I can’t say no to clients and it’s destroying me

A reader writes:

I’ve run my own business for nine years, and I’ve found financial comfort and fulfillment in my work. This did not come easy. I was barely scraping by the first couple of years. Not anymore. I don’t have to hustle. 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.

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. It’s about being too terrified of losing a client to say no. This 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 happy, I get praise for being “always available” and then they give me more work from a new program, which seems a cruel irony.

I 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. 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 year, stop looping me in when there’s high-volume work for an important launch event because I can’t handle the volume, and bye bye dream projects.

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. (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. Please help me figure out how to assert myself without feeling like I’m jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. KatKatKatKat*

    LW: Your business has grown! Congratulations! Now, you need an employee (or two!) to help with the workload. Hire someone to help you!

    1. Cat Tree*

      I had this same thought. The workload warrants a full time employee, but the budget may not. This seems like a good setup for part-time help. Since it can be done remotely and sort of asynchronously, it could be appealing to someone who has other life obligations but wants to bring in some money.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Then maybe the rates need to come up, which might both thin the work herd slightly but make up enough to hire help.

        1. Cat Tree*

          That’s valid too, whether LW hires someone or not. If their work is in high demand and of good quality, many clients will be willing to pay more. Some may choose not to, but then the workload would decrease a bit without as much reduction in overall income.

          1. Jinni*

            This is the answer that has saved every freelancer I know, and has been recommended by every business coach any of them has hired.

        2. Tio*

          One of my mother’s life changing moments was when she was talking to her friend about her business (she owned a small business)
          He asked her “What is the worst case scenario if you doubled your prices? Do you think half your clients would leave?”
          Her: “Maybe!”
          Him: “So you’d be doing half the work for the same price?”

          She said she just sat there and then thought about it all night. Shortly thereafter she raised her prices. Not doubled, but she lost exactly two clients. (This was not even close to half her business, and she didn’t like them anyway!)

          1. Ama*

            I’m moving into a job that’s mostly populated by freelancers and I’ve been lucky enough to find a group within the industry that hosts talks about managing your freelance business. We had someone come in recently who said just that — if you have too many clients you should probably raise your rates and anyone who doesn’t think you’re worth the higher price is probably not a client you want to keep long-term anyway.

    2. MassMatt*

      Came here to say this.

      If for whatever reason LW cannot shed clients (and I support Alison in questioning whether that’s really true–try segmenting your market based on income generated/interest in projects vs: time required), the only other reasonable alternative is to expand your capacity by hiring staff.

      Note that this will create its own work load–hiring and supervising people, paying them, etc, but on the bright side it should be possible to unload the most undesirable parts of your job so you can a) reduce your workload, and b)focus more on the parts of your business that you like the most.

      One thing for sure, your current work load is NOT sustainable. You are unhappy; frankly you sound shell shocked. Even if someone loves their job and it’s NOT inherently stressful, 90-100+ hours of it per week is not doable. If you continue at this pace it will lead to burnout, breakdown, divorce/breakup, and poor health, including a possible heart attack.

    3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Came here to say this! Though I get that sometimes it can be more work to have to manage someone than to just do the tasks yourself. But give it a think. Could be someone to take on projects / parts of projects or it could be someone to do admin support and take that stuff off your plate.

    4. JPalmer*

      Hire someone to help you… and make sure you aren’t putting your unhealthy self imposed work habits on them.

      LW does still needs to get the unhealthy acceptance and stress response to the workload, otherwise they’ll become a nightmare boss.

    5. DivergentStitches*

      That was my thought! Hire a PT helper that you can train to your standard.

    6. TLC Squeak*

      Or subcontract to another contractor! And as other commenters have mentioned, raise your rates accordingly.

  2. MK*

    Frankly, this sounds too severe a problem to be solved by advice for an online column. I think OP needs professional help to deal with her anxiety, because I cannot imagine that the person who wrote this letter will be able to follow any of Alison’s suggestions without breaking down.

