Self-inflicted scope creep and perfectionism

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Dr. Freelance: I have a tendency to let my perfectionist side get the better of me, kind of like scope creep but it’s not the client’s fault. I’ll start with “just that little bit extra” to make sure that what I turn in is absolutely impeccable, then realize that I’ve spent 2 extra hours that weren’t in my estimate. Doc, save me from myself!—Little Miss Perfect

LMP, I’m going to give you a little tough love here: Every writer, editor, designer or other freelance creative who’s worth a darn has a perfectionist streak, but if you fail to keep it in check, it can be disastrous for your profitability. Take your example, and multiple it out across a couple of clients a month, and you are doing a lot of work for free. You’re not getting $XX per hour, you’re getting $XX-10%.

Here’s an example: I’ve got this one client, a super-nice, easygoing guy who pays well but always has one eye on the budget. I manage a couple of social media tasks for him, but the bulk of the work is taking staff-written blog posts and making them fit for human consumption. For simplicity’s sake, we agreed to a set rate per each edited post, and that rate is equivalent to my rate for a half-hour of editing.

Some of these posts are easy-breezy, and others sound like they were written by a Six Sigma black belt (which is sometimes the case). In the case of the former, those pieces might only take 15 minutes for me to whip into shape; for the latter, I could easily spend an hour or more to make them truly reader-friendly.

But I generally don’t. Now, before you say, “That’s not fair to the client,” let me lay out my strategy: I will always do what it takes to meet the client’s standard as well as my own. Sometimes I will indeed spend 60 minutes on a jargon-and-buzzword tumbleweed, but that needs to be balanced by a couple that can be done more quickly. What it comes down to is that everything needs to average out to 30 minutes of my time per piece.

Ultimately, you could still indulge your perfectionism if you want—but then you need to either: 1) raise the hourly rate that you use to estimate projects, or 2) estimate a little bit higher on how long projects are going to take. Call it “Dr. Freelance’s Scalpel,” with apologies to William of Ockham.

To me, however, it often makes more sense to ask yourself: Are you really making it perfect, or are you feeding the little perfectionist devil on your shoulder…when you could be working on other projects or out acquiring new clients?

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  1. Sadie says

    Great advice! The last bit — “…when you could be working on other projects or out acquiring new clients…” — really drives it home.

    I found your pricing strategy for those blog posts really helpful, too. It’s an unconventional arrangement, I think, but one that lets you keep the client happy without feeling burdened by the (sometimes extra) work. I’ll keep it in mind!

    I’ll definitely be adding your blog to my RSS reader!

  2. Dr. Freelance says

    Mike, yes, git-r-done!

    Sadie, thanks for the kind words and glad you found those posts helpful. There’s definitely an opportunity cost that we don’t always think about. Sometimes it’s psychologically easier to keep polishing something that’s pretty much perfect, instead of making the first cut on what comes next.