Stress Management on Freelance Projects

8 things I learned as a freelancer

For the past 4 years, I have freelanced as a Product Manager/UX Designer. More specifically, I’ve partnered with designers and developers to ship software for Clients. I’ve also defined the experiences and interfaces for the software we’ve shipped.

Over these years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve screamed, slammed tables and sulked in a corner of my dark room.

Now, my freelance career is far less stressful. I look back and laugh at those moments in embarrassment. I’ve acquired a core set of beliefs that have helped me significantly reduce stress and focus more on the eustress that comes with my work.


1. You Can Never Plan Enough And That’s Okay

Know where the destination is, have directions that get you there but don’t panic when you run into a roadblock. Your ability to manage your emotions and adapt to change is your biggest asset.

In every project I’ve worked on, something unexpected has come up. That’s okay. That’s just part of the process. I have learned to not beat myself up over everything. This philosophy alone has doubled my endurance.

2. Not All Clients Are Worth Your Time

You’re likely to bump into at least one client that’s rude and unprofessional. Don’t take it personally. You should always be professional in your approach.

I approach every client relationship with the goal of turning it into a positive, long-term relationship. After all, if you do great work for someone, they will hire you again. But when a client is attacking me without reason, I drop them.

Don’t feel pressured to keep a big client just for the namesake. It’s not worth the stress and soon enough you’ll start to hate your job.

3. Have Ample, Dedicated Back-up Resources

You should always have some help handy. Pay to reserve someone’s time, even if you’re unsure whether you’ll need the help. It’s worth the investment. Else, you’ll find yourself scrambling for help and paying more than you would’ve otherwise because last-minute help can get pricey.

4. Document Every Client Interaction

Every client interaction should be captured in writing. During meetings, take notes. Send out contact reports after your meetings to all attendees. Contact reports capture meeting details like the who and what including attendees, topics discussed and next steps.

This level of detail may seem unnecessary. However, I can’t count how many times I was able to avoid confusion and arguments by referencing this digital paper trail.

5. Don’t Start Until You’ve Received a Down Payment

No matter who the client or how tight the deadline, insist that you get a down payment before you start the work. This won’t damage your relationship. Clients will perceive you as more professional and experienced because you’re forward about finances, a topic that’s never easy to discuss.

I learned this on a project with a very high profile client. I was tasked with the design and development of a web-app within a month’s time. Once the contract was signed, I went straight to work. I thought to myself: “I’ll follow up with payments in parallel. I can’t lose any days otherwise I may miss the deadline and jeopardize any future work opportunities with this client.”

I became so hyper-focused on the work and making sure I get the app launched on time that receiving payment became less of a priority. And because I didn’t follow up routinely on payment, it never moved! I didn’t get the down payment I was supposed to receive at project initiation until towards the end of the project! And the other payments staggered behind that one.

6. Understand Each Stakeholder’s Role

In the planning stages of your project, ask your client(s) – “Will there be other stakeholders in this project? What are their roles?” Don’t wait for your client to tell you because they themselves may not know.

I learned this lesson when a website build I was managing almost went down in flames. Two days before launch, my client’s IT team requested a huge architectural change. Everyone’s anxiety levels sky rocketed.

Thankfully, we were able to delay the launch to sort it out. If I confirmed stakeholders upfront, many tension headaches would’ve been avoided.

7. Get Scope/Contract Revisions Explicitly Signed Off on Before Proceeding

To ensure your client truly understands the implications of scope changes, have them sign off on them. Every. Single. Time. In the middle of crunch-time, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is sign-offs. However, you deserve to be paid for every hour worked.

I’ve only become more strict on this rule recently when after one project’s completion, the client questioned the cost. See, he had requested some last minute changes, verbally approved the contract but forgot about it. Luckily, I had all his requested changes documented and was easily able to remind him. If I had his signature on the revised scope/contract, there would’ve been no confusion.

8. Nothing Tops Sleep for Optimal Productivity

No amount of fruits, caffeine and energy drinks can make up for the effectiveness of a good night’s worth of sleep.

I remember trying to write some intricate Javascript interactivity while running on no sleep for 36 hours.It was a sadomaschistic experience. I had ample coffee, red bull and snacks but after hour 16 or so, my focus was decreasing exponentially. I ran into major roadblocks and my code was pretty sloppy. And after getting some rest, I realized the JS problems I was running into were actually pretty trivial.

Author: Husam

Husam Machlovi has pitched to, and developed relationships with, top Fortune 100 companies. He's designed digital experiences that have generated millions in revenue. At his company, With Pulp, he leads Product Strategy & Design where he crafts product stories and interfaces that people love.

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