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Learning when to say no as a freelancer

By Ruth Sedar Published in Business December 16, 20213 min read

At the beginning of your freelancing career, you find yourself saying “yes” to just about any client and opportunity that comes your way, because let’s be realistic, you have bills to pay. However, further down the line in your freelancing career, when you aren’t desperate for work and you have your regular clients in place, you are often still left guilt-tripped into doing more work than you can handle due to not being able to say the dreaded word; “no”. 

Well, I’m here to tell you its ok to say no from time to time, under one condition.

If it doesn’t help you reach your end goal – you can say no. 

It could be that a golden opportunity that you’re presented with, and who am I to tell you that you should turn that down?! Instead, remember what your focus is, will saying ‘yes’ now get you a step closer to where you want to be in 5 years? If so, brilliant! If not, don’t be afraid to say no.

What does this mean exactly? 

You don’t have to accept every project that comes your way.

You have enough on your plate already without someone asking for you to do extra work that’s out of scope. If excepting to do that extra bit of work is going to mean that you have to work late every night of the week for little to no reward, then just say no (it sounds scarier than it is – and you’ll feel super empowered!).

Choice vs responsibility 

There is a difference between having a choice in what work you take on and being responsible. You may have people at home that are dependable on your income so being picky about who you work with isn’t always an option especially if you have had a slow month.

Being responsible means you may have to work with a client you don’t particularly like and do work that you aren’t over the moon about but at the end of the day if you aren’t in a strong financial situation it would be irresponsible to say no, wouldn’t it? 

Whereas having a choice is for those freelancers who have the financial freedom to pick and choose, it may seem counterintuitive to decline a project but when times aren’t desperate, there is no harm in being picky about who gets your time and who doesn’t.

Say no if:

Your plate is already too full 

There is nothing worse than over-promising and underdelivering a project for a client so before you say “yes” ask yourself:

Are you struggling to meet deadlines? 

Are you working till 9 pm each night? 

Cramming as much work into a given day?

If you can say yes to any of these then you don’t have time to say yes to that extra work you have been offered, it can wait till a later date.

The pay doesn’t meet your expectations 

Not everything is about money but, as a freelancer, we need to pay the bills and we can’t just be negotiating a lower day rate for any old client! Stick to your guns and try not to waver too far below your fixed day rate, and if someone only offers less, you know you aren’t the best fit for each other.

The work doesn’t excite you 

There’s nothing worse than working on something that isn’t interesting to you. It’ll feel like it drags on forever, and you won’t produce your best. We all have our certain interests and our strengths when it comes to client work, although there will be times where we have to do work that we aren’t thrilled about. If you can afford to be picky about what you choose to work on, then no-one is stopping you from saying no.

How not to burn bridges after saying no:

  • Be appreciative that they thought of you for their project 
  • Give a brief reason as to why you said no 
  • Provide them with a referral 

Helpful phrases for saying “no” 

“I can’t give you an answer right now, could u check back with me later?”

“No sorry, I can’t do that but I can do this…”

“I appreciate you thinking of me for this project however I have a lot on my plate right now, sorry”

“I’m afraid I can’t commit to that right now, but I can recommend someone who might be able to…”

“This sounds great, thank you for thinking of me, however, I could only start this project in the new year”

Being a freelancer can be hard but sometimes learning to say no can be even harder and we understand that so hopefully now you can feel confident to say no to work that simply isn’t doable for you.