    1. Managing While Female*

      I agree. This was a really depressing letter to read because there’s a huge mental barrier that the LW needs to overcome in order to make any progress in this. Whatever the underlying reason, it all sounds really debilitating. I hope they were able to get help because this workaholic mindset seems like it was really on the brink of extreme personal crisis.

    2. Ultimate Facepalm*

      I agree, and I really hope that this person ended up okay. This sounds horrific.

    3. ecnaseener*

      The problem is that in order to make time for professional help, they have to get some time back in their schedule.

      1. Sassy SAAS*

        That’s a good point! Hopefully OP can start out with some tele-health type visits. A lot easier to fit those into your schedule when OP is as overworked as they are. I don’t recommend Better Help, but something of that ilk where OP can do visits from home/the phone would help them at least get started with therapy!

    4. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Yeah, some psychological help to work through some of the stuff that’s led the LW to be so terrified they can’t see their own success is probably necessary here.

  3. ecnaseener*

    I think this person might benefit from a blanket rule that they don’t say yes to ANYTHING on the spot. The response to every single new project request has to be “Let me check on my availability and get back to you tomorrow” (or if you prefer, “I’m trying to be strict with myself about not overbooking, so let me check on my availability and get back to you tomorrow”). That may be easier than trying to push themselves to say no in the moment when saying no is so terrifying.

    1. HonorBox*

      Oh I like this suggestion so much. Especially giving the potential client the idea that you don’t want to overbook, which shows a great deal of respect for the importance of their project that you don’t want to not come through on.

      1. The Valeyard*

        I love this idea too. Even if you still take it on, it sets a good expectation for them and hopefully a good first step for you to get used to setting limits even if you’re not ready to say no yet.

        Also, I’ve been in a similar situation to yours and benefitted enormously from not just professional help, but professional help from a mental health coach who specializes in career issues. I have seen therapists before and it still felt impossible… the coach I went to was very business -minded and it felt like she was on my side rather than trying to convince me of stuff I couldn’t make myself really believe. (One of her common phrases is “okay, let’s look at objective data.” My language!) Huge relief to have someone talk me through it who actually understood my concerns, which were similar to yours. Not saying that works for everyone, but it really really did for me, so throwing that out there.

    2. pally*

      Yes -this is good!
      For a number of reasons- including getting the LW’s schedule back to something ‘normal’.

      Something I think about with small businesses that I hire: I don’t want them to overwork themselves, trying to hit impossible deadlines (no matter who set them). Personally, I think it adversely affects the end result. So I want them to calendar accordingly to achieve a ‘normal’ work schedule. I can’t tell them what that looks like. I expect the business to know and do.

      Deadlines, client schedules and expectations and such CAN all be modified without disappointing anyone. Sacrificing one’s health-well, that’s a lot harder to recover. I would be absolutely horrified to learn someone I’d hired was doing that to themselves -for my benefit.

    3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      This is a fantastic suggestion. And it also benefits the clients and communicates that the LW is managing their time.

      The LW seems burned out and overwhelmed. At some point, balls are going to start getting dropped. In other words, although the LW sees risk in turning down work, there is also real risk of taking on too much.

      I hope the LW has found a new way of doing stuff that is more workable.

    4. Jellyfish Catcher*

      As a person who founded their niche consulting office, you can still have a life.
      OP, you are successful! Now time to control your business, rather than it controlling you.
      1.For new clients, raise your rates, say by 10%. Consider the difficulty of each client’s needs regarding fees.
      2. Give longer times for delivery when possible to build in a time buffer – for you. Possibly have a higher rate for quick turnarounds.
      3. At some point, you get to be selective. For recurring clients: no matter the business, there are always one or two that are so demanding or unpleasant that we dread dealing with them. If not your important bread and butter clients, gradually be less available or booked out further.

      4. For staff: use Alison’s info for hiring!! Be picky, not desperate. Your help has to be smart, organized and capable to grow into the role.

      5. You MUST gain control of your time so you have a life and don’t burn out. If hiring,
      you will need time to search for the right hire, research references, and train them.

