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How to Say No to a Project: 6 Helpful Tips

How to say no to a project is a big challenge for so many freelancers and small business owners. We often ask ourselves, “Should I say no to this project? And if so, how do I do it?”

For a long time in my work as a photographer, I said yes to every styled shoot and every project that came my way. I would offer discounts to hook people in without really thinking about what it was costing me to take on the project in the first place.

Whether it’s the dread of disrupting a good working relationship, turning down that sweet, sweet cash, or just feeling the need to please people, saying no to a project isn’t easy—but we’ve all experienced the feeling of saying yes to a project when we wish we hadn’t.

So how do you know when to say no to a project? Why is it important to say no sometimes? And how do you say no to a client without disappointing anyone?

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Why it’s important to say no to a project from time to time
  • Three questions to ask yourself about the project
  • Three tips for how to say no

By the end, I hope you’ll feel more comfortable saying no to a client and more confident in your decision to say no!

Why You Have to Say “No” to Some Projects

There are lots of reasons why saying yes to a project can actually hurt you rather than help you.

Whether it’s affecting your branding, your well-being, or your happiness, no matter how much moolah you’re bringing in, sometimes, it’s just not worth it!

Here are three reasons why it’s important to say no to certain projects.

1. Maintain your stress levels and well-being

Unless you’re some kind of superhuman cyborg who’s able to work 24 hours a day (if so, congratulations, what’s that like?), saying yes to every project that lands on your lap is bound to catch up with you at some point.

Chances are, if you don’t have the capacity to take on yet another project, or it’s just something you’re not qualified for, you and your work will suffer. If you’re running on fumes, it’s going to be a lot harder to produce something you’re proud of.

Not burning yourself out is likely more valuable than whatever dollar amount is on that paycheck waiting for you on the other side.

Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later!

2. Prioritize work you actually enjoy

Did you become self-employed or a freelancer just to go take on projects that don’t fulfill you? Or did you become self-employed to focus on work that brings you joy?

I bet it’s the latter.

By saying no to projects that just aren’t your cup of tea, you can spend more time on the projects you actually do enjoy. And when you enjoy your work, you thrive! Plus, you’ll get more repeat work and referrals that are more up your alley.

3. Stay true to your brand

Saying yes to every project could not only mean that you’re burning yourself out or taking on projects you don’t actually enjoy, but that you’re getting away from your brand.

Keeping focused on your passions and values as a professional by turning down projects that just aren’t the right fit for you can not only save you and your client a lot of time and energy, but it can prevent you from going down a career direction you didn’t even want to go down in the first place!

Three Questions to Ask Yourself About the Project

If a stressful project resulted in work you ultimately couldn’t showcase, why did you really do it?

For a long time, I never really asked myself that. I always figured that each project meant more money, more projects, and more clients, but I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Wanting to help other creatives, make friends, network, and make money are all good things, but you don’t need to do and can’t do everything. A wise person once said:

“You can do anything, but not everything.”

Every project should ideally produce more work for you down the road that you’ll enjoy. So how do you find those magic projects?

When approached about a new project that you’re unsure about, ask yourself these questions:

1. Will my well-being suffer if I take this project on?

Do you feel your pulse start to quicken at the idea of saying yes? Can you already feel the heat from that candle burning at both ends?

Consider whether the project or client is going to cost you an arm and a leg, take you away from important family time, or cost you your sanity.

If you honestly don’t think you have the time or energy to take on the project, don’t say yes. I can’t think of a single project I absolutely slayed that was completed off the corner of my desk.

Start by taking a good and honest look at your meeting calendar or your project tracker and evaluate whether or not you have the capacity for it.

It might be tempting to take on the project if you take a look at your calendar and, while things are busy now, notice things will clear up soon. You say to yourself, “It’s okay, I might be really stressed out for a few weeks, but things will get better sooner…right?”

Think about the last time you overloaded yourself and regretted saying yes to that one project that tipped the scales. Did you say the same thing to yourself at the time? What do you wish you could tell your past self? And can that same advice apply to your present self?

Only you know what level of stress or work you can take on—so be honest and kind to yourself about what’s within your wheelhouse. You can often foresee how much effort or resources you’ll need, and if it’s too much, let the client or vendor know before you get yourself in too deep.

