Learning How (and When) to Say “No” (And “Yes,” When Appropriate)

Sometimes, I need to say “no.”

Whether it’s to a project or social engagement, I need to say “no.” However, more often than not, I say “yes.”

I say “yes” to social plans and “yes” to web content projects. I say “yes” to blog management gigs and I say “yes” to article assignments. I say “yes” to Bob and I say “yes” to Jane. I say “yes” to everyone.

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Source: donnamarijne

And sometimes, it bites me in the ass.

Don’t get me wrong, saying “yes” has given me an abundance of opportunity. It’s opened doors and it’s paid my bills. It’s been largely positive and I won’t stop saying “yes” anytime soon.

However, I do need to learn how to say “no.” And more so than that, when. Knowing when a project is worthwhile and when it isn’t is vital, not only to your bottom line, but also to your overall well-being. So I’ve done some soul-searching (and some Googling) and came up with the following.

Here are a few tips for learning how and when to say “no” with pointers on identifying the projects that will add to your life (to which you should unabashedly say “yes”).

  1. If the project seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, it probably is. I think every freelancer has gone through this at some point. Tell me if this sounds familiar? You start a project only to have the details change in the middle. Or, maybe the client isn’t very clear upfront about what he or she wants. Or, maybe you actually complete the project only to find out the client didn’t understand what he  wanted and told you to do the wrong thing. Now, he expects a revision (which amounts to a rewrite from scratch) for no additional charge. There are a million variations, all of them frustrating. In short, if the client doesn’t seem like he’s got it together, he probably doesn’t. It might be best to skip this project for the sake of your own sanity.
  2. If the client doesn’t respect you (or your time), move on. I know every freelancer has gone through this and it isn’t pretty. The client thinks you’re available 24/7. I’m not talking about emailing at 1 am when they get an idea. That’s fine because it implies I can respond at my leisure. I’m talking about the sort of client who emails you at 1 in the morning and expects a response right away! So you wake up to an inbox full of “Are you there?” and “Why aren’t you returning my messages, this is important,” and “You are being very unprofessional–I expect a timely response!” Or, maybe the client messages you on Skype “just to chat” at odd hours. Maybe she schedules an interview and then keeps you on the phone for an hour and a half. These are all things I’ve dealt with in the past and if you can smell this scent of desperation on a client, close the email or put down the phone. Say “no” to the project and just move on!
  3. Get paid for your work. Seriously. Always.* You have a skill and deserve to be paid for it. If you’re even remotely decent at your job, you deserve to be paid. This sort of ties into #2 on this list; failing to offer money for work (or an insultingly low amount) implies a lack of respect. Why work for a client who doesn’t respect you?
  4. If a project gives you the opportunity to broaden your skill set, and it’s a skill set you want to have, do it. Being a freelancer is a funny thing. Once you reach a certain level, you can pick and choose who you work with. After a while, you learn what’s worthwhile and what’s not. So, if you come across a project that pays lower than your usual rate but will provide hands-on training in web design (and you’re a writer), go for it! Sometimes the cost/benefit analysis incorporates more than cash and that’s okay.
  5. Turning down good money is okay (sometimes). You don’t have to love every single project you do. That’s perfectly fine. But if you get an assignment and it’s making you cry tears of boredom, compromises your personal ethics, or makes you uncomfortable, why put yourself through the torture? Unless you need the cash, skip it. I realize most of us need the cash so this might be mute, but if you’re ever in a position where you’re living comfortably, for god sakes, say no!

I’m sure there are more tips but that’s what I’ve come up with for the moment. Let me know in the comments how and when you say “no” to projects and what signals indicate a project you just have to take.

*Sometimes exceptions can be made for those just starting out and for passion projects. For instance, if you don’t have a lot of experience and need pieces for your portfolio, go ahead if you think it’ll help. Or, if you want to get some experience writing for RPGs and the client has a decent portfolio of past work, why not give it a shot? It’s your time, after all. Spend it how you see fit. 

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Brenda Stokes Barron is a freelance writer and blogger for hire. When she's not hunched over her laptop, she's spending time with her husband, daughter, and two crazy cats. Keep up with her antics (which often include trips to Starbucks) on Google +.
2 comments
L. Eleana
L. Eleana

#3 is a biggie for me. I'm just starting out but I refuse to not get paid. Been there done that as a new attorney years ago and I know now that people will pay for good quality work. It's hard sometimes to hear a client would hire you but for costs, but I say so be it unless it falls under your #4.