Ah, the project deadline. It is a freelancers’ best friend – and worst enemy. Deadlines sometimes hang over our necks like an axe, but they also add structure and stability to our sometimes-all-too-flexible freelance lifestyle. They are our blessing, they are our curse.

In general, the best way to keep your clients satisfied is to meticulously stick to deadlines (which means agreeing only to terms you really believe you can fulfill). But sometimes, unexpected complications arise – projects take longer than you anticipated, or life events throw a wrench into your carefully-calibrated freelance schedule.

So what do you do when a deadline is looming… and you absolutely, unequivocally need an extension?

1. Give Notice

Did the terms of the project change, or has it expanded in scope? You’re in the clear, but make sure you’re, uh, BEING clear. The best time to notify clients that you’ll need more time is when changes are being initially requested – that way, everyone knows exactly why you need an extension. That’s simple cause-and-effect (“Great, I can incorporate X, but that will add a day onto my projected completion date – is that okay?”) and most clients will understand, as long as you communicate your needs.

If the project has NOT changed significantly since you took it on – if you’re working on it and realize it will take far longer than you expected, or if some emergency has popped up in your private life – giving a client as much advance notice as possible is key. Waiting until JUST before a deadline to notify people about delays has a distinct odor of “the dog ate my homework”. Err on the side of early notification. It’s respectful to your clients, who may be depending on your work to meet deadlines of their own.

2. Be Honest

Don’t just be honest for yourself, and the sake of your professional reputation. Do it for all freelancers, everywhere. When a rotten-apple, shoddy freelancer is duplicitous and shifty, it makes us all look bad.

Be honest about why you’re behind on schedule – that doesn’t mean you have to go into exhausting, self-flagellating detail. Honest explanations about why you’re requesting an extension can include phrases like:

“[This project] requires more research than I initially anticipated.”

“I’m finding that this is slightly more complex than we projected.”

“[This project] is different from [other projects I’ve done] because of the [special characteristic] – that’s, unfortunately, adding some extra steps to my workflow.”

If a genuine life emergency has factored into your delay, be honest about that, too. Again, you don’t have to throw yourself on clients’ mercy or go into painstaking detail. People understand that life doesn’t always follow the mandates of professional schedules; useful neutral phrases include “family emergency”, “illness”, or “equipment failure”*. Be prepared to be more specific, if they ask – but most clients won’t.

Being honest is good for you! It also, incidentally, has a fringe benefit – you’re less inclined to procrastinate if you know you’ll be held accountable for your actions, and can’t invent a mystery “stomach illness” to delay a deadline.

*PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT USE ONE OF THESE PHRASES UNLESS IT IS ACTUALLY ACCURATE. Again, nothing makes all freelancers look bad like the one yahoo who claims a “family emergency” every time he can’t make a deadline. Please don’t do that. It’s awful.

3. Set Clear Expectations

Even the most patient and understanding client gets itchy when asked for an extension with no end-date in sight.

Whenever you’re politely requesting an extension, propose a concrete new date for completion. Make it something workable for you; if given an extension, you’ll need to turn in your best work. Keep in mind that you’re, essentially, asking for a favor – and that might mean proposing a date with a less-than-leisurely workflow attached to it. Give them an attractive, reasonable option; setting clear expectations for delivery will help soothe any ruffled feathers.

By delineating a new deadline, of course, now you have practically given a blood-oath that you’ll be done by that date – don’t expect any more extensions, m’friend! One is about the limit, assuming your client doesn’t make any changes to the project’s terms.

On the few occasions when I’ve had to ask for extensions, I’ve also thrown in “bonuses” to mollify clients. These bonuses can’t be too time-consuming (that defeats the purpose of moving the deadline) but can help stave off impatience and discontent – much as a free breadbasket aids a restaurant trying to pacify hungry customers. When I was writing resumes professionally, I threw in a free cover letter. When I was doing freelance interviews, I threw in a gallery of thumbnail images to use. When I was doing social media content, I wrote a short overview of Facebook best practices. Each amounted to about a half-hour of work, but the little extras kept my waiting clients happy.

Asking for extensions should be rare, but it needn’t sink your relationship with clients entirely! Tell them early, keep it honest, and get projects done within a reasonable timeframe – before you know it, you’ll be sweating over a new deadline entirely.

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