      6. A consulting life can be somewhat flexible, more enjoyable and still be successful.

      1. Sassy SAAS*

        YES to raising your rates, even just a little! If your work is THIS in demand, you can charge more. It doesn’t negate burnout, but it does get rid of the folks who might nickle-and-dime you over everything

      2. Jellyfish Catcher*

        I want to add: small businesses are prone to embezzlement. There are no multiple levels checking the flow of money. It’s usually a trusted employee, begins small, (petty cash as an example), then goes to fraudulent billing or collection entries.
        Whatever else you delegate to an employee, you handle that daily and also get a good accountant.

    5. Hannah Lee*

      They could even build in a buffer by requesting all clients send any new requests or changes to a specific mailbox, like “NewRequests@LWsCo.com” so that LW can review and decide offline, and possibly even respond by email with a quote for work they want to take on or a “not able to pick up this project, but here are some alternate resources you could check with”

      That way the request review, decision making and response are all asynchronous and not face to face.

      I also agree with those that suggest LW evaluate their client list, portfolio to get a sense of which clients bring the most profitable work, and the most hassle free work before deciding what quote, what to accept, and what to either outright decline or quote with high prices/long lead teams. (The client will either drop the request, or take it at a rate, schedule that will make it more palatable for LW and profitable enough they can drop other work)

  4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    This sounds like addiction. You cannot stop. You hate yourself for doing it while you are doing it (the boundary crossing, the mistreatment of loved ones, not the work); you feel devastated when it’s over. You swear you won’t do it again. You do it again.
    It’s closest to Overeaters Anonymous. You need to eat to live. There is no all or nothing. You need to work to live. You need to find balance the same way.
    Hope some on the comments has been there and can help you.
    I’m going to ask, why freelance and not working for someone else? Could that take the pressure off and help you control your life?

    1. Generic Name*

      Yes, it sounds like classic workaholism. There are therapists who specialize in workaholism. It’s one thing to work more than 40 because you truly love your work and feel energized by it, but the reasons the OP lists are all fear-based.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        That’s the term. I hope OP looks into it, even personally as an academic exercise.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Great question in the last paragraph. Is there any possibility of being an in-house individual contributor somewhere, rather than a freelancer?

  5. Lobbyist*

    Can you raise your rates/ charge more so that you earn the same but work less? Or have a premium for the fast turnaround/ evening/ weekend work? Then maybe come clients won’t want to pay more and you will have solved the problem by keeping the ones that do?

    1. Antilles*

      Raising rates is almost certainly the best solution. Especially since I am 100% convinced OP is undercharging herself to begin with.
      If OP’s attitude is “I’m too terrified of losing a client to say no” and “I’m waiting for client to figure out I’m a fraud”, there’s no way she’s sitting there fighting for 3% annual rate increases or a one-off 10% rate increase because of crazy inflation or whatever.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        If they don’t have formal qualifications and are bogged down by impostor syndrome, we can pretty much guarantee they’re not charging enough. Raising rates might knock off a few clients and also allow the OP to hire help.

        I also, agree, though, that this person should get help for this anxiety. If they work until they collapse one too many times they’ll lose the whole business, anyway.

    2. Old Cynic*

      That’s exactly what we did. We were working 6 10 hour days. Yes, we had a good income but when broken down by the hour we were close to minimum wage! We raised our prices 15-20% and lost about 10% of our clients. We were back to 40ish hours a week with slightly more income. The ones who groused about the higher costs were the ones who griped about price anyway and it wasn’t a big loss for them to find another provider.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        I’ve also found that the clients who complain about pretty reasonable pricing and pricing increases tend to be the ones who are harder to manage, frequently introduce scope creep and design changes which not make their projects take up 20-30% more hours than I’d planned for AND are much more stressful and unpleasant, harder to please.

        So them bowing out can be a win, win, win.

    3. Perfectly Cromulent Name*

      This. A friend of mine did this and lost clients, but ended up working a lot less and earning more. She agonized about this for about a year before she did it, but it helped her so, so much! She had a physical job and just could not keep up the workload anymore- but charging more was the key! She also ‘lost’ some of her biggest problem clients when she did this without having to ‘fire’ them. This one weird trick gave her more money, more time, more joy. Raise your rates! (And hire help if you can/need to. Even a part-time person may be helpful!)

