In early May, just as I was starting to accept the fact that work wouldn’t be something I’d remember 2020 by, the editor of an online magazine I’d previously written for got in touch to ask if I could take on an assignment. The turnaround would be tight — five days. The fee around the median average.

I declined.

From the outside, the decision might have seemed odd. I was saying no to work. The thing I had been constantly worrying about since the start of the pandemic, terrified I’d never get to write anything ever again.

Had you looked a little closer, though, you’d have realised that my choice was necessary. Although I’d been trying to come to terms with the wasteland my professional life had turned into, I hadn’t been doing so with any particular flair or good-humoured attitude. Quite the opposite: I was a hand-wringing ball of anxiety, insecurity, mood swings.

Simply put, I wasn’t in a good place mentally. Add to that the fact I had had to chase that editor for months to get paid last time I worked with him, and my thanks-but-no-thanks response came almost naturally. Yes, I wanted work, but I wasn’t in the right headspace for that particular gig, nor could I bear the emotional toll of another likely late payment.

For many freelancers, the idea of passing on a job or project seems totally counterintuitive. We’re often made to feel like we should be appreciative of any gig that comes our way, regardless of scope, financial remuneration or our own personal schedules. Those at the start of their freelancing careers feel it all the more acutely. Turning a client down — the mere idea of saying ‘no,’ in fact — just isn’t justifiable, the thinking goes.

Except it is — and can even prove to be the best move to take, both professionally and on a psychological level.

 

Personal Wellbeing 

“As long as you know you can cover your bills at the end of the month, it is absolutely ok to turn down work if it doesn’t feel right for you,” says Sian Meades-Williams, a London-based writer and editor of the Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter. “I completely understand people might be hesitant to do so, especially at the moment, but sometimes it simply isn’t worth it. And that might be for different reasons: you might not have a great feeling about the client or the project, or enough time to do it, or the mental energy to handle it — all the more now that we’re all trying to go through the bare bones of a work week, and find it so hard to focus. Most reasons are valid reasons.”

Personal wellbeing, Meades-Williams continues, should be a leading principle for the way you say yes or no to work. “Again, I am obviously not advocating for freelancers to ignore their financial status. But if  you get off the phone with a client and your heart sinks at the prospect of starting the gig, then I think you should allow yourself to think twice about taking it on.” she says. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 12 years as a freelancer is that believing in a new project matters. It pays off for everyone: when I’m in a positive mindset is when I do my best work.”

Establishing what that personal wellbeing means for you is just as essential to ensure you recognise which opportunities are deserving of your time and attention, and which aren’t.

“I think it’s really important to know what you actually want to be doing, so you know what you can turn down,” says Anna Codrea-Rado, a journalist, podcaster, and creator of The Professional Freelancer newsletter, also based in London. “That might be prioritising making money right now, because we are living in a financially unstable moment, and so taking on work that pays really highly, and turning down whatever doesn’t pay as well. Or your mission might be to develop a new area of expertise, meaning you might consider refusing work that doesn’t fit that area. Or you might want to follow a particular passion project, and so you’re better off passing on a gig.”

If work doesn’t meet those personal criteria, Codrea-Rado highly encourages freelancers to get in the habit of turning it down. “And know that you can very much switch in and out of those modes [during the course of your career],” she says.

 

Opportunity cost

Opportunity cost —  the benefit that is missed or given up when one alternative is chosen over another — should also be a factor to be aware of when considering whether to accept a job.

Francis Cullen, a London-based freelance sound recordist, has made the principle an integral part of how he tackles work.  “Whenever I am offered a project, I try to weigh what I might be giving up for it — and what I might be gaining from doing it.” Pre-pandemic, he would turn down longer jobs for shorter ones if he liked the client better or, conversely, accept a stable but averagely paid gig with faster payment turnarounds over work that’d pay months later. “Sometimes it’s a number’s game, sometimes it’s the case of working with someone whose name you want on your resume. You always have to assess your opportunities to make it work for you, and get the most out of the client.”

Similarly, a clear overview of your yearly freelance calendar can help determine how much work you should take on at different moments.

For Meades-Williams, knowing where she is financially and the amount of work she has coming in each month are key aspects to being able to say no to things in a way that doesn’t end up hurting her business. “I lay everything out on a spreadsheet, so I have a record of when I’m likely to be paid, and what months are busiest for me. It’s much easier to make a decision if you’re in control of the position you’re in.”

 

Some Red Flags

What all the freelancers I spoke to agreed on is that turning down work is a no-brainer when the client doesn’t treat you well.

That equates to different things for different people — poor and /or late pay, disregard for boundaries (i.e. WhatsApping you way past work hours, or demanding a quick turnaround with no notice), rudeness, lack of a clear brief or contract, demands that were not negotiated.

“If you see any red flag, or hear from other freelancers about their negative experiences, don’t bother,” Cullen says. “Chances are it’ll be the same for you.”

As for saying ‘no’ to a client without burning any bridges — unless they’re bad clients, of course — Codrea-Rado suggests keeping it courteous and straightforward. “The simple thing to do is to just say that you don’t have the capacity right now,” she says. “That leaves the door open for future projects, when you might need or want to do the work.”

Should we ever feel guilty about saying no though?

 

Will I ever work again?

“The guilt often comes with not being totally clear about the reason you’re turning down the work,” Meades-Williams says. “But I really find that if you’re passing on a project that isn’t good for you, you are opening up the rest of your working time for something that is right instead.”

“The feeling of guilt comes from a cultural problem we have in the creative freelance industry, where we are taught that we should be grateful for any work that we can get,” Codrea-Rado adds. “Understanding and acknowledging that is really, really important. A good way of doing so is to build a community of fellow freelancers, to be able to talk with other people who are experiencing those exact same feelings. Sharing can help you feel better about it.”

One last thing Codrea-Rado was keen to stress is the importance of moving away from the notion that if we turn down work we’ll never work again. “We need to address that feeling of being on feast or famine mode at all times,” she says. “And remember that there are other things you can do, from getting retainer clients to developing a regular source of income, like a newsletter with a subscription model. Turning down a bit of work and spending that time on your freelance business instead can be a very good way to grow professionally.”

And if you can’t take on a gig, there are always other freelancers who might. “If it’s just a case of not having enough time or having too much on my plate, I will always recommend another freelancer — especially if they’re better suited to the job,” Meades-Williams says. “There’s always someone who might need the work.”