The Freelancer and The Open-Ended Projects [en]

[fr] Les projets à long terme et assez ouverts peuvent être un piège pour l'indépendant, quand la charge de travail augmente soudainement pour plusieurs projets menés en parallèle.

Business has been good this year. 2007-2008 was pretty disastrous, 2009 saw me get back on my feet, and 2010 is really taking off. I’m happy.

With business taking off come more challenges for the freelancer. One of them is open-ended projects, which are especially tricky for the time-management-challenged soloist.

Often, these projects are exciting in nature, having a wider scope than more time-limited projects like “give a talk” or “a day of training”. They’re also interesting financially because they allow the freelancer to secure larger sums of money with a single client, or offer a monthly retainer (something anybody with monthly bills can appreciate).

But they can contain a trap — trap I’ve found myself caught in. The trap is double.

They go on and on

By definition, open-ended projects are open. They might have an end, but if it’s many months in the future, they might as well not have one. This means there is always something to do. They don’t have the comforting “after date X in the near future (next week), this is over”. It’s not a bad thing as such, but it can be stress-inducing.

They have variable workload

The workload for open-ended projects is spread over weeks or months, but it is not always constant. It might be light for a few weeks, and then suddenly require 30 hours of work in a week. This can easily conflict with other work engagements, especially if they are also open-ended, unless the freelancer plans very carefully.

A third trap?

I almost want to add a third trap to these projects: they are often ill-defined and subject to scope creep. Again, careful planning can limit those problems, but is your typical freelancer in love with careful planning?

I’ve discovered that having one or two open-ended projects going on at the same time is roughly as much as I can handle. Maybe three, depending on the degree of open-endedness. At one point this year, I had five in parallel, and that was just impossible.

So, with more work opportunities comes the obligation to start choosing better, and managing a balance between regular gigs, which give some financial security, and short-term ones, which are usually more interesting from a return-on-time-invested perspective.