A lot of feel-good life advice encourages us to say yes to new things whenever we can. This philosophy of openness can sound pretty enticing when you’re a freelancer or consultant just beginning to stand tall on your own — or riding a high of a string of good projects.
And it’s true that saying yes can help you grow! Saying yes to new clients, projects, and partners helps you make connections, build your portfolio, and evolve professionally. Saying yes can also lead to paying jobs, which lead to even more paying jobs.
But saying no — at the right times — can be just as critical to the success of our self-employment. Building up the ability and skill to say no is part of a career evolution and, in my opinion, one of the ultimate goals for successful freelancing.
It’s not always easy to decline work, though. We can feel reluctant to turn things down because we want to make clients happy. We also need to feel secure with our income and prospects, and saying no can certainly feel risky when we want to be sure our bills will get paid.
In this article, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about the importance of recognizing when it’s better to say no to a freelance opportunity. It can feel scary to pass work to someone else, but it will be okay and you will garner a solid sense of self-understanding in the process. The information in this article is mostly about saying no to new projects, but can also apply to saying no when a current client asks for more work than you’ve already agreed to do.
The Importance Of Saying No
Saying yes often leads to surprising, exciting outcomes, but so does saying no.
Before we get deeper into details of when and how to say no to freelance opportunities, think about how this kind of selectivity may impact your wellbeing. Imagine only working on things you love? Committing to lackluster projects or unpleasant clients means you might find yourself unavailable when a perfect project shows up in your inbox. When you say no to projects that just aren’t right, you save time and headspace for things that you will want to say yes to.
Saying no also helps you avoid or recover from burnout. Most freelancers will experience burnout at times. Burnout happens when we work too hard and run out of steam — often because a client is bad for us, or because we take on too much, or both. Taking breaks and being deliberate about taking time off (meaning, saying no sometimes) is a valuable pursuit for your personal wellbeing, not to mention your long-term professional output. It’s okay to say no to something when you don’t have the passion or energy for it. Be kind to yourself.
How To Decide Whether To Take On A Project
Is The Project A Match For Your Expertise?
One of the first things to think about when considering a freelance opportunity is whether it’s a good match for your skills and your level of experience.
I’m a UX consultant and I like doing a lot of different things, but my core expertise is user research. If a potential project is not an exact fit for my skills, or if it’s not something I enjoy, I will typically decline. For example, if somebody asks me to do an accessibility review for their website, I know there are a lot of skilled freelancers who can do a much quicker job with it than I would. I might refer somebody if I know they are interested.
Similarly, an ideal project should match your level of experience. If the work is too far below your experience level, it might be boring and likely not pay enough. If it’s too far above, you might find yourself too stressed out and in over your head. For me, if a company is looking for a UX freelancer to “make wireframes” without digging into research or design strategy, I know that’s probably a job for somebody more junior or with different interests.
Think of it this way. If you say yes to a request that isn’t a good match, you may feel resentful about it. You might spend too much time on it. You might even deliver results that aren’t great. So although saying yes can be a strategy for developing skills or learning new things, it only works if the project is in line with your goals and doesn’t stretch too far beyond what you know you can do well. Otherwise, it might be a bad experience for you (and maybe the client, too).
Is The Budget Enough?
If a project doesn’t pay enough, ask for more or say no. Simple!
Well, okay, I know it’s not that simple. Sometimes we need the money. But it becomes easier to say no to low-paying jobs when you 1.) are knowledgeable about your worth and 2.) have a financial cushion. Either of these things may take time, but the goal is to say no to projects that are below a minimum amount that you will consider. Along those lines, you don’t want to devalue your worth by saying yes to too many out-of-scope extras.
Pricing is its own beast that I won’t get into here, but once you know your worth, stand strongly with it! Over time, the prices you charge can increase with your value, and eventually, you may pass work down to more junior freelancers. Also, remember that you are a professional who represents your industry, and when freelancers continuously say yes to very low prices for our services, it can impact everyone else in that specialty by devaluing our skills or expertise overall.
So, don’t make it a habit to accept projects that pay below your value unless you are purposely working pro bono for a good cause. Of course, again, sometimes we might need to take on low-paying work just to “keep the lights on” with our business, and that’s okay. Having a financial cushion eventually helps us say no to these gigs and hold out for better-paying opportunities. For me, it helps to keep my living expenses low so I feel more confident letting work opportunities pass by.
Does The Project Fit Your Schedule?
When your schedule is busy, it’s easy to decline an unwanted project. But what if you aren’t currently busy with work? Consider your pipeline, upcoming schedule, and financial cushion to decide whether a mediocre project is worth doing. If you have plenty of time, it might make sense to say yes to something even if it’s not a great fit.