    4. An Australian In London*


      Also telling myself a story that OP is undercharging herself.

      This is a real pity because I am also 100% sure that OP could *double* her rates and would not lose half her clients; maybe only 20%. (She might lose many of her more difficult or toxic clients.)

      1. Supply and demand*

        You don’t know what her rates are, what her competitors’ rates are, or very much about her market niche. How can you be “100% sure” of this?

    5. Web of Pies*

      Yes, as a self-employed myself, this letter just screams ‘money insecurity’ to me.

      LW, if you haven’t already, make yourself a really, really detailed budget, so you can figure out how much money you need to make. I bet it’s way less than you actually earn! Get a big chunky emergency fund together too, and with those two things sorted out, I think you’ll feel a lot better and less like you MUST say yes to EVERYTHING.

      Also definitely raise your rates, AND, you can always counter project request details! “Oh I’d love to, but I would not be able to deliver until next month. Does that work with your schedule?” Many clients have a lot more flexibility than their asks initially appear to have.

  6. DrSalty*

    I know this is an old letter, and I sure hope LW found some peace and the balance they needed.

    1. The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon*

      I hope so too! I would love to see an update on this letter. The LW sounds like they are really suffering.

    2. Juicebox Hero*

      Same here. I’ve faced that kind of anxiety and fear and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

    3. super anon for this one*

      Agreed, I feel so much compassion for this LW. I hope they were able to get help and pull back because they sound on the road to a bad place in this letter.

      1. WheresMyPen*

        Can Alison add this update to the bottom of the main post as I’m sure many people will miss it here!

  7. Betsy S*

    The alternative to lowering the work load is to grow the business!
    Lots of ways to do this, alone or in combination, depending on the nature of the work:

    -hire an assistant, as mentioned above.
    -subcontract parts of the work, or whole projects under your final supervision
    -hire people to do the auxiliary parts of the business , such as billing
    and finally:
    -raise your rates! If you’re in such high demand, raising your rates may help reduce the flow of business while keeping your income the same

  8. Caramel & Cheddar*

    LW You know what will be worse than saying no to your clients by choice? Being forced to say no because you worked yourself to exhaustion or into a stress-related health issue that prevents you from working, period. You sound very close to being there already.

    Alison’s note that you should rethink about whether or not you can drop a client is a good one, but I’ll also add that part of working for yourself is charging enough so that you *don’t* have to work the hours you’re working. I’d revisit your rates on top of everything else.

    I don’t think it’s too late to revisit some boundaries with your existing clients either. Alison’s scripts are perfect for that when new projects come in with existing clients. I also know someone I know who freelances who puts her availability in her signature so that people know just that just because she’s her own boss, doesn’t mean she’s available all the time. An emergency on their end does not constitute an emergency on yours!

  9. ferrina*

    Think of it this way- at some point you cannot do this work, and it is your choice whether you want to control the timing or let it sneak up on you.

    Because you will either 1) make a horrible mistake because you are exhausted or 2) be unable to work because your health will fail from working too much. The status quo is not an option. Knowing that, how would you like to move forward? Would you like to roll the dice and wait until your health gives out/you make a horrible mistake? Or would you like to manage the situation on your own terms?

    Some options:
    -Work with others in your field for leads. “I won’t be able to take this on, but let me recommend another vendor.”
    -Hire staff. You’ll need to cut back in the meantime. “Unfortunately I’ll need to pass on this project. I’m actually in the process of expanding the business so we can take on more work in the future. I’m very excited to continue to be able to work with you on a new scale!”
    -Cut clients you don’t want. Not all clients are created equal- feel free to say “no” or “sorry, I don’t think I’m the right fit” for clients you don’t like working with or have low ROI for you.

  10. goofBall*

    Ugh, this was me in my late 20s/early 30s. Ultimately, I pivoted back to working a full time, salaried job for a corporation.

