You’ll Win When You Refuse to Accept Unrealistic Deadlines

Unrealistic deadlines are the bane of the freelancer's existence. Here's how you can take a stand so you're never rushing to put out quality work.

I love deadlines. I really do. As a freelance writer and editor and a lifelong procrastinator, I know that without firm deadlines, I’ll let my tasks drag on and on. I’ve noticed, however, that many creative freelancers like me are ripe for exploitation from demanding clients. We accept tight, unrealistic deadlines from clients who, whether they are aware of it or not, are taking advantage of a writer’s or designer’s fears of losing out on an assignment or the client altogether. But, freelancer, your fears are misplaced. I want to convince you that you’ll win when you refuse to accept unrealistic deadlines.

Crazy-short deadlines are not good for you

Research has demonstrated that overwork and its accompanying stress and exhaustion can interfere with making good judgment calls. “You’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired, and most of us tire more easily than we think we do,” said the Harvard Business Review’s executive editor Sarah Green Carmichael in “The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies.” “Keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.” Harsh words, but she drives home an important point: Overwork does not work.

Moreover, the health risks associated with overworking are real, and your impaired health does nothing to improve the client’s bottom line. Putting your client’s needs before your own reduces the leisure and relaxation that is key to de-stressing and appreciating your day-to-day life. Weekends/time off are for you, family, friends, outdoor activities and leisure. If you miss out on all that life enrichment, you’ll lose those special and rewarding moments, and even risk your personal life and important relationships.

Don’t make accepting unrealistic deadlines the norm

Sometimes your client may have a last-minute emergency where you want to step up and help out. Fair enough. When you routinely accept such deadlines, however, it isn’t good for you or your client. It’s normal to let our fears dictate our behavior from time to time, but if you get into a consistent pattern of jumping higher and higher at the client’s command, you will inevitably become exhausted and stressed out.

Don’t imagine that your clients will appreciate your going the extra mile or 10, or reward you for your sacrifices. In fact, your modus operandi simply trains your clients to demand faster and faster turnarounds. In the words of Meridian Health Plan CIO Tom Lauzon, quoted in “Don’t Always Aim to Meet Unrealistic Deadlines,” “When you finish a project with an unrealistic deadline, your reward is another project with another unrealistic deadline.” Overly demanding clients don’t empathize or understand what you require to deliver your assignment and will keep pushing you until you set limits.

So, how do you respectfully say no to unrealistic deadlines?

  • Be professional, clear and brief.
  • Do not get defensive, justify yourself or make excuses. You have a right to set limits that will improve your functioning as well as the quality of the work you produce, and to deliver to that client.
  • Stay calm and be positive. The person you’re addressing will appreciate it and mirror your low-key approach.
  • Be rational, but keep a sense of humor to reduce tension.
  • Remind clients of your achievements and successes on their behalf as you set limits.

And finally, practice what one of my mentors calls “the old ‘assume’ trick.” It really works: Begin by thanking clients in advance for their understanding of your need for more time to do the best job. When you seem to assume that clients will understand and say yes, it makes it a lot harder for them to say no.

What will happen if you set boundaries for an over-demanding client?

In the vast majority of cases, that client will have greater respect for you, and understand that you are a busy professional and not some dilettante artiste trying to shirk the hard work of creative writing or design. The worst that can happen? You lose the exhausting clients who drain your energy, and then you have the time and inner resources to replace them with better, more responsible people and businesses. We are all entitled to some R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha Franklin famously put it. Saying no clears space for you to say yes to opportunities that will advance you professionally and reward you appropriately.

Julie is a Creative Circle candidate and experienced freelance writer, editor, and content creator in Santa Monica, California. A mentor and a career adviser, she cares about the community of freelancers who are finding new ways to work successfully in today’s gig economy. If you want to work with Julie, contact Creative Circle Los Angeles.