2. Will the end product lead to a brand-worthy result?

Whether the result is beautiful images or the chance to work with a dream client, if you take on the project, is this something you can proudly add to your portfolio?

For example, I recently turned down contributing to a styled shoot. It sounded like a fabulous shoot and it would have been for a friend from my Tuesdays Together group, but the style of the shoot just didn’t fit my brand.

I started thinking, “How would I use these pictures?” I couldn’t come up with anything. They were most likely going to be too bold for my brand. It was hard for me to say no, but when I ultimately did, she respected that.

Another reason I said no was because I had just wrapped up working on several other shoots. I needed both a break and time to work with my branding clients. The project would have been taking away from my brand and main priorities in more ways than one!

3. Is this a project you’ll enjoy?

Think about the projects you’ve enjoyed the most throughout your career. What was it about those projects that you liked? Was it the people you worked with? Getting to flex your creative muscles? Making a difference in the lives of others?

Whatever those characteristics of your favorite projects were, look for them in this new project. Sometimes, it’s easier to handle a bit of extra stress if:

  • The project is exactly what you started as a freelancer to work on
  • It’s going to open doors towards your dream client
  • It’ll pave the way for more projects you’ll adore

If it’s not immediately clear to you whether or not the project is a slam dunk, ask your potential client for some more information about it, or take into account their mission and vision. If your values strongly align, that can often be an indicator or whether or not it’s a good fit.

How to Say No to Your Clients

So, you’ve done it—you’ve asked yourself these three key questions and now you’ve determined you’re going to have to say no. *Gulp*.

Whether it’s anxiety over dealing with a difficult client or overcoming your people-pleasing ways, saying no to a client can be daunting.

Here are three tips to help you formulate your response to a client that’ll still leave them with positive feelings about you while also creating a solution for them.

1. Be honest

If a fellow creative asks you to work with them on a project, be honest. If you have too much on your plate, tell them you have too much on your plate. If it doesn’t align with your brand, tell them it doesn’t align with your brand.

Any client worth your time in the future will respect your honesty and completely understand. If I had a project I was proposing to someone, I wouldn’t want them to agree to it if I knew it would be burning them out!

They’ll also appreciate avoiding an end product that might not be exactly what they need. If you’re not the right fit or you can’t give the project the attention it deserves, they’ll be relieved to know they dodged a bullet.

Your client will appreciate that you’ve been direct and they’ll value your honesty.

2. Be polite and show gratitude

Rejecting someone is never fun. But if you let your potential client know that you respect their time and are grateful for their consideration, it can both soften the blow and make them want to continue to work with you in the future.

It’s also important to make it clear that you’re turning down the project, not the person.

Some statements you could try include:

  • “I really appreciate you thinking of me for this project!”
  • “I loved your work on [recent project], since…”
  • “Thank you so much for your consideration for this project.”
  • “I’d love to work with you on this project, but…”
  • “If I had the capacity, it’d be amazing to work with you! However…”

3. Offer an alternative

If you’re still afraid of losing future business from this client, don’t forget—people love problem solvers!

I always love it when I present a problem or a task to someone, and if they can’t take it on or fix it, they direct me to someone who can. This is the kind of person I know I can rely on.

Do you know another vendor who might be a better fit for the project than you? If you do, consider putting your client in touch with them.

If you don’t know anyone else who could take the project on, or if you don’t feel right about sending a particular client to that person, try posting in a forum like Rising Tide to see if anyone is interested. Whether it’s a known contact of yours or a post in a forum, let them know about any of your client’s red flags.

Or, would the timing be better in the future? If the project is right up your alley and aligns with your brand yet doesn’t seem urgent, suggest taking it on when your plate frees up.

Stay On Top of All Your Clients And Projects

Saying no to a project or a client isn’t a pleasant experience, but hopefully you now feel more equipped to handle a difficult client or keep the door open for a future project.

If you’re struggling to stay on top of all of your projects or are juggling multiple platforms for online contracts, online invoices, and proposals, HoneyBook is a small business management platform that can help remove the stress from project tracking and give you more time to focus on your passion. And you can try it completely for free.

Start your free HoneyBook trial today!

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