    Freelancing gave me such a level of freedom, fun, and great portfolio work (that helped me go back into working full time!) but eventually I lost sleep thinking about all the work I had to do in the morning.

    Not saying that quitting freelance is the LW’s solution, but it’s what I had to do to get out of the madness of not saying no.

    1. MissGirl*

      I get it. This is a big part of what keeps me from working for myself. I have a huge problem with all or nothing thinking. When I’m working for someone else, I’m able shut off my computer at five and not think about it again. If it was just me, I’d get obsessive.

  11. HonorBox*

    I really hope that LW took the advice to heart. Saying no is challenging, especially if you’re worried that there’s potential for everything to fall down around you. But as I read the letter, I thought about the idea of saying no similar to how I think about the letters that come in from people who aren’t taking time off. If the LW says no to a few projects here and there, they’re going to do stronger work for others because they won’t be so stressed out. They’re going to feel more balanced which will help them put the proper energy into the work they do take.

    And as it relates to the idea of people taking their business elsewhere… they may. But if the no is presented in the right way… that the time you’d need to do the job the right way isn’t time you have right now because of other projects… you’re going to create some demand. Because people want to do business with the good providers. Seeing that you’re in demand from others might help them come to you sooner so you have a little more time to iron out your schedule. And if you’re doing great work and are in high demand, even if a client has to take all their business elsewhere, others will be looking for you, too.

  12. Hashtag Destigmatize Therapy*

    This really looks like a case where therapy would be helpful. It sounds like LW knows that turning down some client requests is the right (and necessary) thing to do, but the fear of losing clients is so overwhelming that it overrides all other considerations in the moment (fear is good at doing that). The extreme stress during crunch time is probably making this worse by intensifying the feeling of fear. Learning how to deal with that fear without letting it take control is exactly the sort of thing therapy can help with. #destigmatizetherapy

  13. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    I’m surprised Alison didn’t suggest hiring an assistant or outsourcing some of the work.

    Other than that, since I legally can’t hire an assistant with my freelance status here, if I have to turn a job down I’ll explain that I’d probably end up working all night, and I’ve noticed that my work has sometimes been sub-par on such occasions. Maybe this hasn’t been the case for any of the work you’ve assigned me. I really don’t want to produce sub-par work for you, because you deserve my best shot.
    Framed like that, clients are usually understanding.
    You can also maybe recommend someone they can ask as a back-up.

    Also, you might want to look into ways of getting a diploma based on your professional experience. I did that and it did wonders for my self-confidence.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I over-identified with the letter when I wrote the response, and was consumed with all the reasons I couldn’t hire help for myself. But yes. (I am happy to say that I have done the work to get my workload much more reasonable now than it used to be.)

      1. Professor Plum*

        Part way through the letter I wondered if you’d written to yourself ;-)
        Glad you’ve done the work to find reasonable!

  14. Andy C.*

    I am hoping that LW has found some peace; if not, I can’t recommend a therapist enough. I had a similar set of issues at one point in my career, and looking into and working to fix them revealed that these were only symptoms of very deeply rooted things I needed to work on (and, since starting therapy, are things I’ve grown to be able to manage in a much healthier way!). The comments have some really good tips but from my perspective this person could really benefit from working with a professional!

  15. Heidi*

    This letter reminds me of another post a few weeks back from an OP who asked about how to handle the crushing guilt she felt when she took time off work. That OP was told that they should talk to a therapist to work through why they felt that way, but that doesn’t seem to have figured into this response. I wonder if it’s because the other OP was assuming that everyone else felt the same way they did.

    1. el l*

      I was just going to say – it is just like the other letter. Namely, just having that insecurity with those insecure thoughts is something literally everyone in this situation has felt – can’t make it go away – but what’s most important here is the INTENSITY of the feeling and its behavior.

      Which is why the priority has to be the same as the other letter. Though I don’t play this card as often as many would – talk with someone professional.

  16. She of Many Hats*

    LW – some really good advice by fellow commentators especially about considering professional help to ensure you’re in the best place mentally and/or to help you get a better grasp of how to create a manageable client list and how to triage your clients. Per Alison’s suggestion about cutting loose clients – start with the ones who make it a hassle to get paid then move to the ones are unreasonable and very high maintenance (which is different than those who challenge you in a positive way that grows you & your skills/business).

