What is Work Creep? (And How to Stop It)

I’ve been working for myself for quite some time now, and there’s one recurring problem I continue to face that’s more frustrating than anything else. It’s a problem that I know most self-employed people have in common, and that’s the problem of ‘work creep’. You’ll hear people call it by many other names including ‘scope’, ‘mission’, or even ‘requirement’ creep. All those names refer to what happens when you’ve agreed to a specific list of work requirements, only to have clients gradually add more and more things to that list. 

First of all, let’s be clear: if this is happening to you, you’re not alone. Work creep happens even to the best of us. Still, work creep is wrong, and it’ll affect your work negatively if you allow it to continue. 

Sadly, stopping work creep isn’t as easy as it sounds. They call it a ‘creep’ because it often happens without you noticing. A customer might ask you for a little bit more here or a minor change there, and before you know it you’re taking on much more work than you initially signed up for (without differences in pay, no less!).

But what can you do about it? How can you stop this creeping dead in its tracks? Well, that’s what we’re going to explore in this article. First, we’ll explore how you can stop work creep from happening. Then, we’ll go a bit deeper to understand why it happens and how it affects you negatively.

Let’s get started.

How to stop work creep from happening

If you think you’re dealing with a work creep situation, don’t worry! There are ways for you to fix it and reduce the chances of it ever happening again. Based on my experience, here are the three most important ways to stop work creep.

Manage expectations early on

First and foremost, we must manage expectations for both ourselves and our clients. When we negotiate with our clients or customers, it’s tempting to make it seem like we can do anything and everything that they require. Yet, we’re only human, and we do have our limitations.

Maybe you’re juggling multiple clients at the same time. Or, maybe you’ve decided to only work a certain number of hours a day (that’s part of why we became self-employed, isn’t it?). Whatever it is, you are the only one who knows exactly how much of yourself you can devote to your client.

Be honest about it early on, and communicate it clearly to them. That way, they’ll have a clear understanding of how much you’ll be able to contribute to their project.

Understand the big picture

Okay, so this might be an unpopular opinion, but many self-employed people will know it to be true. Sometimes, clients just don’t know what they want from us. That’s why they end up asking us for more once the project is already ongoing.

How can we prevent this? Well, we need to ask more questions to understand the big picture of the client’s project. When we understand what the client is trying to achieve, then we can help them understand how much work they will need from us.

In doing so, you and the client can set out a clear scope of work right from the start, and you won’t have to worry about additional work creeping in on you later on.

Set and protect your boundaries

One of the most effective ways to stop work creep is to set and protect your boundaries. In simpler terms, you need to learn how to say ‘No!’ (nicely and respectfully, of course). Stay vigilant, and if you ever notice that work creep is starting to happen, you have a responsibility to yourself to speak up and stop it from continuing.

I know, it’s not always easy to do when you’re self-employed. Nobody wants to upset their clients and possibly lose their paycheck. But again, being your own boss comes with responsibilities. And you have a responsibility to protect your interests.

Look at it this way: if your client is fair, they’ll agree to compensate you accordingly for any additional work. If not, then maybe they’re not the kind of clients you want to be working with, in the first place.

Why does work creep happen?

If we know that work creep is bad, then why does it still happen? Usually, it comes as a result of poor communication, a lack of boundaries, and mismanagement of the overall project, whatever that project may be.

Poor communication

Work creep has a tendency of starting long before the project begins. In the initial discussions between you and a potential client, both sides are trying their best to reach an agreement. The client is trying their best to secure you and your talents, while you’re trying to get them to hire you for the project.

Quite often, both sides will avoid asking tough but crucial questions at this stage. As a result, there’s a lack of understanding of the type and amount of work necessary to complete the project. Without crystal clear communication early on, additional work will start to creep in while the project is ongoing.

Mismanagement of the overall project

Sometimes, though, work creep isn’t something that’s your fault. When you’re self-employed, you start a project with the assumption that the client already knows exactly what they need from you to complete their project. But what if they don’t?

Halfway through a project, a client may suddenly realise that they need much more of a contribution from you to make things work. Some clients will be upfront with you about it and try to renegotiate the entire arrangement. Others might try to sneak in an additional task here and there just to see if they can get away with it.

That, my friend, is exactly what ‘work creep’ looks like. If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up taking on much more work than you bargained for.

Lack of boundaries

They say that it takes two to tango, and that’s certainly true when it comes to this issue as well. Work creep is essentially a violation of your boundaries, which is why you need to establish boundaries and protect them if necessary.

I know, it’s easier said than done. I didn’t get it right on the first try, either. Still, it’s important to remember that when we work for ourselves, there’s no one else looking out for us. We need to speak up and say no whenever we feel it’s necessary.

Why is work creep a bad thing?

Some people might not think that work creep is such a bad thing. After all, what’s the harm in doing a little extra for a client or customer?

Yes, going the extra mile for a client is nice, but allowing work creep to happen can affect your work negatively. 

Well, one of the most significant effects is that work creep will jeopardize your productivity. Think about it: when you start a new project, you’ve already got your time and resources planned. If additional work starts creeping in, your other projects will get affected.

Final thoughts

This reminder is worth repeating: work creep happens to the best of us, no matter how long you’ve been self-employed. So if you find yourself struggling with this, try not to be so hard on yourself. Now that you understand why it happens and what steps you can take, you’ll be able to reduce the odds of it ever happening to you again.