How to squash the dreaded ‘forever project’ and finally get paid!

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You know the “forever” projects I’m talking about – those that are three months behind schedule yet your client wants to see “just one more” color scheme or isn’t sure about the copy.

When once you were thrilled about landing a great project, now you’re just hoping they’ll make up their minds and put money in your pocket.

If you’re stuck in this nasty situation, follow these steps to find that light at the end of the tunnel (and then use my tips below so you never get in this situation again!):

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Step 1: Create your exit strategy

First things first: figure out how to get yourself out of this mess!

Let’s take a look at some scenarios:

Can you provide a finished product?

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If you have an otherwise functional, finished design (but your client is wrestling with the details), consider breaking the project up into two projects: version 1.0 and version 1.5.

By doing this, you can invoice for the bulk of the work – creating the project – and start a new invoice for these endless revisions.

However, if you’re sitting on a half-built website or a brochure with no text, things get stickier. Priority one needs to be a list of items you need to finish the project. Then, when you meet with your client in step 2, you can provide them with your needs and a time frame for when they need to deliver these items to you.

Can you separate the project into smaller projects?

Maybe you can break up this project into smaller, more attainable projects that you can sequence out over a period of time.

Example: You’ve agreed on a huge marketing scheme that encompasses a new website, social media, and an email campaign, but your client can’t decide which social media arenas she wants to use and this is holding up the website and email template designs. Break up these projects into smaller pieces – the website, the email template, and social media – and add the social media components later.

Whatever your plan is, write it down like a brand new contract.

Step 2: Discuss your strategy with your client

Once you have a plan of attack, you need to get your client on board. (If all goes well and your client agrees to the new plan, make sure you get it signed!)

Chances are, your client is also unhappy being saddled with a forever project. They might be feeling the exact same emotions you are – fatigued, overburdened, and stressed.

Follow these tips to help foster a positive response from them:

  • Approach your client as a team member. They’ll be more agreeable if you make them feel like you’re going to solve the problem together.
  • Bring positive energy. Your client will feed off of your optimistic outlook and you’ve got a better chance of getting them agreeing to your exit strategy.
  • Meet over the phone, in person, or via video chat. Email is too impersonal for a massive change of plans, and it’s easy to misconstrue meaning and tone.
  • Ask for their input. Your client might have a solution you haven’t thought of, and you need to discuss how to avoid falling into the same dysfunction that you’re in now.

What to do if you can’t agree

So the pitch didn’t go as planned and you’re at an impasse. *sigh*

Now what?

Things get uglier from this vantage point, but you still have a few options:

  1. Do nothing and continue on the forever project, hoping one day you’ll finish it and get paid.
  2. Negotiate. Take a day or two to determine your needs versus your wants. Then discuss whether you can come to a reasonable agreement to finish or end the project.
  3. Fire your client and bill them for the work completed (be fair). Remember, be professional even if you REALLY don’t want to be.

How to fix your contract so you never have forever projects!

Are you surprised we’re talking about contracts again? I bet not – here at Millo, contract is our middle name.

But it’s so true.

Contracts make or break your mental, emotional, and financial health as a freelancer, so don’t neglect them. (Don’t use a cookie cutter approach, either.)

Here’s how to fix your contract so you never worry about forever projects again!

Establish communication avenues.

Phone number, email, Skype number. How to contact your client, and how you prefer them to contact you, belongs in your contract so that they can’t come back later and say something like, “I never check that email. You should have contacted me at…”

Stipulate time frame.

Always reserve the right to consider a project inactive and bill for work if your client refuses to communicate with you or puts the project on hold. This is what my contract states:

Designer reserves right to consider project inactive and bill for work completed after four weeks of client unresponsiveness via contact information listed above. Projects put on client hold for more than four weeks will be considered inactive and billed for work completed.

Require a deposit/down payment.

It is amazing how much more invested in a project a client is when they’ve already put money into it.

My contract states that work will begin when I receive the deposit. This prevents any dragging feet if they have a time-sensitive project. (I will bend this rule for excellent long-term clients, though.)

Add your two cents

Have you ever had a ‘forever project?’ How did you finally finish it? Leave a comment on this post and join the discussion!

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About April Greer

April is the Director of Projects at Reliable PSD, a design-to-code company for designers, by designers. She’s the glue keeping everything together, organized, and right on time, and giving everyone a fantastic experience while she does it.


Leave a Comment



  1. StressedDesigner says:

    I experienced I have changed some of the information for just now but here goes:

    There was a project I took in April, this was a relatively basic website. Six pages in total and a cheap one just to see me through. With a drastic lack of information this went on to a month without all the info at which point it then turned into a 21 page website. It was surprising but not something that I complained at. So then after a few months this then continued with a lack of information and it was November and I still didn’t have all the things I needed. I had a client spec ready and was going to charge for anything above and beyond afterwards but I felt the clients are holding back giving me the information so they can add bits in to save them money afterwards as we are currently under the “review” time and they were including extras.

    Beware of forever clients. I wish that I put my foot down when i had the chance.

  2. Great article! I’ve had a few projects like this. I just reworded the ‘inactive project’ section in my contract to something closer to your simpler, more direct version. I also have a restart fee if the client goes well beyond 4 weeks of inactivity then later wants to pick it up again.

    • Debbie,

      The restart fee is a good idea – it reminds them that you aren’t at their whim and that you’re a professional contractor, not an employee (I find a lot of clients start to forget this mid-project).

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. Yeah, we changed our contracts to say site is complete once we create all pages and put coming soon on the page.

    This encourages our clients to not drag their feet since they know they have to pay whether or not their content is ready.

    We also state this in person or over the phone as well.

  4. Surprisingly this is a common issue. I also have clients who are eager to meet their deadlines we agreed on. And some who become occupied in their daily work and lives and totally drop the ball.

    Sending a to do list is very helpful. Getting off the computer and on the phone is another way to push the process along. And motivating your client is a good way to get them out their funk and ready to tackle this project with excitement! =)

    • Siedah,

      More personal communication is a must when you’ve got a client that needs motivation. A phone call is a great way to express your enthusiasm and optimism about how close to done you are while reminding them that they need to do their part.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for opening up this topic. I have four old sites (for friends) that have been dragging on for 1 to 1-1/2 yrs. It’s frustrating!!

    However, I’ve implemented a new policy in my contracts besides providing specific dates that payments are due. The estimated completion date can be extended up to 30 days due to unforeseen circumstances. If after that time, providing I have my design work finished and am waiting on client contribution, I will begin charging an extra $100 per week until the project is done. I state that this ensures a timely completion of our work.

    I find that if it’s going to cost them more, they are more willing to be proactive about their part.

  6. Excellent pointers, Millo! Definitely gave me a couple of good ideas on this one! Thanks!

  7. Thanks for the tips in this article! We are currently 9 weeks into a project that was estimated to take 12 weeks and still have not received content from our client! Just lots of promises of content and excuses for not sending it on time.

    We have made detailed lists of what is needed and have built the site as much as possible with the lack of content, and now are at a stand-still. We have even told them that if we didn’t receive the content by “x” date then we would have to postpone their project as we had two others starting up that were going to eat up the next two months of our time.

    After not hearing from our contact, we reached out to their boss (who had signed the contract and deposit cheque)… neither has returned phone calls and emails in a few weeks now (we are always very helpful, professional and polite)!

    I’m glad we got the deposit up front but we’re not sure how to proceed at this point.


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