As a brand new freelancer, saying no to work didn’t seem like a possibility. Trying to build a business and establish my brand, I was thirsty. I thought, mistakenly, that every opportunity was a perfect opportunity. It took a few mismatched professional connections to convince me just how important discernment would be as I moved forward. Learning when to say yes and when to say no, was a game changer for my business and my sanity.

Five years later; I say no more often than I say yes. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works for my business. However, deciding to say no is never easy. Actually saying no is never easy. And dealing with the consequences of saying no can be tough, too.

The Consequences of Saying No

Last month, I had to say no to a project that would have been a nice paycheck. It wasn’t a good fit for me, and that became glaringly obvious in the midst of the negotiations. I could tell the emotional toll this job would take was not worth the paycheck I would earn. I knew I had to say no and I deal with the inevitable consequences. Each time I turn down a project, I cycle through a roller coaster of emotions before I’m able to rest in the decision I made. Perhaps these “consequences” are unique to me and my business. I suspect they aren’t, though.

If you’ve ever said no to a project, do these things sound familiar?

The Adrenaline Rush

You’ve determined the project isn’t right for you and now you have to let the potential client know. It takes some emotional effort to say the words, — or write the email, — end negotiations, and walk away from the opportunity. No matter how you’re feeling about the project, these steps can be difficult. Summoning the courage to say no and then actually saying it takes a bit of oomph.

Once you’ve said it though, and more importantly once the potential client hears and accepts your no, there’s a rush. It’s over. You did it. You made a thoughtful decision for your business and navigated the situation professionally. It feels like an adrenaline rush, and typically the rush is followed by a brief but satisfying sigh of relief.

The Paranoia and Second Guessing

I never take the word “no” lightly. I don’t throw it around casually. And I never turn down a project without careful consideration. But, no matter how certain I am that I made a wise decision about turning down a project, I always have a moment of paranoia and self-doubt afterward. I second guess my decision. I worry that I’ll never find another project. I panic that I’ve sunk my business.

It’s irrational, it’s predictable, and it’s fleeting. It happens every time, and every time it gets easier to breathe my way through it and let it pass. Of course, knowing all of this doesn’t make the feelings less uncomfortable. It does seem to make the time the self-doubt lingers shorter and shorter, though.

The Tightening of the Budget

If you’re self-employed, you’re probably intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of a freelancer’s income. Some months/years are fat, some months/years are lean. Even having ridden this roller coaster for five years, I still tighten my budget after I say no. I frequent Starbucks less frequently. I think carefully about hopping into a cab — “It’s not that far, I can just walk.” I reign in discretionary spending. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, and it happens like clockwork. I believe that we should never accept the wrong project, just for the paycheck. But that belief comes with consequences. When I choose to prioritize other things over money, I have less money to spend. It’s funny how that works.

The Hustle

Usually, the hustle kicks in pretty quickly. There’s nothing like turning down a paycheck to motivate you to get out there and find the next one. After saying no, I’m almost immediately on the hunt for the next opportunity. I’m more apt to network, less hesitant to send cold emails, and more inclined to step out on a limb and put myself and my work out there. What’s most exciting about this stage are the surprises. New opportunities always show up. Always. They may be disguised as hard work. They may not look like what you expect. But, they always show up.

The Freedom to Say Yes

The beauty of saying no to the wrong projects is that you leave yourself open to say yes to the right ones. When you say no, your calendar is free, you’re on the lookout for new opportunities, and you’re hungry for a payday. Working with the right people, on the right project, at the right time, is key to moving your career forward. While any paying gig will allow you to hop in that cab or make that extra trip to Starbucks, the right paying gig will build your brand, enhance your portfolio, and help you make strategic connections. The right paying gig will give you peace of mind and a paycheck.

If saying no seems scary and you just aren’t sure what to do, my advice is, don’t settle for a paycheck. Having discernment about when to say no and when to say yes is key to career advancement as a freelancer. And while navigating the consequences of saying no can be a wild ride, I promise you’ll survive and be better for it. After all, you didn’t step out on your own because you were looking for a safe and predictable career, right? Nobody who chooses to be self-employed is risk-averse. Take the risk. Say no, and enjoy the ride.

I’m curious, have other freelancers experienced these things after turning down a project? Have you ever cycled through these stages after saying no?

Photo by Alex Rodríguez Santibáñez on Unsplash
As a freelancer, discernment is key. Turning down the wrong projects is hard, but it's important. Once you do, you face the consequences of saying no.