of my eggs in one basket as a contractor, I tried to take your advice to heart and trust in what I’ve built, and in the knowledge that if main gig falls through at some point (though the fact that my predecessor had it for so long is very comforting), I know how to build my workflow back up again.

It also meant I was simply obliged to reach out to my other clients and tell them that I would be cutting back my availability. Can’t speak for others, but I happen to be highly motivated by a sense of obligation so it was easier to make myself do it. They still send me more requests than I can accept, but I’ve gotten much better at suggesting an alternate deadline or saying please keep me in mind for next time, which are really great scripts for my anxiety because then it doesn’t feel like I’m saying no or not being a team player, and that makes it so much easier to say.

And wouldn’t you know it, my business didn’t implode and the sky didn’t fall.

At one point I had to actually tell one client that I think it’s best if they start looking for someone else because most of the time I wasn’t able to accommodate their requests any longer and I am the only person on their roster who works in my language set. They responded graciously and have since stopped sending requests, I’m not sure if they’ve simply found someone else to cover the entire workload or if there just isn’t any at the moment (this is normal for long periods), but either way it is absolutely fine!

I think the major takeaway here is that I was far more afraid of burning bridges than of actually losing work when I was so inundated with it, and when push came to shove and I had to dial back my availability, the response was (as predicted) gracious, and most of my bridges remained intact.

Before this, my work was largely divided evenly between 4 major clients, each of which requested my work intermittently on different cycles, which is why it felt like I couldn’t drop one of them without suddenly losing a quarter to a third of my income. I also saw suggestions to subcontract in the comments, but even if my contracts and NDAs did not expressly prohibit this, it is not feasible in my line of work because reconciling pieces of projects done by different people would take more time and work than having one person do it to begin with.

Anyway, now I get maybe 80% of my total billing from the main gig and 20% from the other clients combined, which sounds scary on paper but in practice is a much better balance for me because I don’t feel like the stakes are super urgent and high anymore if one of the ‘side’ clients asks for something I simply can’t make the time for. I don’t think I would have expected that, it feels so counterintuitive, at least to me, but it actually works!

I’m in a much better place and actually have a life now! I’ve since moved and gotten a much-needed fresh start living on my own and it feels like my world has expanded. Thank you for your advice again. And sorry for the novel, brevity is not my forte.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Disco Janet*

    That is great news, OP!

    Also, I am so happy about all the updates. Who needs to work? Best holiday season ever!

  2. Lacey*

    I so happy for you OP!

    And happy for us to get all these updates! It’s a super slow time in the office right now, so this will help it go a little faster!

  3. Bookworm*

    Thank you to the OP for the update! Good for you!!

    Looking forward to the updates, Alison! Thanks for posting them.

    1. old curmudgeon*

      Same! Alison, you are going above and beyond for all of us overwhelmed stress-puppies – thank you!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        We had it twice a year this year! I did a special update season in May because it was such a hard year, and I worried I’d have fewer updates at the end of the year as a result … but no.

        1. Not Australian*

          As one of the people who was urging for the extra updates, I must admit I was a bit concerned about that too; I’m so glad you were willing to take the chance, though, because it gave us all the boost we needed at the time, and the fact that there are still readers willing to share updates at the end of this traumatic year is just a massive bonus. Thank you for organising all this!

      1. 2 Cents*

        Hahaha, I see this as a saving grace / welcome respite from all of the “omg! How is it December!” crap that is hitting my to do list.

      2. Phony Genius*

        And remember, weekends are included in this. (Which seems ironic with all the advice given on this site against working overly-extended hours.)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, weekends will probably just be one update post per day (traffic is much lower on weekends). But weekdays we’re going seven posts a day all this week and next (they’ll run through the end of the day Eastern time, not stop at 2 pm ET like I usually do).

  4. bunniferous*

    It’s the moooooost wonderful tiiiiiiiiimmmeeee of the yeaaaarrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!

    Yay to multiple updates!
    Yay for the OP good news update!

    1. starsaphire*

      +1! I have been humming this ALL morning!

      It… didn’t even suck that it’s Monday today, because updates!

  5. Des*

    Glad for you, OP!

    That “stability” is why so many people opt to work for one company for 100% of their time. It’s a valuable thing. And yes, you do need to make the major move of 100% of your work to another company/client, but for many it is worth it.

  6. Lizy*


    Also – anyone else literally do a happy dance to know we’ll have 6-7 updates A DAY?!? No? Just me? Oh well. *does another little happy dance*

  7. CM*

    I feel like the happiest freelancers I know have 50% or more of their work and income from a single client who they have a strong relationship with and who pays reliably. It’s a risk, of course, but when it works, it works really well.

  8. Carpe Librarium*

    I’m delighted that the LW is in a better place as far as workload goes. I hope they also got to take some time away from work altogether for several weeks as well, as Alison recommended.

  9. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    Hmm I’ve always heard, as a freelancer, that no one client should account for more than 25% of your income. But I expect it depends on the main client, your relationship with them, whether the other clients will still keep you in mind even though you’re no longer as available etc.
    I really would like to have a part-time salaried job, which would still leave me plenty of time for other gigs, but afford me the luxury of being able to say no to the lower-paying ones, and it sounds like OP’s main client is pretty much that kind of gig.

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