On Work, Deadlines, and Mental Health

I’ve said it from the beginning: I wanted to be as transparent as I could with my clients and build a business I’m proud of. Amongst the people I’ve worked for over the past 4 years, I’ve got some I can genuinely call friends – some who I’ll pop in and visit when I’m in their region in non-lockdown times – and that’s the most amazing thing I’m so grateful for.

So imagine me, trying and failing to hold back tears and speak clearly on a phonecall explaining that, for the first time, I’m not going to be able to finish a client’s project by the time they non-negotiably need it done.

It was just a long weekend here in the ACT, and I’d been worrying about this job all weekend. There’s a reason I’ve closed my bookings for 2021 and that’s that I’ve found myself packed to the brim and starting to become overstretched. I haven’t had a month where I haven’t had to turn at least one person away since January, even after adjusting my pricing.

And the hard thing is, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve taken on too much until you’re halfway through and it dawns on you that you’re going to have to do 5 hours overtime today, or the scope has ended up being more than you thought, or you’re placing a Word document into an InDesign file and each little paragraph or style is going to take more work than it looked like from the outset. Maybe it’s getting a document full of feedback on something you spent 13 hours on in one week, letting you know they didn’t feel it was up to scratch – even though you’d spent more than a quarter of your hours in a single week on one client when you need to work with up to eight or ten different people per month, and worked until 10.30pm to get the draft in on time.

It’s even harder if you have a chronic health condition, because some of the cruellest parts about that are:

  1. Sometimes you don’t actually realise you’re very unwell until it’s too late to make contingency plans, and
  2. To provide any kind of satisfactory reason why you suddenly need to drop off the face of the earth for a while, you have to disclose deeply personal information.

And the hard thing is, sometimes you don’t realise you’ve taken on too much until you’re halfway through

It can feel like a gut punch when people don’t like the work you’ve done at the best of times, but as a designer, this is something you have to get used to. It’s not personal, because your job is to make something functional yet beautiful; something that helps people understand the written word better than if there were no colours, no diagrams, less flow. If it doesn’t work, you just change it. Occasionally I get way more enquiries than I expect in a month, book in the people who were in first, plan my schedule out as best as I can, still go, “whoops, this is maybe a bit much”, but always smash it out in the end. If you’ve got a lot of work, you just get on with it, and then eventually, it’s done.

Until you can’t.

I fought on this in my brain for days and swallowed the knot in my throat until I finally sat down this morning, looked over once more, said “come on, you can do this” in my head over and over again, and then finally realised that I was going to have a panic attack. It was time to let the client know I was struggling, so I called and did it. I cried on the phone. I was so embarrassed to be crying. They were trying to understand, but were also very disappointed. If I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do the job, they said, I shouldn’t have taken it on. I know this probably means I will lose this job, but if it’s the kind of situation where I’m going to be crying at the computer at 9.05am, I’m going to have to lose it. The sores crawling up my skin, and the swollen lymph nodes running up the back of my head – brought on purely by prolonged stress and terrible anxiety – do not agree with the assessment that I should just keep pushing it until I succeed.

When you’re a high achiever, every failure you have feels like a black mark next to your name. You think everyone’s going to remember that time you couldn’t do a thing for the rest of your life.

When you’re a high achiever, every failure you have feels like a black mark next to your name. You think everyone’s going to remember that time you couldn’t do a thing for the rest of your life. When you’ve got an anxiety disorder, multiply that by 5. Not only do you have the black mark, but your brain will swirl around it for the next week minimum wondering whether you’re going to get a bad review, and whether that review will destroy the business you’ve just spent nearly 4 years building, etc, etc. The snowball of worst-case-scenarios is real. This time, it was like a car crash – I was the most productive person ever, smashing out so much great stuff, until suddenly, a health episode meant that I had no choice but to completely stop with no notice.

You lose focus of the good things, like the fact that this is the first time in four years I’ve not met a deadline and had to cancel a job. That this person has only been working with me for a few weeks and has no idea about me, my history, or my usual kick-butt approach. Or the fact that I have so many other clients who are thrilled to have me on board with them – some who would struggle to run their businesses without me – who are completely understanding, are flexible with deadlines if something unexpected comes up, and who, ironically, I neglected in the week I pulled 13 hours trying to be superman on something else when I wasn’t. I don’t blame the client, because it was me who failed. But as a point of learning, I’ve realised some styles of work are not for me for a reason, and that’s why I’m running my own business instead of employed in a company. It’s also why I’ve got a section in my Frequently Asked Questions about whether or not we’re right for each other, and I’ll be adjusting my enquiry questionnaires in the new year to put the focus more onto quality of the designer-client relationship right at the outset.

I recently was on the other end of a somewhat similar situation, comforting a crying colleague who’d done her best on a logo project for hours on end, only for the client to tell her it wasn’t working and that she wasn’t even going to be paying the invoice. It hit this designer’s confidence, hard. It was so sad, because I know she’s talented, most people would love to work with her, and I thought her work was great. It just wasn’t the right fit for the client and this situation – and they really should have paid that invoice anyway, because they’d just received ten or so hours of free work.

Note to those reading: Please never leave an invoice unpaid. It’s just so unethical. If you don’t like someone’s work you need to end the project early, not keep them going for hours and then not pay them.

Business is hard, anxiety is hard, disappointing people is the worst feeling ever. The adage about people pleasing is true – try to please everyone and you’ll please no-one. Somewhat counterintuitively, sometimes you’re better off saying you can’t help someone than trying, stumbling, and having to stop. And somewhere down the line, despite your best management, it’s not even avoidable – you will have to disappoint somebody. And it’s not just mental health. I wouldn’t expect anyone else with a chronic condition – whether it’s someone with cancer, or my friend with endometriosis, or a family member with MS – to still stick to a deadline if they had an unexpected and crippling flareup.

As my clients tell me when I need to take time off sick, your health is the most important thing. And the reality is – I’m one person managing a mammoth here. I won’t hire staff because it means relinquishing flexibility, personal touch, working completely at my own set pace, and creative control, and those things are way too important to me – so it means occasionally, unexpected things are just going to have to happen or you’re going to have to wait a few months before you can book in. Agencies exist to remedy that problem, which is precisely why you pay their overheads.

It’s the tradeoff you make when you hire a busy freelancer. 🙂

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Booked Out for 2021

Hey. Taylor here.

I just want to let you know that I’m not taking any new client bookings for the rest of 2021.

But jump on the waitlist, and I can pop you in if I get a cancellation.


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