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What to do when you can’t finish a project on time

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Freelancers and entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature.

If we weren’t, we’d do the bare minimum in life to get by.

We wouldn’t be running our own businesses.

We’d be working at some low-paying job, enough to put bread and milk on the table and then we’d sit and watch TV after work every day.

Usually, that instinctive optimism is phenomenal–leading us to do things we never imagined we could.

But other times, optimism can overload us.

Have you ever been swamped with freelance projects when a big client calls, offering you a lucrative and very fun new project.

Your response? “Sure, I’d love to help you with your new project.”

But what happens…

But what happens when you accept the project, get started and realize the scope of the project is just way to much?

What happens when you simply can’t meet the deadlines your client needs?

What happens when a healthy amount of optimism has now turned into a heaping helping of pessimism–eating you alive every time you think about failing to deliver to your client?

Today, I want to talk about tw0 things:

First, how to avoid getting in this predicament in the first place.

Second, what to do if you find you can’t deliver on your promises.

Freelancing death

A quick way to kill your freelancing business is to be a flake.

Don’t return phone calls.

Don’t pay attention to your clients’ needs.

And certainly, whatever you do, don’t hit or beat deadlines.

But if you’re not so keen on killing your freelance career, let’s talk about how you can avoid getting overloaded in the first place. Here are a few options (I’d love to hear yours in the comments):

1. Understand your limitations. It’s important to know how much work you can take on in one month. Don’t overdo it. You’re only one person. If you are receiving more work than you can handle by yourself, see the next piece of advice.

2. Partner up with a backup freelancer. There’s nothing wrong with partnering up with one or more “backup” freelancers. When they’re overloaded, they can come to you for help and when you’re overloaded you can do the same. It’s always good to have the option of outsourcing work to other creative professionals you know and trust.

3. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” When a new client calls, remember: your current clients are more important than future ones. If you have to say no, then do it. That doesn’t mean you have to hang up the phone and never work with that client, just tell them you’re booked for the month and they’ll have to wait until next month if they would like to work with you. Chances are, they’ll be fine to wait 30 days.

What if it’s too late?

But what if it’s too late? What if you’ve already promised a client you would deliver by a certain date? Maybe you’ve even signed a contract.

Then what?

Here are a few ways to handle the problem in the heat of the moment.

1. Call your client and explain. Take a minute to get in touch with your client and let them know that you’ve overbooked yourself. Explain to them that you want to  do the best work you possibly can for them and, in order to do that, you would like to renegotiate deadlines and timing for the project. They’ll appreciate the honesty.

2. Renegotiate terms of the contract. If you wrote your contract the right way, you should have the option to renegotiate the terms at any point in your relationship with your client. Be honest and ask for a renegotiation on the project so you can work out the timing more effectively.

3. Hire temporary help. As a last resort, you may need to hire temporary help in order to meet the deadlines you have. Since this comes straight out of the cost of the project, it probably means you’re taking the hit since you didn’t factor in this expense when quoting the project. It’s a tough decision to make since your profits go way down, but it’s worth the investment since missing your deadlines can mean terrible word-of-mouth reputation killers.

What do you do when you can’t finish a project on time or under budget?

Now I turn to you. What do you do in these kinds of situations?

How do you salvage your relationship with your client?

How do you avoid it altogether?

Enlighten us all by leaving a comment. Thanks!



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Written by Preston Lee

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Preston Lee is the founder of Millo where he and his team have been helping freelancers thrive for over a decade. His advice has been featured by Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Adobe, and many more.

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  1. Royal Navidad says:

    Well, I ran into this problem with a website redesign. So much thought and levels went into it, I couldn’t see. I was a few weeks overdue as I thought the project would take less time. I let the client in on the design process along the way…”This is what I’m doing now”, “Here’s how much time has been spent on your project”, “Here’s what’s next”, “We’re so close”. In the midst of that, I kept the conversation line open to discuss life & build a relationship with the client outside of it all. They had questions concerning promotion, & content outside of the project that they were needing design advice & insight on here and there. I gave it to them.

    What I’m saying is if your late on a deadline, be super honest, but have some form of compasation. In this case, upgraded their package (nothing too hard, just a few extra clicks here and there). They understood & accepted the extra work (to them) & allowed even more time because it was an “upgrade”.

    Long story short, time is as equal value.

  2. praveen sambu says:

    Hi Preston, I am in a very bad situation right now, i have given a project to a freelancer in india. He promised me to do it in 20 days, and agreed with payment terms. He advised since its done in a very short term, no need to sign any contract, make payments and i deliver the work. Peculiarly his enthusiasm towards project changed after i gave him first two payments. He was handling way too many project and he could not finish my project, infact he delayed the project by giving every one a weeks time to finish and delayed it by 5 months now. Either he does not communicate when i ask him about the status or he says he will update the code asap and he is working on my project now. I do not understand how do i handle this situation. 90% of it is finished.. but i dont have access to code and he is delaying it incessantly.

  3. thanks for nice artice from real life, it makes me not alone in such interest work are as freelancers – I am from Uzbekistan, Tashkent near Aphganistan and even most users are from europe or usa I have same work issues like in artice. my business=IT-software development.

    1. already done call&meet with client and said about what work goes about quilified production and with garantee result will work properly.

    2. didn’t renegotiate with him – about cost just about time which overworked 3 month

    3. cant hire such help cuz no such collegues finded in Tashkent. if can help pls help.

    thanks again, such articele make me calm down and work more efficiently!

  4. Thank you very much, really great article.

  5. hannah watson says:

    I have the same problem but at school. For technology i need to finish a circuit before the end of term and i am no where near finishing it. If i dont finish it i will get a detention . What should i do……

  6. Yeah missing deadlines sucks man!

    I hear this from designers and developers all the time, even from my own teams, their teams, and colleagues, and it’s usually because they lack commercial experience.

