You’re a nice person, I bet.

That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to say “no” when someone asks you for a minor favor – especially when you are predisposed to please that person, because he/she is a freelance client.

I believe in working with some flexibility (clients would be surprised to see me writing about pitiless “limits” and “borders”, I think) and minor favors make the world go round. The problem arises, however, when a little minor flexibility turns into major extraneous demands on your time and energy… a phenomenon known as “scope-creep.”

*Scope-creep *often happens to new freelancers, but it’s also been known to sneak up on veterans. When you find yourself doing WAY more work than you anticipated or agreed upon (especially without the associated compensation), that is scope-creep.

It would be a mistake to think that scope-creep is necessarily a symptom of Big Bad Greedy Clients trying to squeeze every drop of work from you – although that does happen. Sometimes overloaded project managers will push for more work in desperation; sometimes clients are genuinely ignorant about what the amount of effort they’re asking for, and sometimes they’re just blithely testing your limits. But clients’ reasons for scope-creep are moot; let me repeat that again – their motives are moot. This is about YOU, not them – and your right to a happy, lucrative freelance career.

Scope-creep will burn you out and leave you poor. It will dishearten you and make you mistrust future clients. Left unchecked, it will make you despair about freelancing altogether. So don’t let “favors” morph into rampant scope-creep; fight it!

3 Simple Ways to Fight Scope-Creep

1.) The Best Offense is a Good Defense

The best way to fight scope-creep is by clearly defining project expectations before you ever start working. Before you start a project, make sure you outline specific expectations, deadlines, compensation, and estimated time… IN WRITING. This doesn’t have to be a big hullabaloo; even if you’re not working under a contract (although you should definitely be working under a contract), send a friendly email to your client detailing the project scope – making sure you’re on the same page. Theoretically, they should be glad to see that you’re checking in and ensuring clarity.*

Again, defining the scope IN WRITING is key – preferably in a contract. That written agreement will be your advocate and savior, your foundation and your shield. It will be your “bad cop” when you need to push against scope-creep; “I’d love to help you out, but Complicated Task X wasn’t included in the contract – could we work out additional compensation?”

*Beware of clients who don’t like putting anything in writing; that is a big scary red flag, and an almost infallible sign of a scope-creeper.

2.) Don’t Get Offended, Don’t Offend Them

So you skipped step one – whoops, hindsight is 20/20 – and now your contract-less client is pushing for more and more work. What to do? Not to sound like a broken record, but now is a good time to retroactively “make sure everyone is on the same page” in writing; you’ve already started working, true, but sending out a clarifying email will make sure that scope-creep isn’t swept under the rug.

Most importantly, stay collected, calm, and friendly. They may genuinely be unaware that they’re asking you to do much more than is requisite. You may scream and curse as much as you want in the privacy of your home, but be unfailingly polite and professional when outlining reasonable project breadth. Become the Icy, Logical Voice of Justice – become the Spock of scope.

Do not give in, but do not let them make you look unreasonable. You are the reasonable one here, remember? Be Spock.


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3.) No Offense, but Here are my Limits (With Options)

The third and last step: politely, calmly say what you will and will not do. The client does not blithely pass Go, does not collect $200 worth of work from you for free.

Say no.

Set boundaries (again, in writing). Decide what your limits are, and enforce them. Establish inarguable boundaries – by which I mean concrete numbers, not fuzzy objective goals. For example, you will do 2 hours of work on this, you will do 3 revisions – but you will not toil away endlessly in pursuit of unreachable perfection. Beware sweetly-phrased scope-creep asks, or guilt trips; beware clients who casually ask over the phone if you could just “keep going until everyone is 100% happy.”

NOTE: you may sweeten this only by offering “options”; this is an effective tactic commonly used on whining children who want to stay up past their bedtime. Just as little Timmy is sometimes placated when you ask if he would RATHER read three books and go to bed at the normal time, or read no books and go to bed NOW, a fractious client may be soothed by the appearance of choice.

EXAMPLE: I’d love to help you out, Client, but this unfortunately goes a bit beyond our agreement in January (see contract attached). I can offer two options!

1.) **We could extend the contract by one week for my typical 20-hour/week fee, or **2.) I can do 2 more rounds of revision at my hourly fee ($X), with 3 hrs. allotted per revision. Let me know which way you’d like to go!

My perfectly-nice freelance friend, you deserve to get paid reasonably and work a reasonable amount of hours. Fight scope-creep as the happy warrior; the calm, collected freelancer who gets what he/she is owed. It’s worth the battle!

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.