Many freelancers stress out when they're not at full capacity - only to find out that they're more stressed out when they are booked solid.
Being at full capacity, especially in the early stages of your business, is a bit like walking a tight rope: staying on the rope yields consistently good pay days, but falling off is treacherous.
If you're in a service-based business, the main thing you're selling is promises. Your client doesn't immediately walk away with a product. Instead, they're paying you to create a customized deliverable, often after they've paid your fee or given you a deposit.
Being at full capacity therefore poses a problem for the next client that shows up while you're booked - and possibly for any other clients you're currently working with, if you take on a new client. Because if you take on that new client, you're in jeopardy of under-delivering, missing deadlines, having slower intake interactions and being too busy to follow-up once the job's completed.
The freelancers who have smooth intake interactions, deliver to spec on deadline and follow up post-delivery are the ones who don't have to look for projects and money.
Unfortunately, the challenge is that many of us don't have a good feel for when we're booked. As a general rule, if you have more than 75 percent of your available time, energy, and attention allocated to billable work, you're probably pretty close to being booked.
Without that last quarter of your time to handle what it takes to effectively manage your business and interact with current and prospective clients, it's easy to lose track of where your projects are. And that makes it too easy for you to either take on another project/client or to run yourself into the ground.
This sounds drastic, I know. But I've seen this happen over and over again with freelancers. No one intends for this stuff to happen. One day you're working your workload and the next day the workload is working you!
Knowing When You're Full... And What To Do When You Are
What makes the tightrope situation so paradoxical is that we actually want to be as close to that line as possible, but not quite there. When we're at that line, our pipeline is as big as it can get. That means that knowing when you're booked empowers you on two fronts: on the one hand, it helps set a target for you to reach. On the other, it tells you when you need to take the foot off of the pedal.
So, whether you track your capacity at hours, clients or projects, when are you full? When is too many too many?
Once you've answered that, you need to figure out what you'll do when you reach that point. Will you turn down new work? Will you set a future date for new projects to start? Will you hire someone to help you when you're over capacity? And, if so, who can you hire and how can they help you?
Thinking about this also helps you figure out the limits of your earning potential.Does your full-capacity mark provide you with enough revenue to stay afloat? If not, there's a serious problem. This is probably a sign that you're undercharging more than it's a sign that you need to get better and faster.
You don't necessarily have to know exactly what you'll do at that point. But thinking about it helps you work it out once it happens. It's better to have a fuzzy contingency plan than no contingency plan at all.
It All Boils Down To Making and Keeping Promises
Asking yourself these questions and taking time to think through your own answers will help you keep the promises you've made and not make any that you can't keep.
The more you make a solid promise and deliver on it, the more trust you'll have in your network. The more your network trusts you, the more they'll be inclined to work with you or share you with their own networks.
The absolute best position you can be in as a freelancer is where you can always effectively take on one more client. It's a challenge to get and stay there. But no one said freelancing was easy, right? (Good luck!)
Charlie Gilkey is a small business advisor, speaker, and writer who helps people build smarter, more profitable, and more sustainable businesses. He's a columnist at Inc and is currently working on a book that helps business owners move beyond bootstrapping.