How to Tell a Client You Need More Time

SelfGood Team

You took on a job and agreed to a project deadline. You even got a deposit upfront from the client.

But something came up, and now you need a little more time. You wonder, how to tell a client you need more time?

As a self-employed business owner, your reputation for quality and timely services is your key to success.

So how do you communicate the situation to the client and still keep your reputation intact?

The key is in the approach you take.

Don’t let your molehill turn into a mountain of unnecessary worry. Use these low-stress methods to tell your client you’re off schedule and need more time.

1. Re-Evaluate Your Priorities

You’re running behind schedule on submissions, but do you need to ask for more time? Or could you adjust your schedule to meet your deadline?

Right now, you’re looking into the future and thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to get this done on time.”

Let’s evaluate that prediction for a second.

Is that what you see coming based on realistic expectations of your schedule? Or is it because things take a little longer than they should due to distractions?

It’s easy to get distracted and lose focus for a few seconds (minutes, hours … same thing, right?). Those mini-breaks can be quite costly to your productivity, though.

While it might seem like you only scrolled social media for two minutes, that distraction cost you over 23 minutes.

What? How?

Studies show that when we lose our focus and let distractions interrupt our workflow, it takes a long time to recover — 23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be precise, is how long it takes on average to get back into the task at hand.

What could you do with that extra time? Would it give you enough time to get caught up and meet your deadline?

Time (Management) Is On Your Side

If distractions plague your schedule and keep you from being the rockstar you could be, here are a few time management techniques that might save the day.

Set Boundaries

Let’s start with the most common cause of distractions for people who work at home:

Family and friend interruptions.

These little interruptions are usually well-intentioned. Someone wants to check in on you, see if you want to go to lunch, or beg you for help in a “crisis.”

It may mean they see your work-from-home job as free time.

Would they have called you for the same thing if you were sitting in an office, on the clock, with a supervisor monitoring you?

If you get in the habit of stopping work to answer them, they learn that it’s okay. So, you must set boundaries for your working life that tell your loved ones when your schedule is open to socializing.

For instance, you might dedicate the first hour after you wake up to responding to texts or checking in on everyone. Then, leave time in the middle of the day open for lunches with friends or to reply to texts and phone calls.

Finally, have a cut-off time for work at the end of the day so you know when to call it quits and everyone else knows when you’re “off work.”

Practice These Time Management Techniques

Once you have your boundaries in place with others, you should set some for yourself.

What tends to pull you off task when you’re not “into” something?

Do you grab your phone and start mindlessly scrolling?

Are there websites you’re magnetically drawn to when a job isn’t catching your attention?

Try these time management techniques to retrain your brain to stay focused:

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for those with short attention spans or who need to check their phones.

You set a timer for 25 minutes (or however long you choose), then give the task your full attention and best work for that period. When the alarm goes off, you get a five-minute break to do that thing you need to do.

“Eat the Frog”

Complete your hardest tasks as soon as you start your workday while your brain is still fresh. It makes it easier to avoid distractions.

This idea comes from the book Eat That Frog, which is full of helpful time management strategies.

Block Websites and Apps

Website blockers like Forest prevent you from accessing certain sites (your choice) while the timer is running.

With certain apps, you’ll get a gentle reminder that you’re supposed to be focused, but you can click out of them. Others are strict and won’t open the prohibited site until the time is up.

Sometimes, all we need is a little structure to make our brains zero in on the work at hand. With these techniques, you may be able to get your deadline complete and then some!

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2. Give Plenty of Notice

You may occasionally run into a client who isn’t happy about a deadline move. But, most people are okay with giving a short extension if they have some notice.

Even the most lenient client deserves notice, though, so don’t wait until the last minute to tell them you’re running late.

Put Yourself in Your Client’s Shoes

Remember, you were hired to do a job that someone else needs but couldn’t do themselves. They need it badly enough to pay you, so it must have a purpose.

When you realize that your project is a cog in the bigger picture of your client’s needs, it’s clearer why you have to give a little notice if you’re going to be late.

They’re relying on you to do your part so they can do theirs.

With enough of a heads-up, they can usually rearrange their calendars.

Maybe it’s a time-sensitive issue with a lot riding on it. If so, and if it’s within your control, you could ask another client for a new deadline.

But if it’s out of your hands, the client will at least know about the bad news and won’t be blindsided by it.

Regular Communication Is Crucial in Any Job

When regular check-ins are a normal part of your project, you’ll never have to ask for a last-minute deadline extension.

So, if your work has a long-term completion date, your contract should involve a weekly progress update.

Even if it’s an email template that you fill in the blanks on, let each client know where their work stands.