  17. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    A local radio host said something decades ago that has always stuck in my mind (and I have no idea if it was original to him or if he was quoting someone else): Nobody ever said on their deathbed “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” He talked a lot about his family and things they did together, and his other interests and hobbies. He died at a fairly young age, when his children were young adults, and I’m sure they and their mother appreciated all the time he had made a conscious choice to spend with them during his worrking life.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Definitely quoting someone else, I think there was a popular book many years ago that interviewed people on their deathbeds and none of them said “I wish I’d worked more.”

      I know a surprising number of people who could afford early retirement and didn’t take it because of a whole host of reasons they thought were real, and then once they *did* retire, their spouses died only a few years later and they regretted not taking that early retirement. This is similar, LW: you can’t get that time back!

    2. HonorBox*

      My first boss in the industry I’m in now said that to me in my second interview with her. I’ve said that to many people, too.

  18. Juicebox Hero*

    Good news: this LW did send in an update and it was a positive one. Link in next post.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      Thank you, it’s not up yet so I’m going to search for it now. I hope they were able to get better balance in life and restore their relationships and personal time.

  19. Sharon*

    Another thing that can help is to figure out the times you are available for work and treat everything else as “not available.” Treat your scheduled time off the same as if you had a meeting for a different client and tell your client you’re not available until tomorrow/next week/next month, even if all you had planned was watching TV and playing with the dog.

  20. Falling Diphthong*

    When I manage prompt turnarounds because I want to keep my client happy, I get praise for being “always available” and then they give me more work from a new program, which seems a cruel irony.

    OP, it’s not cruel irony. It’s them noticing facts about the work you do for them, and being pleased that you’re so good at it, and giving you more work because that’s what we usually do when we’re pleased with a product or service: They use the purveyor again; they recommend them to other people.

    I agree with the observation upthread that you probably need some therapy to get better at setting boundaries and prioritizing things in your life that are not work.

    But I will say, as a freelancer, that the one job that I still steam about when I remember the ridiculous deadlines: The person saying “Client is incredibly impressed that the freelance team–who are responsible for none of the delays on the project, that’s all the client–managed to pull out that ridiculous timeline. So impressed that they have made the timeline for the next stage half as long”? He knew the timeline was ridiculous. He knew we’d all worked nights and weekends to pull it out, with the reasonable expectation that this would be a one-off that caused the intermediary company to admire our professionalism and assign us to other projects.

    Your clients don’t know that. They assume that a reasonable expectation for your availability, fast turn-arounds, etc is that it’s easy for you.

    (I recall a past letter where OP was frustrated by a coworker who, when assigned special projects by upper management, dropped everything else and then stayed up all night to pull them together. Leading upper management to conclude that this sort of report could be pulled together in an hour or two, since they assigned it Tuesday at 3 and it was ready Wednesday at 8. So they figured they could assign a bunch more and it wouldn’t be a problem.

  21. bamcheeks*

    I agree with Alison’s advice, but I would add a final point: consider whether being self-employed is wrong for you.

    Being able to set boundaries on your work is just as much a fundamental skill for freelance work as managing your taxes or networking or bookkeeping or doing the thing that you do. It is not an optional extra. If you fundamentally cannot do it, you are in the wrong job, just as you would be if you were an accountant who couldn’t count and couldn’t work Excel.

    I am always kind of fascinated by people who judge a business a success because it seems to be making the right amount of money regardless of whether or not it is sustainable for the people doing the job. That is true for large businesses, but it’s just as true for single-person businesses! The business is not a success if it is not working for you.

    This is even more true if the work you do is actually very important and critical and people will die if you don’t do it, because if you are going to leave an even bigger hole in the provision when you crash out and you may have prevented others with more sustainable business practices from developing businesses.

  22. buddleia*

    This reminds me of my friend, who’s a director in the public sector (so not freelance): she said that when you do good work, you’re going to get more work. She is burnt out and keeps saying it’s not sustainable so I don’t know how she does it.

