When and how you should turn down a project that’s not for you

As a freelancer just starting out, or even one who’s been doing this for a while, you might be inclined to say “yes” to every project and client that comes your way.

But believe it or not, there might come a time where you’d be better off saying “no.”

Now you might be thinking… Why would I ever turn down a project? That’s a relationship and money I’d be saying no to!

In reality not every project is for you, and you need to learn to recognize your limits.

Don’t be afraid to say “no”

In my last article I read this comment by Sarah,

“What has helped me is changing my way of thinking — saying No means saying Yes to something else. What am I saying Yes to?”

So it’s important to remember that when you say yes to something, inevitably you are saying no to something else.

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There is an opportunity cost associated with each time you say yes to something, because you are committing that block of time to that project.

Learning to say ‘no’ means focusing on what’s most important to you and your business. (tweetable)

(e.g. if you’re trying to become an ICON designer specifically, if you want to be the BEST at icons… don’t design business cards. FOCUS on icons, etc.)

Why would I say no in the first place?

There are many reasons you might need or want to turn down a project. It could come down to an ethical conflict, time constraints, or most often – insufficient compensation.

For example: Say you get a client who needs X done and only has a budget of $N. You don’t have much work on your plate right now, and you could use the money, so taking the job seems like the obvious choice.

So now you’ve committed to the project, and along comes client Y who has a more realistic budget in mind, but has a tight deadline and you can’t take it on because you’re booked.

But, what if you had politely turned down client X’s job, explaining that the costs just simply wouldn’t cover the time required (a plus because you gain respect, and now this client might come back in the future when they have a larger budget, because they know you mean business, or they might recommend you to someone else). Now you would’ve been free to take on client Y’s project.

But, what if client Y never comes along? What if you had turned down client X and then been without work for that week?

You could use that time to invest in yourself.

You could invest that time in learning something new that might expand your abilities and increase your value. You could hack on a passion-project (which usually end up being the biggest successes).

You could spend that time working on recurring income such as an ebook or digital downloadable content.

It’s all a matter of correctly valuing your time, and always being cognizant of how that value increases over time. With every project you work on you become more experienced. You might not necessarily want to increase your rate with every successful project launched (although you could), but you most definitely do want to keep track of who and what you are committing your time to.

Always be honest and try not to burn bridges when declining a project.

Show your humility and use this opportunity to reinforce your network.

If you’re presented with a project that’s outside of your comfort zone, take the time to clarify what it is specifically you do and maybe set them up with another reliable freelancer (or maybe even team up with another creative who can help).

Just because you’re declining the project, doesn’t mean you need to decline the relationship.

I’m a freelancer, not your full-time employee

As an example from my own experiences, late last year I turned down what otherwise could have been a great project to work on. At first, the opportunity seemed perfect.

The work was for a creative firm who had a large named client, and they needed the help of a handful of freelance graphic designers.

The project required me to work remotely on the UI and iconography of this project.

I set up a few calls and they were interested in working with me!

At the same time I was negotiating my position into this project, a local business reached out to me for help.

At this point I needed to choose between the two and I had my sights on this larger project.

After politely turning down the local client, I continued to work out the details for the other.

I found out that this large project was going to be about three months of work, and that I wouldn’t have had time to take on other projects.

When it came time to start the work they asked for me to come into their offices to meet. I didn’t have a problem with this, but then they said that they’re going to need me to commute at least 4 days out of the week to have project meetings…

Although the work seemed amazing, here’s what the project required: I’d have to put all of my current and future projects on hold for the duration of this work and I’d have to commute over two hours, 4 days out of the week for group meetings.

For the duration of the three months I’d essentially be this firm’s temporary employee.

Here’s where the alarm in my head started going off!

I took the next few days to reconsider this project.

Did I want to put my freelance business on hold to become a temporary employee for some firm?…

The answer to that is NO!

Although my freelance career is just myself, it’s still MY business.

I had current clients as well as other opportunities that I felt were more aligned with my business goals. Although the money and experience sounded great, I’m not willing to shut down my business to be someone else’s temporary employee.

I made my decision and here’s how I responded:

Hi [Creative Firm],

I hope all has been well.

Over the past week I’ve received a few other project offers, which I believe are more closely aligned with my business goals. Therefore, although it was a difficult decision, I must decline this opportunity to work with [Creative Firm].

I really do appreciate all of the time you and the others have taken to talk with me, and I wish everyone the best.