It’s not just for them, though; this checks-and-balances system forces you to evaluate your progress and kick yourself into gear if you’ve gotten delayed.

Waiting until the last minute adds stress to your life, too. Create a system that works well for your particular project management schedule, then use it to avoid procrastination and prevent jobs from falling through the cracks.

3. Be Honest

Be honest with your client about whatever is keeping you from meeting your deadline. Let them know you need more time because of these circumstances.

Make sure to handle this step with tact and professionalism.

Skip the Emotional Pleas and Blame Games

There are endless reasons why delays occur, and it’s perfectly normal. But, you have to be direct in how you explain your delay, or it may sound like you’re blaming someone else.

Your approach to this conversation matters, as it can come across as unprofessional.

Here are a few sample explanations with different scenarios to give you an idea of what we mean:

Supply Chain Delays

Your client may not be happy about the delay, but everyone has had a package arrive late at some point in their life.

So, here’s how you might tell them:

“I’m contacting you to give you notice that the items we ordered to complete the project were supposed to be here on (insert date). However, I was just notified that they’ll be here on (insert date) instead. Because of this delay, I’ll need (insert additional time) to get the work done.”

Sickness or Personal Issues

Everyone gets sick at some point and encounters personal issues, so your client should be able to relate to this, too.

Again, just be direct:

“Due to an unexpected circumstance, I will need (insert new date or extra time) to complete the project. I apologize for the delay, but it was out of my control.”

Waiting on Another Team Member

In this case, it’s better to tell your client about the delay without going into detail about its cause.

Like this:

“I wanted to let you know ahead of time that we may have to adjust the time frame. We’ve completed X and Y, but are in the process of completing Z, and it’s taking longer than expected. The delay shouldn’t be longer than two or three days.”

The important thing to keep in mind is to avoid blaming others, even if it’s a supply chain problem or the result of a lazy team member. Taking responsibility for the delay is always the most professional approach.

4. Clarify What the Delay Means for the Client

Before you approach your client, have a solid idea of what you’re going to tell them.

If you’re late because you don’t have the materials you ordered, it’s not your fault — but it is still going to impact the client in some way.

Take stock of the situation before contacting the other person. Do you know when you’ll be able to deliver the project?

If your tardiness is related to supply chain issues, you can’t give the client a set date. So, give them possible solutions, such as other products they might use as a substitute.

Appeasing the client is a smart business strategy, too. Even if they seem fine with the delay, consider offering a discount on this order or a future one. Add a bonus item or service into the current order, and tell them directly so they know you’re trying to rectify the issue.

Free stuff and discounts don’t hurt you too much, but they go a long way in making the client feel appreciated.

5. Stay Calm

You need to remain cool and collected to avoid looking unprofessional.

Even if they’re a big client, you can’t fall into the “what if” trap of thinking, or you’ll let your worries impact your professionalism.

Leave emotions out of the interaction. You don’t know how the client will react, so you’re stressing about a response that may not happen.

Use these quick tips to make sure your words are professional and free of emotions:

  • Identify the problem in the first paragraph
  • Focus on facts and data
  • Attach the work you’ve completed so far if possible and let it speak for itself
  • Offer solutions and a new deadline date
  • Apologize for the delay and any inconvenience it could cause

Stick to the script, and you’ll have a clear, succinct explanation without unnecessary or unprofessional content.

6. Err on the Side of Professionalism

You’ve gone through all the time management techniques and potential workarounds, and there’s no doubt about it:

The project is going to be delayed, and you must let the client know.

If you’re still not confident about your communication, you could use the tested-and-true method of using a template. It’s better to copy a sample email and tweak it for yourself than to accidentally put yourself in a snafu.

These sample email templates cover most situations:

Feel free to download and use them!

Bonus Tip: Use Contracts to Protect Your Business in the Future

Whether you’re a freelance writer, photographer, or any other job, missed deadlines happen.

The blowback of these delays can range from annoyed clients to legal ramifications. Be sure you protect yourself early by having everyone sign a contract when you take on the work.

With a contract, you can cushion your responsibility for late work. Include a section that says any late work that is due to outside circumstances is not grounds for termination, non-payment, or legal recourse.

Not sure how to put that together so it’s legally binding? Check out Selfgood, a benefits provider designed for gig workers like you. Their legal advisors can walk you through the process of creating the perfect contract for your unique situation.


Life happens.

When it does, your work can end up taking longer than you expected.

It’s never fun to give a client notification that you’ll be late. But with these tips and a little expert help from Selfgood, your professionalism will remain intact.

Learn more about the freelancer benefits that Selfgood offers:

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