    How many of you ‘entrepreneurs’ out there actually just hawk yourself our for a few hundred a day to anyone that will take you, or run a small business with a handful of people turning over a few million?

    Hardly entrepreneurial, and that’s the problem…’s not optimism, it’s ego and conceit that you’re actually better than you are, then find yourself out of your depth. This is why our industry is often viewed in this negative, ‘head in the clouds design monkey’ way, because of you clowns.

  7. Great detailed article. Not making deadlines can lead to major problems with the client so you have to get it done on time and with quality! Thanks for sharing

  8. CLIP Graphic Design Nottingham says:

    Great Article. I really enjoyed reading it, especially the ‘freelancing death’ section. Returning calls can become a major distraction and lead onto not finishing the project on time. Keep up the good work.

  9. Elizabeth Magno says:

    If this happens to me it will be a great loss of productivity. I must see to it I have the proper time management not having the attitude of beating the deadline.

  10. Eddie Lepp says:

    I think it’s VERY KEY to have at least one other designer that you can turn to and provide work to when you’re overbooked. And really, it needs to be at least two, because you can’t always rely on your main designer being available in a time of need.

    I think for lots of designers, it might just be that they don’t know anyone good enough that they can trust. But just investing a little bit of your time (networking, boards like this, even posting that your looking for designers to throw work at some time) will really make a big difference. Cause I agree, to protect your brand, you don’t want to make a bad impression and look unreliable. And you’d also like to be able to take on work whenever you can get it. As long as they’re willing to pay your rate of course 🙂

  11. cynthia mcardle says:

    Not meeting the deadline really sucks! But I guess, with proper coordination with the client, this will be doing fine in order for such client to understand whatever causes the delay.

  12. April Greer says:

    Always, always, contact your client sooner rather than later. They might be able to push a deadline back two weeks or a month ahead of time, but it’s much harder the day before.

    My two cents! 🙂


  13. Kirsty Curnow says:

    I definately call upon the backup of other designers when the work is piling up. I would rather do this than say no to a new client or back out of a deadline.

    One thing to be mindful of though is that a lot of deadlines are ‘artificial’, meaning it is often not crucial that the work be done by when the client has asked for it. So it’s important to question the client a little from the start and see if there’s a few days grace at least beyond the time they have given you.

    In my experience back in the agency days there was always time for a reprint – which I never quite understood at the time but have since learnt to question all deadlines.

  14. Rajesh Advani says:

    Thank you for a nice post.

    Most of the freelancers go through the situation you have emphasized upon. No client or even freelancer will like delays in projects. Had a similar kind of situation in recent past where I took a challenging project with a tight deadline. I knew I was biting more than I could chew, but, I was determined to deliver the project the way client expected. I apologized for delays, always promptly replied to client’e emails and phone calls, no matter how harsh they were. After all they agreed to pay what I asked for in my contract, so it was like their right to be harsh in case of delays or any compromises. At the end, the project was delivered, the client did not only promptly pay but also recommended my name to several friends. All is well that ends well. 🙂

  15. With regards to meeting deadlines, in many ways you just have to battle on. Most of the work I do is connected to a marketing team or person within a larger organisation – the rule here is – work is always due now. Nature of the business determines that the designer (young and senior alike) will generally work with organised but more often disorganised clients. Most younger clients that I have met have such poor skills at producing a job that it it not uncommon for dozens of alterations to the same document. This improves in time but it is up to the designer to learn how to manage this. So in some cases be prepared for average rates and train the client as well. This is to be expected, especially at the beginning of freelancing.

    These new generation marketing kids are taught that designers need to work quickly and respond within shorter time frames. The Mac has eliminated the need for many specialists to produce a publication or advertisement so there is naturally the expectation for faster turn around. However in most cases it’s all about one person delivering. Without disrespect I say that the Mac has the sewing machine of modern times.

    The ability of client control will make or break a freelancer, how they get the client to the finish line is what determines success (or not). Learning to manage clients and having the design community, as a whole, live by a code of ethics and not giving in to the current ‘microwave’ culture.

    Would we want it any other way? 🙂

  16. Theo Groves says:

    Absolutely right, we are (almost) all wildly optimistic–and enthusiastic. This affects our perception of time and money to our disadvantage. Over the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve finally come to realize that even if you give yourself more time, the project will stretch out to make itself bigger, and if you try to charge what it really should be worth the client will go on about the other bid that was “a lot less”–but they like you, so can you just shave off 35% or so.

    On one side, we push for as much time and money as we can get and still bring in the job, and on the other side we constantly look for ways to be more efficient so we can do more in less time (code libraries, better version control, better QA, etc.).

    However, as clients’ expectations of delivery times shrink, it happens that at some point some jobs simply are impossible. As soon as we see this we contact the client with options: throw some stuff overboard for a phase 2; simplify or rework some stuff to get it done faster; push back the delivery; or last, worst option, hire a freelancer (we decide this internally and make it transparent to the client, and hate seeing those dollars go away, but if we have to, then we do).

    It’s amazing how many clients fudge their actual deadline, sometimes by a drastic amount, to make sure any slippage can be accommodated. They won’t tell you about it until the chips are down, so before hiring that freelancer, make sure the date is THE DATE.

    And no matter how long you think something will take, even your worst, longest estimate–double it–you’ll still ending up working all night toward the end of the project, but there’s a good chance it will get done on time.

  17. I offer a discount on future work. That works for both of us: 1. the client is happy because they get a discount, and 2. I’m guaranteed future work plus retaining my integrity. Things can and will go wrong but a good freelancer has to be willing to admit that things are not going as planned (best if we don’t wait until the last minute) and be willing to take the hit to make things right.