Recovering from a major work screwup, freelance edition
October 25, 2017 2:59 PM   Subscribe

I started working for myself as a freelance consultant in May. In July, I picked up a substantial piece of work via an old boss, which I was meant to deliver in August. I didn’t do it. I ghosted, they eventually had their CEO (my old boss) contact me to see if I was OK. I put the blame on a medical issue which, while real, was not bad enough to stop me doing the work. They gave me another chance, and I was supposed to deliver it last Monday. I still haven’t done the work.

I’ve always struggled with procrastination (rooted in perfectionism, low willpower etc) but never this badly. I’m going to find a therapist to see about this (have done so in the past, but never found a solid solution, but willing to try again). But I need to do something about this client in the meantime. I wish ‘just knuckle down and do the work’ was an answer, but I’ve been trying that since July and I don’t see why it would suddenly become possible now. I've basically sat in front of my computer for the last 72 hours procrastinating.

What I want to do is to email them and say, this isn’t working out, I withdraw from the project and here’s your deposit back. Two problems with that (1) I have told them it’s nearly finished, though in truth I’ve barely started, so they'd certainly ask me to send over whatever I have so far (2) it would completely tank my reputation (although maybe that’s done already) and make it hard to build up my consultancy. But I can't see another way out at this point.

Any ideas?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I’m sorry you’re experiencing this. I know how stressful it is to owe people work.

The good news is that the company most likely won’t make a strong moral judgment on you if you back out; they just want somone to get the work done and if you can’t do it, they’ll move on to the next person.

I would send them an email saying that due to unforeseen circumstances (this is true), you are not going to be able to submit anything for this project. Don’t apologize profusely or lament your shortcomings; just be kind of vague, professional, and matter-of-fact about it. Do recommend two or three people or firms who they could contact as alternative contractors, if you know of a few, so they have some leads.

Best of luck. Don’t beat yourself up. Chances are, your worst critic in this situation is you, and they won’t give this more than a few minutes’ thought.
posted by delight at 3:29 PM on October 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

I agree with delight. You probably burned this particular source of consulting work, but that's about it. They will move on and try to find someone to finish this project and they will stop thinking about you one way or another.

I have been in a similar situation, and it's agonizing. My best, heartfelt advice is to stop/not start flagellating yourself and move on to your next gig. Good luck! These spirals of self-destructive procrastination happen to some people (like me!) sometimes, but we get better and move on.
posted by bluejayway at 4:00 PM on October 25, 2017

Before I'd withdraw entirely, how doable is this? How much time would you actually need? If it's *possible* to do it in a week then you could contact them, say you're slightly behind schedule but on track to finish by [date], then consider some self-help strategies to manage the procrastination while you get it done and source a therapist for longer-term. If it would realistically take you another 2 months then as a courtesy I would withdraw now and let them find someone else. You might not get another chance with them but you'll get work with other people, don't stress too much about that at this point.

As to the self-help, I had an epiphany whereby I realised that procrastination is (for me) just another word for avoidance which I'm also excellent at. I was avoiding feelings of not doing things right, or struggling, or being bored, so I put off work and then ended up in deadline hell for all things big and small. What I was missing out on, though, were the great feelings that come when something's done (achievement, freedom, relaxation, etc). So when I'm faced with a task now I try to focus on that. I picture how great I'll feel when it's done, how much I'll enjoy it once I'm in the throes of the task, how much I'll be able to wake up without that sense of dread. You might find it helpful to do some CBT work around that with a therapist, and in the meantime this is a good self-help resource.

I guess what I'm saying is I totally get it, and you are not a failure if you are realistic and you respect your own limitations and decide it's better for your mental health to sit this one out. But I still hold hope for you that in a field that you want to work in and are good at - hey you got freelance work straight away, that's great! - you are capable of delivering on projects, and not finishing this one might set you up for a thought pattern where you think you're not. Maybe be kind to yourself and give it a last shot? But either way, good luck.
posted by billiebee at 4:26 PM on October 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

Just writing in to say that I have been in this situation before, and send my deepest sympathies. In my situation, chronic procrastination was rooted in vicious cycle of anxiety, self-loathing, and excessive cogitating on how pointless and uninteresting the project seemed. Sitting down to start work made me feel like I was dying. After months of this self-torture, I extracted myself from the project and spent about two months focusing my energy on stress-free enjoyable activities (music, time in nature, time with friends, exercise), and started counseling.

There's no two ways about it -- I definitely burned a bridge with that organization, and I likely won't ever be able to work for them again until the people in that office quit/die/retire (which actually may happen in the next few years). I do not regret having put my sanity first. I was on the verge of a mental breakdown, and quitting was the only action I felt would alleviate my pain, at the time. I later found out they re-assigned my work to a young enthusiastic colleague, and he ended up doing an excellent job. So, win-win, maybe. They ultimately got the quality product they wanted, and I got out.

