Scheduling a long-term contract

This post is an except from my book The Freelancers Guide To Long-Term Contracts. If you want to learn how long-term contracts can stabilize your revenue, simplify your project scheduling, and make your business more enjoyable: make sure you check it out.

There are a few different ways you can structure your business to support long-term contracts. This isn’t related to which type of contracts your client wants but more towards how you, the freelancer, will run your business once you win a few long-term contracts.

Part-time, all of the time

The first and most typical way to handle long-term contracts is to schedule them just like your shorter projects, with the difference that they’ll last a lot longer. For most freelancers this means working on the project part-time throughout the month, making sure it gets attention equal to your other projects.

This works best on maintenance and non-critical projects. You might need to delay a client or have them wait a few days before you can start on something because you have other projects scheduled in place. If you do go this route, make sure to tell your clients about it upfront so they know that you are going to get to their project, it just might be delayed a bit.


A part-time style long-term contract has its advantages. The most visible one is that it is easy to incorporate into your existing project planning since it’s scheduled just like your short-term contracts. This means you can “try out” long-term contracts without causing a lot of redesign in your business.

Another advantage that clients like about this style of scheduling is that you are always available, or at least available on short notice. This lets you be more responsive to what they need, which can benefit the relationship. This has its drawbacks though, as it’s easy to become very reactive and only show up when there is a problem.


There are a lot of downsides to this type of arrangement, and to running multiple projects at the same time. The biggest one is focus. If you are switching between 2-3 projects every day, you aren’t getting that deep into each one. The image of someone spinning plates comes to mind quickly. But if your project sizes are smaller, you might not have any other option, at least not to start with.

Another downside is that it can become easy to be overloaded with this type of scheduling. All it takes is one project to have a tight deadline or to go over an estimate and the damage trickles through every other project. It’s the classic case of the domino effect, where one project is delayed a day which pushes back the next project a day, which pushes back the next project a day.

Overcoming the disadvantages

Each of the disadvantages can be worked around or fixed, though you’ll need to put in a conscious effort to stay up on them.

To keep your focus high, you’ll want to keep a tight watch on how many projects you have running at the same time. If you can figure out a way to schedule each one so you have a large uninterrupted block of time, you can prevent much of the damage to your focus. In my experience I found working on two projects per day was best. I had a bit of time in the morning for planning my day and working on the first project, then in the afternoon I’d work on the second project and wrap up my day with some administration like email. Then the next day I might work on the same projects, or two different ones. You’ll need to find a schedule that works for you and your project sizes.

Watching your deadlines and preventing overloading is much more difficult. Even if you watch the number of projects you have active at any given time, it can be easy to have a project swell up in size quickly and dwarf the others. Practicing estimates, building buffers into estimates, and working in smaller milestones can all help. Estimating and buffers are pretty self-explanatory, but working in smaller milestones could use some deeper explanation. Instead of working on one large project, say 100 hours of work, try to split it into multiple smaller projects, like five 20-hour projects. You can work them like normal but when a project’s scope changes, instead of adding the changes to the large 100-hour project and pushing on your other clients, you can create a new mini-project for this client and schedule the new mini-project just like everything else. In practice, then, the new larger scope might still cause the project deadline to be extended or the amount of time you’re committing to increase, but without effecting your other clients’ projects.

When I got started with long-term contracts, this part-time-all-the-time approach is how I scheduled them. The ease of scheduling them alongside my short-term contracts was attractive. After some experience though, I don’t recommend running long-term contracts on a part-time basis. I don’t even recommend running short-term contracts like this anymore. The damage to focus and the potential domino effect on the schedule aren’t things I’m interested in risking anymore.

Week on, week off

In contrast to part-time-all-the-time scheduling, week on, week off scheduling is much easier to manage.

Basically you commit to working on a project for a specific continuous period of time and then another project for the following period of time. The difference is that instead of working a few hours or maybe a day at atime as with the part-time-all-the-time process, you schedule blocks of days or even weeks where you work on one project continuously. (The exact amount of time isn’t important but I found three days to be the minimum amount for me to really get into a project and be the most productive. A solid week is my preference, hence the name of this schedule).


The primary advantage of this schedule is that you can better focus on one project. It gives you some amazing productivity gains as well as lets you think deeper and more creatively about the project at hand.

I found this also makes it easier on my clients. Instead of having them “around all the time if I need to talk to them” with a part-time-all-the-time schedule; I can tell them that I’ll need them to be around and available during the week that I’ve scheduled their project. That lets them shuffle things around and get prepared for me when I’m working. It also gives them a clear ending so they know that our project is off the schedule for a few weeks and they can ignore its day-to-day details for a bit.


There are two disadvantages to this scheduling system though.

First, you’ll have to have a client agree to it and explain to them how they will benefit. Clients who have worked with freelancers who are always semi-available have come to expect that they can tell someone to do something and have it get started soon. If you have that client scheduled three weeks away, they might not like that delay. If you can’t educate them on the benefits, one way to counter this is to break up their project so they are on/off more frequently. Instead of one week on per month, perhaps you have them scheduled for three days on every two weeks. Just make sure you don’t break their schedule up too much – most of the benefits come from having a large chunk of continuous time.

The second disadvantage is when emergency work comes up. No matter how well you plan, there is always something that comes up with a project that has to be taken care of right away. It could be a server outage, a decision from a higher-up at your client’s organization forcing your client to show some rapid activity, or even someone forgetting an upcoming deadline. If this client is scheduled already and you can handle it during their normal time, great. Communicate that to them and reassure them that when their scheduled time starts you’ll take care of the emergency first. The trouble comes when the client’s schedule is too far away or the emergency needs to be fixed right now.

Responding to emergencies

There are a few possible responses, depending on what exactly you have to do.

If it’s a quick fix that shouldn’t have any repercussions, it might be worth it to take the small productivity hit and switch tasks in order to fix the problem right now. I’ll typically do this with things like a server outage, where the problem is urgent but probably is a small fix.

If it is a quick fix but it’s not causing any major damage, you might be able to delay it a bit. Maybe take a few hours at night to work on it or put in some time on the weekend. One word of caution though: don’t put in too much outside-hours time. If you do, you’ll quickly burnout and it will affect your other projects. Your goal is to get the emergency controlled enough so you can do a proper fix during their schedule.

Of course, there is occasionally the problem of an emergency that will require a large and significant amount of time and you really can’t squeeze it in. One easy way to handle this that many people forget about is to talk to the client whose work you’ve scheduled right now. Explain to them that you have an emergency with another client, perhaps even explaining how this emergency can happen to this client, and ask them if they’d agree to postpose their project for a bit while you deal with the emergency. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the client will let you postpone their project so you can focus on the emergency. I like to think that this happens because the client understands that sometimes things just happen and they’d hope that you’ll do the same thing if an emergency happened with their project.

Another idea I’ve seen a fellow freelancer (Curtis McHale) do is to have a day each week where no client projects are scheduled. This day is a free day where he deals with business administration, marketing, and other busywork in his business. But it’s also a day that he can borrow if there are client emergencies. By clearing explaining this upfront to each of his clients, they all know that he has this buffer day they can take advantage of if they need it.

This post is an except from my book The Freelancers Guide To Long-Term Contracts. If you want to learn how long-term contracts can stabilize your revenue, simplify your project scheduling, and make your business more enjoyable: make sure you check it out.