And alternatively, what if the project is something you actually really want to do, but time is tight? Think carefully about your current commitments and deadlines and whether a new project is doable. If not, you may need to regretfully decline or ask for an alternative timeline. Saying yes to a project you don’t actually have time or energy to do well — as much as you may wish you did — is unfortunately a recipe for late nights or disappointed clients. And remember, having the time and energy to say yes to good projects is another reason to say no to bad projects!
Sometimes whether a project fits in your schedule depends on whether you can work something out with the client. A clear project scope (knowing specifically when you are needed, and for what) will help you plan your time and make decisions about taking on new things. When it comes to scope, also consider whether the client’s proposed timeline is too short for the amount of work required — this is super common, and it’s okay to offer to do the same project on a longer timeline, or a smaller version of the project within the proposed timeline, so that it becomes more manageable to fit into your schedule.
The reality of freelancing is that it’s often a guessing game when it comes to pipelines, scheduling, and balancing your workload. But if you know a project doesn’t fit into your schedule, make sure you say no quickly. You can always let the requester know when you expect that your schedule will free up, and maybe another project will work out later.
Does The Opportunity Align With Your Values?
In addition to the expertise needed, budget offered, and time required, check in on whether the project is in line with your values and goals. Think about your gut feelings here. What are some industries or companies you want to avoid? What kind of projects make you happy? Turn those gut feelings into a concrete list.
Here are a few factors to think about:
Does this project help move you toward a bigger goal?
Do you find the project personally interesting?
Do you believe your work on the project will help people in a meaningful way, or do some kind of social or environmental good?
Is this project supporting an industry or company that you consider unethical? (Kelly Small talks about seeking ethical work and saying no to unethical work in their book The Conscious Creative!)
Do you prefer working with startups or established companies?
Do you prefer working in small teams or big ones?
Do you prefer remote or in-person work?
Do you prefer subcontracting with other agencies or do you prefer direct clients?
Have you worked with this client before and what was that like?
Will having a good relationship with this client potentially lead to other good work?
Does it seem like the client will respect you?
You can create a personalized checklist or rating sheet to help you identify whether a project is worth doing. Burnout happens a lot quicker when our work is emotionally taxing, so take into account your personal values and preferences when deciding whether to say yes or no to opportunities. After all, working for yourself ideally means you get to call the shots.
Decline Assertively (But Kindly)
When you’ve decided a “no thank you” is in order, it’s important to be clear that you are declining while still keeping the mood light and productive (unless they have egregiously offended you, I suppose).
First, I recommend expressing gratitude for the opportunity. Thank the requester for thinking of you, going through the interview process with you, or whatever they have done. It takes time and effort on their end to hire freelancers or consultants.
Second is the important part: saying no. Be clear that you are declining. You can briefly explain why if you’d like, but you don’t have to explain your reasoning if you don’t want to. Just respond in a timely way so the client can move on.
If you worry about offending someone, please don’t! Be assertive so that when you say no, the answer is firm. If you think about the three main communication styles — assertive, passive, and aggressive — the idea is to be clear (assertive) while avoiding coming across as too passive or aggressive.
Most people will respect a clear and honest answer. I’ve only once had someone respond rudely to an email in which I politely declined to meet, but that aggressive response cemented that I likely saved myself a lot of aggravation by not working with them.
Third, once you’ve said no, you might offer some next steps or alternatives if you think it’s appropriate. If you are open to discussing future work, let them know. Be clear about the conditions under which you might be more likely to say yes — such as after a certain date, or if they have a need for a different area of your expertise.
You also might suggest other freelancers if you know anyone who may like to take on the project, or who might be a better fit than you are. If you don’t have specific names to offer, you can suggest resources to find freelancers, like listings for professional organization members. You might also offer to share the opportunity with other freelancers in your network, such as on social media or in Slack groups.
Here’s an example of how an email declining a project opportunity might look:
Thank you so much for thinking of me for [project description]. This project does not seem to be a great match for [my experience level / my current interests / my schedule / etc.] so I am declining, but I can [share it on LinkedIn / connect you with another freelancer I trust / etc.], if you’d like.
Also, if you have future opportunities for [something else you’d like to do / something after a certain date / etc.], I’d love to hear about it. Keep in touch!
Saying no is a skill. Saying yes to the wrong freelance opportunities can lead you toward misery and burnout, and we could all probably improve how mindful we are about our work, partners, and clients.
Remember, if you’re not sure whether to accept a project, think through:
General Fit Is the project a match for your skills and your level of expertise?
Budget Would you be selling yourself or your field short by taking on the project for a low price?
Timeline Would the project conflict with your existing commitments? Is the client wanting too much in too short a timeframe?
Values How good would you feel about this project? Is it in line with your values, goals, and preferences?
Consider everything together. A low-paying job might still be a good fit if it’s for a good cause, or if it gets you critical experience to move toward a bigger goal. Consider making your own personalized checklist or rating sheet to help you rate past, present, and future projects and get a better understanding of which opportunities should be left on the table.
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