For freelancers, saying ‘no’ is one of the hardest things to do. We’re doers and prioritising the needs of others (especially our clients and prospects) comes as second nature when you've been doing it long enough. However, sometimes saying ‘no’ is the best thing you can do, for yourself, your clients, and your business.
Our reluctance to say no is a survival instinct, and one which ultimately comes down to money. The freelance life is filled with peaks and valleys and despite the many benefits that come with freelancing (and there are plenty!), having a consistent and reliable income is rarely one of them.
Even if you have regular clients and monthly gigs, you can be dropped at any moment, often through no fault of your own. With this in mind, it’s only natural to take all the work you can get, because there’s always that fear that you might not make as much money next month as you did last week.
As an example, I was making £1,200–£1,500 a month writing 3-5 pieces a week for an online title and had been for a year. Not only was it a good gig, but it was also my main source of income. Then, one day, my editor told me they’d be changing their content strategy and would be reducing the number of briefs they sent to freelancers over the course of 4-6 weeks.
Despite the advanced warning, I was given just one more brief, worth £75 and I’ve not written for them again. There’s no bad blood, my editor is one of the best people I’ve worked for and they've since asked me to write a couple of articles since. But I still turned them down.
When to turn down work
Why did I say no? Because I was too busy that week - it’s as simple as that.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make and I expect anyone that’s turned down a client has felt the same strange small sense of guilt I had. But why should we feel bad for turning down work? There’s no shame in knowing when you’ve got enough on your plate, on the contrary, there’s pride to be had in knowing your limits.
Despite this, I spent more than an hour trying to convince myself to take the brief and then 30 minutes researching the subject to get an idea of how long the article would take to write. In the end, I decided I couldn’t do it without risking the quality of the work I was already committed to.
At the very core of my business is the belief that it’s imperative to provide the best possible service in order to succeed. As such, my biggest responsibility is to the clients I have, not the ones I’m trying to get. Is £75 (£60 after-tax) worth jeopardising an existing relationship? No.
The importance of saying no
Ensuring the quality of your work is just one reason to turn down projects, the other is your health and wellbeing. The more you take on, the more stressed you’re likely to become and the more hours you’ll need to spend at your desk, which means less time to unwind.
We all know that taking a break is important but it’s easy to forget when you’ve got a tonne of deadlines. However, if you burn out, your work is going to suffer and you’ll likely wind up feeling even more stressed - it’s a vicious cycle.
This will be made worse if your clients notice your work isn’t up to its usual standard because you’ve spread yourself too thinly. What you don’t want is to start losing work because you tried taking on too much.
Why ‘no’ is a magic word
Now for the good news… Saying ‘no’ isn’t just about avoiding negative outcomes, in fact, there are some clear and direct positives. I firmly believe that ‘no’ is something of a magic word because it can really propel your business.
For example, my clients have said — on more than one occasion — that they “respect” (yes, they even used that very word!) my decision to turn down their project. In many ways, respect is one of the best things you can hope to earn from your clients. Not only does it strengthen your relationship with them, but it reaffirms their belief that you take pride in what you do.
What’s more, if you say no to someone that’s in a particularly difficult situation, whether it’s a tight deadline or you’re the only person they know that’s up to the job, they’ll probably offer you more money.
Now I’m not suggesting that you turn down all the work that comes your way in hope of securing a better rate (seriously, don’t do that). Nor am I suggesting that you take on every premium project just because you were offered more money, but you might want to consider it.
For instance, if there’s a scenario where you can afford to work the weekend to earn some extra cash (while doing your client a favour) and have the flexibility to take an extra day off later down the line, then it’s a win-win. One of the greatest perks of freelancing is the flexibility, you can work at any time from anywhere - everything is on your terms and you don’t need permission to take a day off.
On the other hand, if you really can’t take on a new project (or just don’t want to), then don’t push yourself. The great thing about saying no when you’re truly busy is that it shows you’re in high demand, which can increase your value tenfold.
What I’ve learnt from saying no
Turning down work is never easy, but saying no to people has certainly got easier over time and I’ve got better at knowing when to make that call. To summarise, here are the key lessons I’ve learnt from saying no to clients and prospects:
● Don’t be afraid of saying no. There are plenty of benefits to turning down work, both long-term and short-term.
● Know your limits. Working too hard for too long only gets harder over time - eventually, someone will notice or you’re going to snap.
● If you’re working at full capacity and a client approaches you with a project, ask yourself if the added pressure is really worth the money.