Juggling Jobs

Barnum freelance juggler

Yup… she’s a freelancer!

One of the problems with freelance work, and many of you will know this from first-hand experience, is when you end up juggling jobs.

There can be a few reasons for this, but often it’s down to

  1. Jobs over-running
  2. Jobs coming in late
  3. Jobs coming in early
  4. Jobs becoming more complicated than first thought
  5. Over stretching yourself

While it’s easy to say make sure the jobs don’t overrun, fit in those late jobs as-and-when (after all you’re fully booked and it’s not your fault), start at the agreed date and not earlier, stick to the brief and no more, and manage your time properly, it’s often more complicated than that. Some clients are more flexible than others, and we all have those clients that we love to work with, and for whom we go the extra mile, but in reality there are only so many hours in the day.

So what do you do when the juggling becomes dangerous? No I don’t mean when you end up juggling knives, but when timescales shift, work starts to interfere with your down time and stress starts to hit big time?

Stress is a killer, and when you work with words, despite what others may think, it can become dangerous to your concentration, and your quality of work, to spend all day working. Unlike other occupations we tend to be in front of a computer all day, concentrating to high levels and it’s easy, without colleagues to check up on you, to rarely move away from your desk.

I don’t have all the answers, but these are some ways to juggle jobs and keep your sanity:

  1. When jobs overrun it’s virtually impossible to say ‘I’ve had you timetabled in, time has run out, I have to stop’. In fact, to say that would be highly unprofessional. Things do happen; while deadlines are set they are rarely met bang on time. Tell your client that due to things overrunning you are going to have to juggle your time. They will appreciate your honesty and may give you some extra leeway, for example move the extended deadline to be more editor friendly.
  1. Know your limits. Make sure you know what is expected of you and stick to that. You may like to go that extra mile, but when things start to get out of hand do what you have to do to get the job finished and no more. It may seem harsh if you regularly add flourishes to your work, but do what you are paid for. Those added extras usually mean extra time that are now at a premium.
  1. Explain to both parties involved that there is a problem. If a job has overrun, explain to that client that you have other work that has come in and you have to prioritise (see no. 1). If the overrun project now has a very urgent deadline, either talk to the new client and explain the situation (their deadline may not be so urgent) or if you don’t think that will work, decide which project to make your priority, then get it done and work on the easier project later.
  1. If things get really out of hand, sub-contract the new work out. If the client is ok with that of course. It can be painful to have to let a job go, but if you really, really can’t fit in all or part of the new job due to the old job running late passing the work onto a trusted colleague can ease the burden. You may only need to sub-contract a small part of the job in order to get back on track… if there is a way to divide the job up this could be a perfect way to keep order (and your sanity).
  1. Prioritise your time. If juggling is starting to stress you out, but you know that you can manage the work, sit down with a piece of paper, or your favourite time management app or software, and write down all the projects you are juggling. Note down the new deadlines, the amount of time you expect will be needed to complete the tasks and any other pertinent information. Then set yourself a timetable. It may seem like going back to school, but having it written down really does work, and you can see straight away if all the jobs are doable in the timescale or not. If not you have to go back to your clients and explain the situation.

When juggling gets to be unavoidable I find the last option noted above can be the most useful. I’ve tried apps and software, but I’m a bit old fashioned and find that paper and pen really does help you to see what is in front of you. The actually physical act of writing things down can clear your head and allow you to see just what you are up against – then stick the sheet of paper on the wall or a notice-board so you can see at a glance what is happening.

Here’s how I do it:

Here's a downloadable copy of my blank timetable

Here’s a downloadable copy of my blank timetable

Section up your paper into days (one week per sheet), then each day into hourly (or half hourly) slots. Take a red pen and fill in lunch. No squabbling, do it… I often get so engrossed in my work that I forget to eat, do as I say not as I do!

Now, have your current jobs to hand and see what you have, how many hours you think it may take and the deadlines.  Note that I don’t have weekends on the sheet… we do NOT work seven days a week, freelancers deserve weekends too. I haven’t included breaks either, I usually take breaks when I need to, not when a timetable says… but factor these into how many hours you think a job will take. Sometimes I actually stop work for an hour and take a break by watching a box set or *cue sad music* by doing housework. It may seem strange to non-freelancers, but when you are concentrating hard on a computer screen taking an hour out can be more beneficial, to me at least, than lots of little coffee breaks.

Next take a coloured pencil or pen and allocate a colour to each job and make yourself a timetable, making it as interesting as you can. Try not to have huge blocks of the same type of work, this can bog you down and your brain stops working. A change really can be as good as a rest. Break up your day with different projects, depending on when you are most productive.

This is how a timetable can end up looking

This is how a timetable can end up looking

It may be that you don’t stick rigidly to your timetable, but just having one will concentrate your mind on the tasks ahead. And don’t forget to factor in distractions, or downtime. You’ll see in my example I’ve left 12 noon to 1pm empty on Monday… because I know I tend to get distracted at this time, and because I’ve timetabled work until 6pm I’ve given myself Friday afternoon off.

So when juggling is unavoidable there are ways to counteract the stress. I use my timetable, but the example is to show a time when juggling becomes a problem… normally I don’t need to resort to such rigidity, and my days are normally set somewhat differently. For example, unless I have a heavy schedule I rarely start work until 10 am, because I work more productively into the evening.

So how do you handle the stress of multiple jobs or jobs’ slipping deadlines? I’ll bet there are some brilliant examples of how to deal with it out there.

This blog post has been uploaded late… because I’m juggling deadlines!

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