The client shuffle: how to handle multiple clients at once

Apr 13, 2015

There are not many things I miss about conventional jobs – free bowls of candy, an endless supply of coffee, the opportunity to steal paper from the office printer.

But occasionally, when juggling a huge number of projects for innumerable clients – when tasks are popping up, hydra-like, as soon as I slay them – I miss having one workflow to keep track of.

Most freelancers cobble together a living by working for many clients simultaneously; it’s not a bad lifestyle, but it can get overwhelming. Below are four tips to keep your many simultaneous clients happy – without drowning in work.

1. Own your calendar

Hahaha -- oh if my high school teachers could see this post.

In the extremities of my youth, I was never a very organized person; my viewpoint of “due dates” and “deadlines” ranged from “vague” to “optional.”

Nothing will force you into organization faster, though, than a busy client’s schedule.

When you’re juggling multiple clients, YOU need to be the ultimate authority on your own schedule. Write down everything on your calendar; carry a version of it wherever you go (I recommend an electronic variation, so it can be backed up). You cannot set reasonable boundaries without this tool; you cannot remember every client’s demand.

Write everything down; make it a habit as ingrained as brushing your teeth.

Shoot, write “brush your teeth” down in the calendar. Now you won’t forget.

2. Communicate clearly

This does not mean that you ever have to tell a client, “Hey, I’m not available Thursday because I’m working for someone else.” In fact, I’d avoid that.

It does mean that you’ll need to clearly articulate when you’re available, what your deliverables and deadlines are, and how long you anticipate each step of a project taking.

Again, putting it IN WRITING is tremendously helpful – you’ll be creating a physical record not only for your clients, but for your overloaded brain.

Working with multiple clients may translate to you being scheduled within an inch of your life; communicating clearly allows you to head off crisis situations.

3. Don’t overcommit – set boundaries

Ready? We are going to do a tremendously helpful vocal exercise together.

Place the tip of your tongue behind your teeth, on your hard palate. Make a hummy, nasal sound. Now drop your tongue and continue making a wide, open noise – while rounding your lips.

If you did it right, you just have said “Nooooooooo.”


Listen, freelancers are hard-wired to please. Developing strong relationships is how we get – and keep – clients. But you, like any other worker, are allowed to set boundaries and limits.

You are entitled to time off; you do not have to be endlessly available and accommodating. In fact, you CAN’T be – because if you’re not in control, you won’t be able to balance a demanding multi-client schedule.

Don’t promise things you can’t deliver. Leave yourself wiggle room for emergencies and unexpected time-wasters. Carve out time for things like eating, drinking, and seeing your loved ones (remember them?).

Set boundaries with each client – as long as you’re consistent, firm, and communicative, you shouldn’t ruffle any feathers.

4. Consider cutting back

If you’ve done all of these things and your schedule is still more tightly packed than a Tetris board; if you can’t remember the last time that you showered and your kid has started calling the television “New Dad” – it’s time to reexamine your client list.

Listen, when you first started freelancing, it was probably too scary to let clients go; you never knew when you might find another one. But now that you’ve got a GOOD problem – too much work – you need to scale down.

This can be a gradual process. Do you have any work you particularly dislike doing? Eliminate it. Will raising rates put you out of some clients’ price range, while upping your quality of life?

That’s a neat way to pare down your client base. If you want to reorient your work towards a certain specialty, this is also a great way to focus on your “target” clients.

The nice thing is that you can ABSOLUTELY winnow down a bursting client base without burning bridges. Just give two weeks notice (minimum), explain that you’re scaling back your overall workload, and most importantly – give a recommendation to replace you.

Throw a client to another freelancer! It’s a great way to build good karma, and it keeps your client from panicking.

I’ve now survived 5+ years balancing multiple projects and clients at any given time. I have, so far, avoided nervous collapse.

My calendar is glued to my hip, but I’m happy – and I never have to worry about an undependable employer suddenly leaving me high and dry.

Once you get the steps of the Client Shuffle down, you’ll never want to go back to a sedentary one-job life… free bowls of candy notwithstanding.