5-star Freelancers

The Privilege (and responsibility) of saying “No”

How to turn projects away with style

First, let me do a little myth-busting. If you’re just starting out as a freelancer expecting to be your own boss and “live the dream” immediately, you’ll last 3 months before you’re sending out resumes and lining up interviews again. Freelancing is a hustle. But, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it.

The one thing you need to remember is that freelancing isn’t about getting as much work as you can… It’s about keeping as many happy clients as you can.

More important than having a lot of work to keep you busy is being able to choose from a lot of work consistently.

So what steps to you take to make sure that happens?

Maintaining happy clients is vital to achieving workflow automation. And you won’t get there by saying “yes” to everything that comes across your desk. You’ll get there by saying “no” effectively while still delivering 110% to your clients.

It’s a simple formula…

The more happy clients keep, the more referrals you’ll get, and the bigger your network will be.

If you have a bigger network, more work will find you.. and you’ll have more opportunities to choose specific projects that you want to work on.

When to say “No”

It’s natural to want to choose to project that has the most creative potential. But when you’re starting out, you’ll need to consider other criteria when selecting your projects.

How much value can you deliver to the client? More importantly, how much value can they deliver to you? Is there potential that they’ll be a returning customer? What’s the likelihood that they’ll recommend you to other desirable clients?

If the project is going to eat up a lot of your time and there isn’t room to nurture that client relationship into more work/more connections… it probably isn’t worth your time.

What if you have no other options?

It’s hard to maintain selectivity when you’re feeling the pressure of making ends meet. Will you be able to always work on exactly what you want to work on starting out? No. But if you deliver 110% and get good referrals, your network will grow faster than you ever imagined and this problem will fade quite quickly.

Why to say “No”

Overbooking yourself is more harmful than it is productive

We tend to be ambitious when it comes our workload, but overloading yourself will only result in high-stress for you and under-delivered projects for your clients. You need to make sure you are consistently giving 110% and delivering fantastic content to your clients so that they will want to come to you for returned business or write a good referral.

There is no shame in saying no if you feel you can’t deliver 110%.

It’s not the type of work you’re after 

How many of you frequently are approached by clients who have no idea what you do for a living? As professional “creatives”, people tend to think we’re wizards who can do anything we wave our wacom wands at.

If the project is out of your comfort zone, don’t pretend you’re an expert. If you’re a web designer and someone wants you to make them a print ad, just admit that it’s not your forte. By saying yes just for the sake of booking a project, you’ll only find yourself putting hours toward something that you aren’t enjoying… and that disinterest will inevitably manifest throughout the project.

Be selective. Be honest.

How to say “No”

So you’ve decided that you don’t want to work for a particular client, but you don’t know how to tell them. If you don’t want to or can’t work on a project for a client, follow this simple email formula on how to articulate why:

“Hey {client} – Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to dedicate at the moment, but I’d love to hop on a call for a free consultation to so that I can better understand your needs and put you in touch with someone who can help.”

You don’t have to give a specific reason, but it is absolutely vital to make them feel like you are going that extra mile. I have turned down countless contracts and work proposals in the past, only to have them come back 6 months later with more work that is more catered to what I’m looking for.

Turning down projects in this manner enables you to leverage the client relationship even if you’ve never worked with them! You can get the benefits of a good recommendation without even doing the work. You’d be helping them, yourself, and the lucky freelancer who this project is perfect for.

Be generous, and good things will follow. It’s a universal notion that isn’t any less true in the freelancing world.

Have something to add?

Whether you’re about to graduate design school or you’ve been freelancing for years, we’d love to hear from you! Add your comments below:


About the Author

Drew Palmer is a freelance designer & entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, PA.


  1. Nicolas Derico Says :
    Posted on July 9, 2015 at 7:07 am

    When I started freelancing, I used to overbook myself thinking that it would be better for the business. A few months in, I had already lost a couple clients and my performance was plummeting. Learned from my mistake though!

    Best advice: work for clients you love, and who love you.

  2. DrewPalmer
    Posted on July 10, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Agreed, Nicolas! Overbooking leads to burn out, unless you (and your client) can afford to hire extra help along the way. Sure, it means more income… but spreading yourself too thin will lead to unhappy clients. Keeping them happy keeps you happy! That’s the goal.

  3. mp3juice Says :
    Posted on May 14, 2016 at 9:25 am

    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself
    or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m
    looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where
    u got this from. appreciate it

    • DrewPalmer
      Posted on May 14, 2016 at 1:13 pm

      Hey! Thanks for your comments. I made this website myself. It’s a customized WordPress template that I bought on ThemeForest

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