If you ever need help with smaller design projects, you can always feel free to shoot me an email or give me a call.

Again, thank you for the opportunity and your time.

[Email Signature]

After getting a very polite email back thanking me for my honesty and best wishes for my future projects, I reached back out to that local client and we started working together!

That’s my experience, What about you?

Have you ever had to turn down a project?

I’d love to read about your personal experiences in the comments on this post! Leave a comment and let’s talk!

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  1. I have a client I’ve started working with and while it was going great at first it’s dragging on into a nightmare and I’ve lost interest in the project. I haven’t been paid for anything that I’ve done so I don’t want to lose my time investment but this client is really rubbing a hole in my other work. I’ve decided to turn him down but how would I go about that after so long? I want to be as transparent as possible but he’s pretty important and I really don’t want to burn this bridge. Is there any way to retain him as a friend and politely turn down this project that’s been in the works for weeks? Please help!

  2. So hard to turn down a client but this is a bullet I have to bite almost every month. I once took a under budget project which I regret the most.

  3. I had a very similar experience. I was offered a project that required me essentially to close my business and become an employé of another firm.. and move country. Yes, it was a longer term and interesting project..but..
    I decided closing down shop to become a temp was a very bad idea. My accountant was also very against it. Losing the freedom and flexibility is a huge disadvantage. It also prevents me from doing side business, which adds additional income.

  4. Brent this is great advice. I’ve only been freelancing for just over a year but have already met circumstances such as these. It’s reaffirming to hear that appropriately saying no isn’t so bad after all and can lead to other opportunities. Thanks!

  5. This is exactly the article I needed to read! As a designer in my now full-time freelance career, I just got referred to a project where their timeline and budget for the project is not even close to what my experience tells me is needed for a successful project. I had these same thoughts that it would be better to say “no” to this project in order to be available for better-fitting projects. I am hoping the choice will prove to be completely worth it, since it IS hard to say “no”. Thank you for helping me to “talk through it”.

  6. This article is spot on, and I’m in a very similar situation at the moment. I’ve just decided not to apply for something that could be a good opportunity to earn money because I have plans to put into action and feel the need to develop my business, and I can’t do that while I’m commuting over 2 hours a day! Difficult decision indeed, but I think it’s the right one for me. This article sums up most of what I was already thinking.

  7. Thanks for your article! It’s very hard to say no, indeed.

    I’m currently having my first freelance job as a side work while i’m looking for full time job. The client is a nice person actually, but i found from my experience in working with him that he’s quite indecisive and like to make a lot of changes at last moments which drags the project’s timeline ( and the pay is low although it’s because of my inexperience ). In the end it takes most of my time and I’m starting to worry because i don’t have enough time to do whatever it needs to find full time job.

    He now offers me another job, but I’m not sure if i should say no since my priority is not freelance work.

  8. I guess this happen with all kind of freelancing. I am a freelance translator and have met these types of clients/ agency. They offer ridiculously low pay and for big projects that required me to spend most of my time for months on them. I was short of projects at the time but still turn them down or offered a higher rate. It is no surprise that they dont choose my service. And for such low rate, I know the quality involved in that. I just wonder what may result from that bad quality and how much it would cost the clients in the end from that bad quality. Will they ever learn it?

  9. Totally love this post. Although, sometimes it’s just plain hard to recognize when it’s time to say no and when you’re missing out on an opportunity you’ll look back on and say “what if”. I guess we all have to ….Trust our gut!

  10. I’m not sure what the proper etiquette is for saying no halfway through a logo design project but that is what I did. I have designed quite a few logos. I was referred by someone coming highly recommended. He insisted on a flat fee and 5 ideas instead of my usual 3. I was very reluctant and should have stuck to what I know. It was a long distance project. I required a signed contract and 50% down. It was a $200 project. He emailed me a bunch of logos he liked (nothing consistent). I presented him 8 ideas that I thought reflected his business. He wasn’t happy with anything. I had spent 8 hours of my time by now and only received $100. He then told me that he didnt like round letters which most of them were because the word “Global” was in it. So after a few “unprofessional exchanges on his part, he asked me if I was “able” or willing to continue.
    At this point, I had grown a dislike for my client and decided to bow out and suggested that he get another designer’s input. There were more unfriendly exchanges and he tried to make me feel unprofessional and unexperienced. Besides the fact that he took up WAY too much of my time. Lessoned learned though. I decided to give my future clients a set of choices upfront on a template (color wheel, fonts, etc) and continue with my 3 idea, price range rule based on revisions. My biggest beef was the fact that some clients such as he wanted me be involved too much in the process and not trust me in what I know. But that is a whole different conversation.

