The freelancer’s worst fear: underestimating the scale of a project, setting the deadline too soon and having to deal with angry clients. This is a scenario most of us have faced and many still continue to face as a result, but what can you do to change that?

Rules for Setting Realistic Deadlines

Many web designers and developers tend to make a key mistake when setting deadlines: they underestimate the amount of time or work involved. The trick is to keep things as realistic as possible, and to consider all factors that may slow your workflow down, including:

  • Lack of interest in the project
  • Unexpected client demands (or the dreaded infinite revision syndrome [IDS])
  • Personal or side projects that take up too much time
  • Prior engagements, family issues or illness

As a rule of thumb I usually multiply the amount of time I think it will take me to complete a project by 1.5 - this provides some cushion for whatever inevitable hurdles you’re bound to face. For example, if you think a project will take 2 weeks to complete, give your client an estimate of 3 weeks instead (2 x 1.5). Or if it will probably take 1 month, give yourself 1.5 months to complete. As long as your client is okay with it, you have nothing to lose by setting an extended deadline - it is in no way cheating the client of their time. If you finish in the original time frame, the client walks away happy as they’ve received their work early.

The 1.5 rule is probably a bit too much for long term projects (anything over 6 months), however the point to take home is that you should always give yourself some cushioning time.

Maintaining Your Schedule

If you’re a full-time freelancer working from home, maintaining your schedule and meeting deadlines can be a very difficult task. There are endless distractions when working at home, everything from family to the freedom of being able to work as you please can become an issue. Here are some techniques to deal with keeping to your schedule in these circumstances:

1. Separate Work and Play

Keep your work and leisure activities separate - and yes, that means no TV while doing client work. If at all possible, try to isolate yourself from distractions during work hours. Whether it’s in your room, the office or even the basement, find a place where you won’t be disturbed and you can devote all of your attention to the task at hand. Avoid working for long stretches at a time and take breaks often, it can help to keep your mind fresh and reduce the chances of burning out. There are also a lot of tools to help you focus and increase productivity that are worth checking out.

2. Set Tasks and Milestones

While you may only have one official deadline for your client, set multiple milestones (mini-deadlines) along the way to make sure you are keeping pace with your schedule. Milestones can be small tasks and in my opinion, the more frequently you set them the better, as they quantify your work in a very visual way. Usually I set 2-3 milestones a week, each with multiple tasks that are required to complete that specific milestone. I also have a To-do list that I try to keep updated on a daily basis that helps me reach these milestones.

3. Communicate with Your Client on a Regular Basis

Keep in constant contact with your client. Update them about completed tasks and milestones, touch base with them about the overall progress or just e-mail them to learn more about the project you’re working on. All of this will help you maintain your schedule and, more importantly, keep your interest/focus on the project itself. One drawback of freelancing on the web is that we tend to dehumanize the people we work with - opening a clear channel of communication can help rid of this feeling and make you feel personally responsible for the success (or failure) of their project.

4. Use Project Management Apps and Other Productivity Tools

There are a ton of great online tools you can use to help manage your freelance business. Take a look at the list of 20 web apps that I recommend for freelancing - in it you’ll find apps to help you manage your project, handle invoicing and deal with customer care. The more organized your workflow is, the more efficient you become and as a result, the more likely you are to keep your deadlines.

5. Learn to Say “No”

You know your own skills and capabilities - do not take on more than you can handle at once. Too many projects at once means sub-par work and missed deadlines, two things that can make a project even longer and more painstakingly difficult (revision after revision, etc.). Keep things simple and learn to say “no” to clients when you have enough work to keep you busy without overwhelming yourself.

How to Handle a Missed Deadline

When you’re in the business of freelancing, you’re bound to miss a deadline or two (hopefully not more). In most cases this usually isn’t too big of a deal, however you should always take the following steps in case you do miss a deadline:

1. Immediately Notify the Client

Give them an honest excuse/reason as to why you’re late and how you’re going to solve this problem. Provide them with a new deadline, what you plan to do in this new time frame and why you won’t miss it. This may sound like too much but dealing with the situation professionally can turn a bad situation into a good one. An apology now may help get you a client referral later, so always try to maintain courtesy and provide the best customer service you possibly can.

2. Identify the Problem

Figure out what you did wrong and how you’re going resolve it. Did you miss the deadline because of personal issues? Was the client too demanding or did they change their requirements half-way through? Find out what went wrong and create a plan of action on how to fix it.

3. Prevent Future Mishaps

Learn from your mistakes and try to prevent them from happening in the future. This is a bit more common sense than anything else, however many people find themselves making the same mistakes and missing deadline after deadline. If you find yourself in that loop, make a conscious effort to identify and fix the problems, then learn how to avoid them in the future.


Meeting deadlines shouldn’t be a burden, rather it should be a consequence of good work ethics and proper project management. Give yourself enough time, don’t take on more than you can handle and organize yourself - these are the keys to making deadlines and ultimately keeping clients happy.

Parting Questions:

  • Have you missed a deadline recently?
  • Did you do anything to correct the situation?
  • What could/should you have done differently?

Post your suggestions and feedback in the comments. And as always, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed and following us on Twitter.