But when we're alone, the truth sinks in: Our clients' approval and even the money don't do anything to assuage the nagging feeling of falling behind, and the fear that the more work we do, the lower its quality. We push aside things in our personal life to make room for work (We tell ourselves, "I don't need to go to the gym today" or "I can skip time with my family to finish this project, just this once"). We feel like we're always letting someone down.
Not long ago, I did a story for Yahoo! Hot Jobs on improving work boundaries. One of my favorite pieces of advice in that story comes from Susan Newman, the author of The Book of No:
"It's wonderful to be the go-to person to a point -- until you find you're totally overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful and in a time crunch.... Setting workplace boundaries means you will be doing better work and not spreading yourself all over the lot."
Her advice is to track your yeses, set priorities and then tell people (in this case clients) that you're changing your boundaries. Elsewhere, I've heard this described as the three A's:
You can't make a change until you know what's wrong. So for the next week, just pay attention to the work you say yes to and how you feel. Are you resentful? Are you anxious that the work won't help pay the bills? Are you blackmailing yourself because you're afraid you'll lose the client if you say no this once?
See how it feels in your body. Then:
Accept that, like it or not, this assignment--or future assignments like it--isn't working for you. It's no one's fault. You're client isn't wrong for offering you the work, and you're not bad for being unable to do it for whatever reason. It's just a fact. For the next week, sit with that fact.
If your clients aren't paying you enough, explain that you've just revised your business plan and you need to earn $X on this project in order to spend the time on it--and produce the quality--it deserves. Ask for a raise. Ask for a new deadline. And, if all else fails, say no to new assignments, kindly and with the caveat that if something changes you'd love to work with them again. Then you may need to take another action: reevaluate your client list and look for clients that better match your skills and interests. And then start doing the work to land them as clients.
This creates space for newer, more appropriate work and strengthens my resolve to seek out only the work that feeds me. Then, the work you take on is done with loving kindness and gratitude instead of under the gun and rushed. And it's done with some measure of serenity.