  11. Well i am in favour of saying no to a project which can just not worth the time and efforts , but sometimes clients do not take it as something they hoped for , A few days ago i received a job offer on a job board , i said no as the budget was just peanuts , bu that client kept sending me messeges and asked me to talk to him on skype , we had a discussion and i clearly told him that i do not want to work with him because of his low budget , he just keep telling me tha he wants to work with me and i kept telling him that i just can not do it for him and than he turned nuts .. he became offensive and started sending harsh email … He said i do not provide good customer service lol
    I was surprised to hear that as he was so pissed off because i do not wanted to work on his $10 project … So saying no is not that easy sometimes …

  12. My services are aimed at smaller businesses so I’ve rarely been in the position of having to turn down a big project, it certainly doesn’t appeal to me being stuck in one, big, constipated project over a number of weeks or months. Usually, the projects I turn down are the projects relating to animation.

    Sometimes I’m asked to create opening titles and other in-show graphics for TV, usually a whole package of graphics need to be completed within a week. My hardware lets me down here, so sometimes I have to decline the project. I don’t get enough TV work to warrant investing in the hardware for it, and besides, although the occasional TV work makes a nice change and it looks good to have a big name on your portfolio, I don’t particularly want to do broadcast graphics full time.

    On the other end of the scale, when times are quiet I do take on occasional graphic design work which doesn’t pay so well. I always make it clear to the client that I may need to put the project on hold to deal with more urgent (higher-paying) work. I then get to refocus on another project and come back to the original project with fresh eyes. The mix of projects lubricates the creative cogs.

    Occasionally a low-paying client will expect all the bells and whistles. I hook them up with a cheaper designer who provides a lower level of service, if only to show the client that a job done cheaply is NOT a job done well. (Does that sound bad?) There will always be someone with less experience willing to do a worse job for next to nothing. When I complete a project for less money, I don’t provide a lesser service but it does have to be on my own terms.

    Having said that, it’s all well and good to turn down a project when you believe your services are worth more. What I find most frustrating is when I design a logo for a client who is over the moon with it, gives you great feedback, but they go elsewhere, behind your back, for a lesser-quality web design. Ultimately my logo ends up looking hideous on that website. And all because the web ‘designer’ did it cheaper. Ironically, I thought I was better at web design than logo design!

    I do what I do for the love of it, so on the one hand I need a bit of variety, but on the other hand obviously I have to eat and occasionally I need to upgrade my hardware and software. So whether it’s a big project paying generously or a smaller project paying little, you always have to stay focused on your goals. Don’t be swept away by the magic of a big, well-paying project. It’s about getting the balance right.

  13. I actually learned the hard way!

    After consultation I was so excited to get another client after I just wrapped up this huge project. The design momentum was there. I was extremely pumped that I missed all the “signs”. After a month of battle my client declined before I had a chance to. We parted ways in a civil manner. But I finally wiped the sweat from my brow and stored the experience in my memory bank.

    Go with you gut! Say NO when its needed! And when it is time to walk away after you’ve tired everything you can. Do just that! Then write it off as a good or bad experience.

  14. Great post indeed, I have found that some clients offer me work that i have to turn down mainly because of the time factor and more importantly the money. Most of the time its a no brainer because the time input is the same but the pay is cut down by half and some clients can be really persuasive. Another factor that determines weather the job is worthwhile is profit and growth question. Do i profit or am I inconvenienced for my efforts and do I grow as a freelance business and as a Designer if not then i cannot take it on.

  15. Such great timing with this post! Just yesterday I turned down my first project. I got the client through E-Lance and spent over a month building him a pretty substantial site (over 80 pages) for a substantially low amount thinking I just needed to add some work to my portfolio and get my rating up on E-Lance. I let the client know up front I normally charge a lot more, but the other day he says he wants another website for (big surprise) just as low an amount as the first one. I’m thinking yeah right I’m going to spend hours working for peanuts when I could be working on my own site which sucks and needs updating badly. I politely declined the project and he asked how much I would do it for. Not surprisingly when I gave him my normal rate he declined and said his new site “can be done very easily for the amount I was offering.” Lesson learned, if you work for someone for cheap or free, don’t expect you’ll be able to raise your prices on them later. Even if they accept they’ll likely resent you forever for raising the price. I feel really good about declining the project. I can look myself in the mirror without shame and now I can spend more time with my other higher paying clients and give my own website a much needed face lift. Thanks for the great article!

