Over Committed — Money or Sleep?
When working freelance it is a really easy thing to say yes to every project that comes your way. Earning money becomes the deciding factor when you choose to take on projects simply because you don’t know when the next project will come along. I am willing to admit that I habitually take on more work than I can practically manage merely to build my clientele. Most of the time I can juggle several projects with varying deadlines and complete them in a just-in-time fashion without losing too much sleep. But there have been a couple of times where sleep came second.
When it worked
One of my most prestigious and well awarded projects was done after hours over an eight week period with the final three weeks spent as a marathon of iterations. I am not exaggerating when I say that I would stay up working on the project until 6 A.M., sleep for 2–3 hours, go to work my day-job, then come home and do it again. It was insanity, and I’m surprised that my health and my marriage both survived. It was a great project, an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up, and in the long-run it was well worth it.
What I learned from that project was that an 80-hour estimate can quickly turn into 280 hours when you don’t have all the facts. I learned that this project was experimental in nature, not only from a design perspective but also from cultural standpoint within the company. They were attempting to innovate and to do it in an iterative process. Because of this the design was intentionally vague and as the details emerged there was serious discussion and experimentation as we solved each new challenge.
In this example the trade off for sleep ended up being the experience, not the money. I learned so much from this project and I reference it every time I meet with a client, showing it as the prime example of how innovation and hard work create amazing experiences.
When it didn’t
A few months ago a friend approached me to help him with a project he had taken on to rebuild and redesign a website. The client had been burned by a developer who was now holding the source code for a $200,000 ransom. This project was supposed to be easy money and straight forward, we’d knock it out in tw0-weeks and we’d come out the heroes. But things are never as they seem.
The project got a late start, we had to reverse engineer the admin using an existing database. We built the templates to match the current website exactly but we were missing details. Two months into the project and we still had not finished the re-build, let alone begun implementing the new designs. A quick assessment showed an additional 3–4 months of development to complete the project.
Not only was this above and beyond the approved budget for the project, this development had taken so long that all involved had started other projects which were now taking priority. We were juggling the project and working late into the night trying to keep up.
We faced a difficult decision, one I had never faced before. One, we could continue working on the project, taking our time and spread the work over the next four months. But there was no guarantee that we had all the details or that the client wouldn’t want changes once we began the redesign. Or two, we could cut our losses and move on.
When examining these options I discovered that it would be impossible to come out looking good in the given situation. If we continue, we delay the project further and client is unhappy and we look bad. If we drop the project, we are happy but the client is not and we still look bad. Ultimately we decided that it would be better to terminate the contract and write off the time spent as a way to save face with the client.
The project was about the money and in the end it was an easy decision, I needed sleep more than I needed the money.
Think about it
Ultimately I’m saying, don’t take on projects just because you need the money, that’s not a good enough reason to over commit yourself. Because once you’re over-committed you have only two options: give up sleep; or give up the project. It will be up to you to determine which is the right move for yourself and the project.