How much work is too much? (And how to survive it)

How much work is too much? (And how to survive it)

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Have you ever been completely swamped with work, with no real way of getting it all done and maintaining your sanity? For some, this almost seems like a dream come true. Having a full plate? Awesome! In practice, though, having too much work is a harsh reality that’s anything but dreamy.

How to fall prey to too much work

As a freelance web designer or even as a small agency, it’s not uncommon to experience the feast-or-famine cycle of work. The occasions when there’s not enough work are kindling for our natural inclination to say yes to any client or project that comes our way, even if it’s the wrong one.

But what if there isn’t another one right around the corner?” This is a common mindset, and it’s one you need to ditch if you’re going to level up. If you’re regularly marketing yourself and engaging your referral network, there will be more work heading your way. Trust that.

Freelancers aren’t the only ones burdened with too much work, though. When anyone—a client, a boss, a partner—comes to you with new projects, it can be tough to say no. Whether it’s the desire not to upset the other person, a sense of obligation to your organization or colleagues, or simply the desire to impress the client, saying yes can seem like the obvious choice.

How do you know when your workload is too much?

In a sentence, you’ve got too much work when you’ve got more work than time.

person's wrist with a watch on it, looking at the time

We’ve all got a set number of hours we can devote to working in any given day or week without the quality of our work—or emotional stability, home life, or something else—taking a hit. (The general thought is that this number maxes out somewhere around 50 hours per week.) If your workload requires more time than you’re really capable of giving, you’ve got too much work.

It’s not always so cut-and-dry to tell, though. Some other indicators of too much work can include exhaustion, feeling irritable or overwhelmed, and experiencing a general lack of traction. Go on like this too long, and you’ll face physical issues like tense muscles and sleeplessness, dread, trouble concentrating, loss of motivation, and even depression. Another word for this? Burnout. Burnout happens when you’re working too much and not getting enough time off.

Another telling factor? Missing deadlines, despite your best efforts to get it all done.

How to survive a workload that’s too big

First, take a look at your current workload and do some quick calculations. You’ve probably got small, quick projects that won’t take long to knock off, some longer projects that will develop over weeks or months, and some in-between. There are clients who call, email, or otherwise require your mental energy away from the actual design work, and clients who are pleasant and easy to deal with. There are new, big, or important clients you really need to impress, and there are those with whom you’ve developed a good working relationship.

Once you’ve got a sense of the total workload you’re dealing with, decide whether any of these projects are ones that can be delayed without major issue. Contact those clients and see if there’d be an issue with you turning the work around a few days or a week later. The more room you can give yourself to breathe, the better off you’ll be while in the current crisis mode.

Next, I personally like to pick one or two small things I can knock off quickly. The more I can get right off my plate, the more mentally freed up I am to take on the bigger ones. It seems small, but it can make a huge difference to cross a few things off the list and not have to think about them anymore.

desk with a cup of coffee, a phone, a mac, and a pen

If the present workload is just a matter of getting through the week, turn on the coffee pot and muscle through. But if you’re looking at something that’s going to bog you down for days or even weeks, muscle power isn’t going to be enough. You’ll need to rearrange your calendar. Cut anything that can be cut—both from your workload, and from your non-working life. You’ll need rest and downtime to get through this.

Reach out to sympathetic clients and ask for extensions if you haven’t done so already. And then, buy yourself some time. Think about what you can delegate, put off or nix all together. These could be work things (is there an intern or colleague who could take care of some simpler tasks for you?) or non-work things (like hiring someone to clean or run errands). Remove absolutely everything you possibly can from your to-do list. You’re going into survival mode—keep it as brief as possible.

How to avoid taking on too much work in the future

Once the dust has settled in your brain a bit, take stock of your situation and figure out what happened to get you in that mess.

If your issue is simply that you say yes to every opportunity, stop doing that. Learn to be more picky about what projects you’ll accept. Get a realistic idea of how much time you actually have to give and keep tabs on how much of that time is already filled. If a new project is one that interests you, consider it, but at a deadline that leaves you with room to breathe. If you’re considering the project simply because it’s work, albeit not ideal, re-think that strategy. Remember, it didn’t work out well last time.

If your issue is that you’ve got a full, satisfying pipeline and the inquiries won’t stop coming, this is your sign that it’s time to raise your rates. Probably by a lot. Or, it could be a sign that you need to hire additional help.

So, which strategy will you choose?

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