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How to Schedule Multiple Freelance Projects (and Avoid Burnout)

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When your freelancing career starts to gain traction, it won’t be long before you have a need to schedule multiple projects at the same time.

It sounds simple right? Your instincts tell you to take on as much work as possible because you never know when you might get another project.

Hint: it shouldn’t be that way. Learn how to make your income more predictable.

But that quickly leads to burnout. Taking on one too many projects can cause all of them to suffer and put your own health at risk.

That’s why it’s so important to have a system in place for scheduling freelance projects, setting your availability, and maximizing your down time.

How Many Clients Can You Handle?

Think about the maximum number of clients you can handle at once. This may be a little different for freelancers in various industries, but there’s a number. Find it and stick to it.

The maximum number of clients you can handle will depend on two main factors: your personal capacity for work and how demanding each client is.

It’s also helpful to think about the number of clients you can handle, not the number of projects. While the projects can be demanding, it’s the clients that require your time and energy.

As freelancers, we’re trained to think about the scope of work and forget about the time and energy it takes to manage the client for the duration of the project.

Ask yourself, “If I had 5 clients right now, could I keep them all happy for the entirety of their project?” The answer is probably no.

If you’re brand new to freelancing and have no clue, stick to two until you prove to yourself that you can handle more.

For example, a web designer working with large companies might only be able to take on 1-2 projects at any given time. Those are complex projects often last several months and require a constant investment of time and energy.

However, a marketing specialist creating Facebook Ad campaigns might be able to handle 3-5 clients at a time without a problem. Those projects might be less time-intensive and don’t require as much client communication.

As a Full-Time Freelancer

If you’ve got 40 hours a week to work with, I recommend first setting aside 10 hours per week for your own business, just to keep things running smoothly.

This can include email management, file organization, financial management, working on your website, writing proposals, etc. Any time you can’t bill a client for falls into this category.

Set this time aside first rather than scramble to fit it in after-hours or in the “free time” you’ll never actually have.

Then, divide the remaining 30 hours by your maximum number of clients. For me, that’s two. For you it might be three or four, but I’ll use two as an example here. These will be your available “time slots” of 15 hours per week in this example.

I made this handy graphic to help illustrate the idea. Feel free to download or share it!

(Click to Enlarge)

For the first 5 years of my freelancing career, my calendar looked very similar to the one in the graphic above. One time slot was reserved for long-term retainer agreements that lasted 6 months or more. The other was reserved for shorter one-off projects that usually lasted 1-2 months.

This allowed me to be more selective with the clients I was working with since I always had one other project paying the bills.

As a Part-Time Freelancer

If you’re freelancing part-time, you most likely have a full-time job paying the bills. Maybe you’re in college or only have a part-time job, but you probably have consistent and reliable cashflow coming from somewhere (even if it’s not as much as you’d like to be earning).

Before I started freelancing full-time, my schedule looked a bit different than the one above, and I was regularly working 50-60 hours per week.

You won’t have a choice if you already have a full-time job. The only option is to put in extra time on nights and weekends, but try to keep it around 10-20 hours per week.

Your calendar with a full-time job might look something like this:

(Click to Enlarge)

You need to work enough hours to kickstart your freelancing career, but consistently working any more than 50-60 hours per week will result in burnout at your day job so don’t force it or try to rush the process.

Due to the limited time you’ll have for freelance work, schedule just one project at a time. As a result, you’ll probably have some gaps in your calendar (especially early on). Leverage this time to work on your business and look for your next client.

It’s important that your freelance clients know you have a full-time job. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself lying about why you can’t take meetings during the day or why the project is going to take so long to complete.

There’s a chance some clients may be unwilling to work with you while you’re employed full-time (they don’t want their project to be an afterthought), but it’s better you’re honest and tell them upfront.

Diversifying Your Income

As a full-time freelancer, you could fill your available time slots with any type of project (and sometimes you’ll have no choice), but there’s another factor at play here: diversity of income.

Freelancers are often led to believe that consistent income is the holy grail of freelancing. But I don’t know a single freelancer who has truly consistent income. Maybe predictable (to a point), but not consistent.

Instead, try to diversify the types of projects you take on. That way, you’re always collecting paychecks from at least one client. Any gaps in your calendar can be used to find new clients, work on your business, or just relax.

It’s ok if the hours don’t work out perfectly. In fact, they usually won’t.

Some weeks might be 6 hours of internal tasks, 19 hours for one client, 12 for the other, and 3 trying to close that new client who just contacted you. Some weeks you’ll work 30 hours and others you’ll work 50. That’s the nature of freelancing.

But the more important goal (in my opinion) is to have a system in place for avoiding the extremes of 20 or 80 hour work weeks. Neither are healthy for freelancers. Working too few hours won’t pay the bills and working too many will cause burnout.

That’s why having a plan for scheduling your freelance projects is so important to a successful freelancing career.

Using Scheduling Software

My business is not glamorous behind the scenes. I mostly use a combination of Trello and G Suite (Spreadsheets, Calendar, Gmail, etc).

I’ve tried numerous scheduling tools and they all seem bloated, expensive, or ugly. Sometimes all three. In trying to be everything, they make it difficult to do anything. These tools quickly become a job within themselves and it’s just not worth the time and effort to update them each week.

That said, SmartSheet is the most useful and powerful tool I’ve found.

My favorite feature was the gantt chart with dependencies. It’s worth the $14/mo in my opinion, but after realizing how little I used it, I decided to remake the spreadsheets in Excel for free and sacrifice the gantt view.

I know the internet can make you feel guilty for not using the latest and greatest tools, but I’m here to tell you that there’s no shame in doing things manually for free.

I use Google Spreadsheets to track my sales pipeline. For task management, I use Trello – which also reminds me what projects I’m working on (since the tasks are grouped by project).

I put meetings and key dates (like when a project is starting or ending) on Google Calendar. It doesn’t have to be more fancy or complicated than that.

If you’re new to freelancing…

It can take a few years to start gaining traction with any new endeavor (starting a blog, starting a business, building a product, etc) so work hard and be patient. A general rule of thumb is to give it your best effort for two years. That’s enough time to gain traction and decide if this is something you want to continue pursuing.

If you’re new to freelancing and want to take things to the next level, join my newsletter below and check out The Freelance Institute: a private Slack community where you can chat with freelancers from across the globe in real-time.

Last updated on December 9th, 2020

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through my personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.