In retrospect, it wasn't the career-ending crisis I felt it was, though it definitely felt like it at the time. I'm still a bit ashamed of what happened, but time passed, I survived ,and now I'm working somewhere else and managing my anxiety moderately OK -- most days. The issue of procrastination/perfectionism angst has NOT gone away, so don't make the mistake I did and think that quitting this one particular project is going to fix the overall issue. If you are anything like me, this horrible anxiety will show up repeatedly throughout your life, even when there is no good reason for it. I'm not sure I can offer any solutions for that yet, but I have found it slightly easier to manage this anxiety when I work in positions with clear, delineated, short-term tasks (no big "self-starter" ambiguous goal projects for me, these days) and to have a boss that is willing to check-in with me regularly (sometimes daily, at my own request) and help me work through perceived barriers as they come up.
posted by houseofleaves at 5:57 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

While I don't know what the best solution is in this case, I can offer a perhaps reassuring similar anecdote. I was in almost this exact situation with a freelance client five or six years ago. I ended up not delivering anything substantial (and I didn't even offer him his money back - there were good logistical reasons for that and he didn't expect it). I thought I had for sure burned my bridges with everyone at his organisation.

Not only did that not prove to be the case, but he has since worked with me on a couple of other big things, and written me a excellent reference (unasked) based on the work I had done previously, even at the time when the most recent project was the one I completely failed to deliver on. People understand that stuff happens. If they know you in any other context, they will evaluate you based on the full you, and not this one thing, even though it looms huge in your psyche right now.

(I can also say that one of the lowest points of my life was agonising over being unable to complete that work and not knowing how to tell the client - and like you, I had been a bit misleading about how close it was to finished (i.e. barely started).) And I felt so amazingly much better after I told them I was not going to be able to deliver the project. I am sure you will feel much better soon too, no matter how they respond!)
posted by lollusc at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Do you know a competent colleague you can call in to subcontract? Or out-and-out refer to your client?

That's a strategy I've used to dig out from under "writer's block," which in my personal experience is just a specific name for this kind of anxiety/procrastination cycle. When subcontracting, having someone deliver drafts to me that I can "spin" and revise with my own client or industry knowledge gets me off the starting block and contributing. Collaboration and project management, rather than just production pressure, changes the dynamic enough to make forward progress possible.

If you're just too far behind the eight ball to pull that off, a referral to someone you trust may help rescue your rep with this client. You can professionally submit a potential solution rather than just leaving them hanging.
posted by peakcomm at 6:25 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh, and in the longer term, as houseofleaves says, this anxiety/procrastination spiral will no doubt strike again. I have got really good at managing it (touch wood), by paying super close attention to how I feel about every project I am working on. The minute I feel even the slightest bit of anxiety about a project, I know that's a sign I have to prioritise it, force myself to start (even if I still have plenty of time left before the deadline), and make sure I work on it every single day. That's the only key to making sure tiny twinges of anxiety, that are still manageable, don't progress to huge spirals that make it impossible to get started.

I also have a thing where at night before I go to bed (and a healthier option would be to do this before leaving work for the day), I figure out which project or task I am procrastinating on/dreading the most, and spend literally just 2 minutes doing something on it. That might just be opening up a file and typing a single sentence, or making a very detailed 'next steps' list, or sending a single email relating to it. That way I end the day feeling like I made progress on the scariest stuff, and it resets the anxiety level to 'lowest' for another few days (and makes it relatively easy to continue the next morning). And because I do it at the end of the day, my brain doesn't rebel like it does with advice to 'just do one small task' on the project earlier on. I think my brain is smart enough to realise the latter is a secret trick to trap me into getting started and then I'll have to actually do a whole lot of work on that project after all. At the end of the day it can believe that it truly is just that one tiny task.
posted by lollusc at 6:26 PM on October 25, 2017 [13 favorites]

First things first. Forgive yourself. You tried and you just couldn’t do it yet. I’m sure you’ve spent at least as much energy on agonizing as it would have taken to do the project, probably much more. You’ve given the project a lot of your time and thought, however misdirected. Exhale and forgive yourself. You’re ok, just in a difficult struggle. It’s not that you didn’t care, you care a lot, too much even. (Btw, much of what I attributed to perfectionism and low willpower in similar situations turned out to be Adhd related for me. )
posted by meijusa at 11:11 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

« Older vegan and carnivore friendly restaurant in Boston...   |   Cheapest place to get a Neti pot in NYC tonight? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.