• Advice

3 tips to cleaning up a freelance mess

It happens to everyone. You have a sinking feeling that you’re forgetting something – and suddenly, you realize you overlooked a deadline. You missed that big phone call with the client. That project went south suddenly. You’re about to be over budget, and time is running out.

So how do you move forward when you feel as if you’re sinking? How do you minimize damage after you run into a big, fat freelance mess?

1. Breathe

Okay, yes, you’re in a pickle. You’ve gotten a bad phone call, or suddenly remembered a missed deadline. Odds are that your body has already gone into fight-or-flight response... but remember that you are NOT being chased by a tiger.

Panic energy is really, really helpful when you’re trying not to be eaten by predators, but it’s rarely useful in effectively handling freelance emergencies. You can’t help your emotional response – in fact, trying to suppress it entirely is harmful – but try to BREATHE through the panic. If your shoulders are around your ears, try to settle them.

Keep some perspective – you’re stuck in a rough spot, sure, but it’s not a life-or-death scenario. Most messes can be cleaned up fairly quickly, and keeping a cool head will speed up the process.

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2. Resist the urge to blame

Ever see a pair of kids get in trouble? Their eyes dart around wildly before finally settling on their partners-in-crime... and half the time, they sell each other right out.

The urge is understandable; when we’re feeling pressured or ashamed, it’s easy to dump the blame on someone else. But most of the time, that’s a panic impulse, and should be resisted both on ethical and logical grounds. Don’t throw somebody under the bus! Really check in with yourself about the facts, and be wary of ascribing malicious intent to any collaborator.

That being said, sometimes we genuinely suffer because of other parties’ negligence; if that’s really true, you don’t have to cover for anybody. Just be honest.

If a collaborator has shirked their responsibilities (and thus has ownership of part of the mess) calmly point out the snags that both parties have encountered, and move towards a solution. It’s better to be the fixer than the finger-pointer.

3. Don’t overshare

You may indeed be tearing your hair out at 2 AM and abusing all sorts of high-fructose corn syrup substances. You may be crying quietly in the bathroom (it happens). You may curse your stars and your deadlines in the most colorful terms.

But odds are your client doesn’t want to know any of this. They just want to know what the solution is, and when they can expect a mess to be resolved.

People tend to – however unconsciously – reflect the emotional states of the people around them. If you appear calm and unruffled, even the most finicky, panicky client will relax a bit.

Have a plan. Explain it with as much confidence you can muster. Move forward calmly. You’ll be surprised by how quickly many clients forget your missteps.
I am NOT saying you have to feel confident and calm, internally. Vent as much as you want to your friends, family, and therapist. But be wary of oversharing with clients – if you panic, they’ll panic, too. Paddle smoothly forward – they needn’t see the frantic motion propelling you underwater.

Kate Shea 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.

Kate Shea Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.