Oh, the problem of “too much work.” First of all, let us take a moment and acknowledge our deep gratitude for being overcommitted: lots of people are looking for employment, and we’re lucky to ever have to choose between competing projects or reduce workload. It’s a good problem to have.

Now that we’ve justly thanked the Universe for our blessings, it’s time to face the truth. Sometimes you just CAN’T get all the work done (short of cloning yourself or developing a quite serious sleep disorder). It’s time to scale back… or back away.

So how do you gracefully back out of a project (or change your workload) when you’re overcommitted?

1. Give as much notice as possible

It’s not always possible to give a healthy heads-up, but giving fair warning is the best way to soothe any ruffled feathers and prevent logistical problems. If you know you’re going to have to back out of a presumed commitment or shift a deadline, try not to let the dread of alerting your client overwhelm you. Give as much notice as possible; it’ll make your life easier in the long run.

2. Don’t over-share

It’s not logical or reasonable, but it’s generally true: all clients like to think that they are the only clients in the world. Or (if they can bear to admit that other clients exist), they like to believe that they are your very, very favorite and most important clients.

Keep that in mind when making your excuses! Even if you can no longer do Client A’s boring, slightly underpaid work because Client B is giving you much sexier, more lucrative work, avoid specificity that unnecessary insults.

Vague reasons are often just fine: “Unfortunately, unexpected changes in my schedule mean I am no longer able to take on X” or “due to logistical demands, I’m being forced to reduce my workload a bit” or “I’m shifting my focus”. Express your regrets, and make it inoffensive.

3. Offer alternatives

Even the most reasonable, accepting client may feel a moment of rootless panic when a freelancer unexpectedly backs out… because odds are they don’t have a plan. Be the hero, even as you make your excuses: give them some alternatives, and head off the panic!
If you have to give up the project entirely, spread some good karma and recommend a freelance buddy or two. As I said, lots of people are looking for employment. Connect them with a job!

If you have to push back a deadline (or reduce your workload), lay out alternative delivery dates or ideas about how to restructure your time. Don’t just run away; give your client a nice bunch of options to choose from, if possible.

4. Take it in stride

If you’re a generally nice person (and I bet most of you are), odds are you feel some genuine pangs of anxiety over leaving a client or downsizing your workload. This is especially true for freelancers, who retain somewhere deep in their bones the memory of early days when they were desperate for work. It sometimes feels wrong to turn down gigs or reduce your working hours, especially if you encounter any disappointment or resistance from clients. It can be tempting to “yes” yourself right into burn-out.

Don’t do it! Keep perspective! It’s okay to say no! Gigs end! People quit and are hired every day!

Working relationships have a natural ebb and flow. As a freelancer, your primary responsibility, asset, and resource is YOU. Do what’s best for yourself! Your client will be fine. You will be fine. You have not necessarily burned a bridge or damaged a relationship, even if you meet some initial dismay.

If you’ve overcommitted and have to reduce workload (or leave a gig altogether), do so as courteously and responsibly as is possible – and then forgive yourself any stumbles and look forward. Everybody has to say “no” or “not now” or “too much” sometimes; you have not failed, and you have not failed your client! It’s okay to back out!

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.