    I don’t know if it’s easier to say no in the public sector than when you’re self-employed, but I hope LW has learned to say no since their letter was published.

  23. Strawbs*

    I own a solo business too, and I agree that this is more than a business problem. I would start by finding a good therapist. Once you’re getting active support and in a more stable place, I would get a good business coach. It’s easier to change your business model with support–however you decide to change it.

  24. BatManDan*

    Short answer, the LW needs to get comfortable raising her rates (which may take the form of “rush pricing” at first. It’ll sort itself out when she’s charging what her work is clearly worth to some of her clients, the rest will find another provider. Will probably take a therapist or the right business coach to make that jump. Process will be easier if she finds a trusted person with the same scope / capabilities, that she can refer clients to (the ones that don’t want to pay her new, higher prices).

  25. Dido*

    Maybe running your own business just isn’t for you. Why not get a normal 9-5 with a stable income, where you don’t have to worry about accommodating every client request at all hours because your income is dependent on them?

  26. Budgie Buddy*

    Another point LW needs to consider:

    They’re already adept at saying no. They often meet their needs even when causing another person stress. They are absolutely prepared to burn a bridge if they consider it necessary.

    They’re just doing all those things to their partner.

    This situation will absolutely tank a relationship. LW needs to get a handle on the anxiety not only for their own sake but also so they can actually be present with friends, family, and partners. (Which is also ultimately good for LW.)

  27. Budgie Buddy*

    Separate post because different topic:

    LW writes:

    “And when I manage prompt turnarounds because I want to keep my client happy, I get praise for being “always available” and then they give me more work from a new program, which seems a cruel irony.”

    That’s not irony. Irony is going above and beyond to make clients happy and then acting Surprised Pikachu Face that the clients are happy and want to keep booking the service doing a great job. AAM rightly points out that this is a normal client reaction and the clients don’t know how much chaos is going on behind the scenes.

  28. TeenieBopper*

    I feel like Allison should have some canned responses. These would include “No. Mind your own business,” “No, your manager is an asshole,” and “No, that’s not your responsibility.”

    Added to that list should be “JFC, just go see a therapist.”

  29. learnedthehardway*

    I completely understand the feeling – been there. You need (and I have needed) to do a few things.

    1. Triage your client list – who do you LIKE working with, who pays their bills on time, who gives you consistent work, who is reasonable/agreeable to work with, and who is most likely to have the work for you in future? They should be your priorities (esp. the ones who pay their bills).

    Also, look at which clients cost you the most time/stress/aggravation/don’t pay bills on time – resolve to cut them out of your list.

    Sometimes, some of these categories will overlap – eg. I have one client that is seriously aggravating but has interesting projects and I charge them a premium. They stay on my list. Another has work that is boring but reliable and they pay bills on time. They stay on my list too. But in other cases – eg. interesting work but are demanding and don’t pay bills on time – I’ve cut them loose.

    2. Always say you need to review your project list before saying yes – tell them it will take you until the end of the day. If you’re not fully occupied, of course, take the business. But if your plate is full, it’s okay to say that, and clients will appreciate that you’re being upfront with them. You might lose some business, but you’ll gain more because you’re reliable (and you’ll gain it with the clients who value the relationship, not the ones who want to work you half to death and pay you as little as possible. Somehow, those qualities seem to go hand in hand.)

    3. Decide if being self-employed is really for you – it might not be. Should you look at going back in-house? Or will your inability to say no set you up for problems there too? (It’s a distinct possibility, in a company with the wrong culture, but in the right culture, you might find that having just one manager to answer to reduces the stress of reporting to multiple clients – whose priorities are all about their own needs.)

    4. Do all of this now, before you burn out. Trust me – been dealing with burn out for a few years now, and it has taken a real toll. Learn from my mistakes, basically. I’m down to a manageable workload right now, but I’ve burned some bridges, and I really hate that.

  30. Jellyfish Catcher*

    I founded a sub niche consulting office, and successfully worked for decades in it.
    Here’s what I learned.