    1. Eddie,

      You’re welcome and thank you for reading! I’m glad you believed in yourself and didn’t undersell your services. It’s a common mistake that many make because of the fear of turning down paying projects.

      Best of luck with your website face lift and thanks for sharing your story!

  16. Great article! I worked on a huge fund-raising project for a well known cancer organization for two years in a row. The first year, I was grossly underpaid, ( my inexperience , not their fault), and the second year I negotiated a more realistic fee. Both projects were creatively challenging and successful. Year three, they offer me “Year One” money again, with a shorter schedule, and actually hire another designer first,( because she was cheaper), but within 48 hours, realize they would prefer to work with me. So they offer me the other designer’s rate, (equal to half my rate), and two months less time to do the work. Now, I know that sometimes we don’t make money on the FIRST project we do with a client, but I also know that we will rarely be paid more by a client than the lowest rate we charge them. I knew that if I took this job at the lower rate, I would never, ( read : ever) get back to a realistic rate. The client would still expect first quality thought and execution, and still eat up the schedule deciding by committee, so while this job constituted a huge chunk of change, I turned them down. It was the most empowering thing I had done in my freelance career. I did not feel anything so much as relief and respect for myself.

    1. Leslie,

      Love your story (actually all of the stories in the comments)! Glad to hear you have no regrets turning down the work – that’s the attitude to have when making a difficult decision like that.

      Thanks for sharing your story! 🙂

  17. I have had to turn down clients many times. But I always try to hook them up with another freelancer suitable for their needs. I know this runs counter to my survival as a service business. But in the long run, I find it is very good business because I am still providing a service to the client. The client appreciates it immediately. And over the years, I have found that the artists I give referrals to, return the favor. Not always or right away, but it dawns on them slowly that there is enough work to go around and it doesn’t hurt them to share when they can.

    I have explained to clients that I don’t juggle jobs. When they have me, they have my complete attention. So when I say no, it’s because I am unwilling to make a promise I might not be able to keep. In the end, they respect me for meaning yes when I say yes and not saying yes when I should say no.

    1. Lyn,

      I think that networking and connecting with other freelancers is a great solution to saying no to work that you cannot do yourself. It almost always pays off – whether you’re teaming up with someone or just building a relationship.

      Thanks for sharing!

  18. I was recommended by a colleague to work with a gentleman who was in on the ground floor of a new technical school as their director of marketing, even though the colleague knew that the director was slightly insane! I was hesitant to work with him from that description alone, but I placed the call anyway. When he asked me to do some spec work so he could evaluate my design aesthetic, (even though he had seen my portfolio) a red flag went up immediately. I explained to him politely that I don’t do spec work and told him I was probably not a good fit for his needs. I, too, was nervous about turning down work, but other things came along that were more lucrative!

    1. Sue,

      It makes me happy to hear that you believed in your services enough to turn down a project that required spec work. I’m behind you 100% on that decision!

      I’m glad everything worked out for the best. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  19. Whatever the reason, cost, timing or out of your zone of expertise, if you can’t do the job, thank the company that is offering you the work and if it’s appropriate, you may want to recommend another freelancer. Someday that recommendation may be reciprocated.

  20. Great post! This situation has come up a number of times for my business over the last several years. Sometimes I’ve made the right choice and sometimes the wrong one. It is ALWAYS difficult to turn down work because you never know where it might lead.

    1. Mike,

      You’re absolutely right – it can be very difficult to turn down work and sometimes is doesn’t work out. You can learn a lot from mistakes and failures, so just be sure to never give up, because things will always bounce back as long as you stick with it.

      Thanks for sharing!

  21. Love this post! It’s hard to turn down work when you’re a freelancer, but it’s such a must in so many situations. I realized that turning down work, while the money would have been great didn’t affirm my overall mission for my business. Freeing up that time I would have committed also allowed me to be creative and work ON my business, not IN it. Thanks for the great article Brent!

    1. Lisa,

      Glad to hear you’re keeping *your* business in mind when taking on projects! It’s important to make sure that the work you take on is aligned with your business goals.

      Thanks for leaving a comment! 🙂

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