Client or manager dumping more work than expected on you? Here’s how to nip that in the bud.

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It’s happened to the best of us, whether we are freelance or full-time. You do your best to pin down and agree to a schedule, a fee, a job description … and before you know it, the project has ballooned out beyond your original estimate or statement of work (SOW). You’re losing money, all of your free time, and maybe even some of your hair. This is called “scope creep,” and it’s spreading through understaffed workplaces like a virus. The good news: A bit of preventative medicine can keep this persistent problem from flaring up.

Start any new project with a clearly defined statement of work (or job description). Carrie Morris, vice president at Simplicity Consulting, advocates for advance planning to avoid scope creep: “Be upfront with your client about the work you are agreeing to do and the schedule and/or number of hours that you feel you can successfully complete the project in.” If your client or manager takes issue with any part of the SOW, discuss immediately and adjust the scope accordingly.

Prepare for contingencies. In your written agreement, include a paragraph that addresses contingencies. For example, if a client gets something to you late, you add additional time to your delivery date or a premium rush charge if they want to maintain the original deadline.

Help your client prioritize the work. Morris suggests helping your client or manager focus. “If your client asks you to take on additional responsibilities outside of your current SOW, find out what work he or she would like you to stop doing,” she says. “It’s a simple way to remind them what you’re working on.”

Set parameters. I once worked in a fast-paced magazine design and production company. We all worked late into the evening except for one talented art director. He worked 9 to 5; he set up boundaries from the get-go and no one ever expected him to stay late. And when he did, it was appreciated rather than expected. The rest of us set ourselves up to be at the beck and call of the owners and multiple clients.

Get granular. “Beyond the initial SOW, create a detailed production schedule or action plan. Include deliverables and milestones, and a workback schedule that leads to completion dates,” Morris says. Details will likely shift as you get into the project, so essentially, this “plan” becomes your weekly or biweekly results tracker. And it has the added benefit of communicating to your client that you’re kicking butt!

Jennifer Worick is a veteran freelancer/contractor, publishing consultant and New York Times bestselling author. Email her at