    1. You can do this and have a life: personal, business, vacations and an income.
    THAT…..is what is so good about being your own boss.
    Right now, your boss (you) is too demanding and stressed.

    2. Check around to what is “normal “ fees : then raise to that or 10% more.

    3. Schedule Your Time first: days off, vacation times, holidays. Fill them with friends, family, sleep, fun, education.

    4. Consider if some projects mean more billing for complexity, research, or fast turnarounds.

    5. Build in longer deadlines or a day to catch up, wrap up, etc.
    You need time buffers because life happens:illness, last job went overtime, mental health day , dog needs the vet now, etc.

    5A. Figure out what you need daily to carry on: For me,a daily midday break of 30 min with food, breathing deeply and quiet.
    My staff jokingly knew to not bother me unless the complex was on fire during that time.

    6. For good clients, let them know how much you enjoyed working with them and ask for referrals. Chance are, they haven’t thought of that.

    6. All businesses have one or two clients that are unpleasant and demanding. If they are recurring / regular – consider if and when you can afford to move them out of your business. Or: longer scheduling times, higher fees and firm boundaries on what miracles you can produce.

    6. You MUST do the above before hiring a staff member – do not hire when exhausted and desperate.
    Take your time to research them, interview them, train them and provide them with a decent office atmosphere.
    They are learning the ropes, need training, and have their own lives.
    Also….interviews, references checks and training all take time.

    You are successful due to the skills you provide !! Now you just need to learn different skills to provide for your personal life. You can do this.

  31. Rosacolleti*

    You need to reset with your clients. I’d suggest:
    1. Tell them you are now at capacity and in order to be able to continue offering your services you need to formalise the arrangements.
    2. Offer a monthly retainer with a fixed number of maximum hours. Add padding coz you can. Eg if you give them 10hrs work, they pay hot 15. Let them know if they need more, they need to increase the package so you can resource accordingly. Present it as a win for them – because it is now you are at capacity!
    3. Consider someone to assist you. If you can’t fo that – you can only offer the retainer hours you are willing to do yourself.

    If you can’t do this, you will eventually fall in a heap, potentially losing all your customers.

  32. Sassy SAAS*

    OP, I worked for someone just like you!! She built a business from the ground up, and made herself ALWAYS AVAILABLE. She made her whole life about her business, to the point where she cut off childhood friends because those friends wouldn’t come to business-themed hangouts. It was really hard to work for her, because she burned herself out (and expected the same of her employees!). So while I can speak to your exact situation, I’ve seen what being in your shoes does to a person.

    You ARE successful already, but you deserve boundaries. You deserve to log off at the end of your day. You deserve to spend time with your loved ones, and outside the house, and doing things you enjoy! I fully agree that you should take a good stretch of time off (not immediately! Plan it out, give your clients a heads up, but then TRULY disconnect). You should also look into therapy to help with your mentality around work. Even if you don’t have anxiety or imposter syndrome (I did, hence why I mention it at all!), a therapist can help you start to re-center your focus on YOURSELF and treating yourself kindly.

    Even if you did lose some clients because of setting boundaries, those are people you don’t need as clients! The ones you want to keep will understand and respect your time. You can do this!!!

  33. Sailor Susie*

    “Just so you know, going forward my new rate is $X. I understand it’s a lot more than I used to be charging, so I won’t be hurt if you go elsewhere.”

    (where $X is whatever you think would make 2/3 of your clients leave.)

    You can “grandfather” clients you really like, or Jack up the prices further for the ones you don’t.

  34. Workaholic*

    Everyone else has covered the hire help/raise prices side.

    I work with clients (one main client, but there are a lot of people in their company that might send urgent emails). They might be all “the sky is falling, world collapsing, OMG! urgent, need this done now” but when you actually look – it’s not even due for 2 weeks (standard turnaround for normal work). Sometimes too much time is spent rushing to put out a fire to discover later that there wasn’t even a hint of smoke.

    Also… don’t forget that your mental, emotional, physical health needs care. I know – we all KNOW this, but practicing it is hard. *huge hug*

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