Ask a Freelancer: When Should I Start Turning Down New Assignments?By Nicole Dieker June 16th, 2015
How do you know when you’ve got enough work and can stop pitching and/or start declining offers? I’ve been pitching like crazy and now I have a ton of work to do. But I still feel compelled to keep pitching so there’s still stuff to work on when I’m done with the current work.
—Am I Fine to Decline?
This question hits home because it’s something I ask myself just about every week.
“Self,” I say, “Should I be trying to take on more work, or do I have enough work to do already?”
So I built myself a tool to answer this question: a freelance work spreadsheet.
I’ve written about this spreadsheet a bit before, but it’s pretty simple: Every day of the month is listed on the spreadsheet, and underneath I list the assignments due that day as well as how much money I’ll earn from completing each assignment. There are also columns to indicate if I’ve invoiced an assignment and whether I’ve received payment.
Most importantly, this spreadsheet lets me know two things:
- How much work I am responsible for completing
- How much money I expect to earn
At this point, I have my spreadsheet built out through the end of the month. I know that I’ll be able to bill $5,500 for the month with the assignments I already have, which means I don’t need to think about hustling for new work before the end of June.
I also know, from looking at my spreadsheet, that I only have room to add one new assignment before the end of the month. I’m trying very hard to keep my work at a manageable level, which means not taking on more assignments than I can reasonably handle in a standard eight-hour workday. (If you’ve had a chance to read my “Long, Strange Week in the Life of a Freelance Writer,” let’s just say that after I wrote that piece, I realized my freelance writing life had to change. No more 12-hour days!)
So, if two clients contact me with new story ideas for June, I’ll have to either decline one or ask if one of the deadlines can be pushed into July. On the other hand, if my spreadsheet showed that I didn’t have enough work to fill my schedule, I’d start pitching clients to try to get another story or two in before the end of the month.
This is a constant dance, by the way. Last week I started pitching some feature stories for July since I don’t have any big assignments scheduled for next month. Being able to look at my schedule two weeks in advance lets me know when I need to start thinking about writing new pitches, and when I should work on the stories I’ve already pitched.
The first time I declined an article from a regular client, I felt terrible. I worried that the client would no longer think of me as a reliable contributor, and someone else would take the spot that had previously been “mine.”
It didn’t happen. The client continued to offer me regular work. So did the next client, after I declined a different request. I think the clients still trusted me because of how I framed the response: I was prompt, I explained I had to decline because my schedule was already full, and I asked my contact to continue thinking of me for future assignments.
Having plenty of work to complete also helps me make smarter choices about taking on new clients. When you don’t have enough assignments to fill your day or enough money in the bank, you feel pressured to take any work sent your way, even if the particular project doesn’t interest you or comes with a rate that’s too low.
But once you have enough work, you can start looking at new clients more strategically. I recently received an email from someone asking me if I’d be interested in writing for a parenting website, for example. A year ago, I would have jumped on the assignment despite being neither a parent nor a parenting expert. Now I can happily and politely turn it down, offering that editor the name of another qualified freelancer instead. (Always refer people when you can.)
I’ll also tell you this: I have never regretted turning an assignment down. I have regretted accepting work that I knew would be time-consuming just because I wanted the extra money. It’s hard to know whether to say yes or no to any individual client request—and when I work with a regular client, I want to be in a position to accept 90 percent of what they offer me—but I’m getting better at making the choices that are best for my career.
Fine to Decline, you’re at the point in your career where you start having “good” problems. You don’t want to take on too much work and burn out, so you can start trimming off the fat and refining your client list. Eventually, you’ll only have to work on projects that pay you enough and hold your interest. But for now, start thinking about your long-term freelancing goals: What beats do you want to focus on? How many hours do you want to work each day? How much money would you like to bring in every month?
Then make a freelance schedule, fill it out as far ahead as you can, and use that information to tell you when it’s time to hustle for new work and when it’s time to decline.
Nicole Dieker loves spreadsheets. She also loves answering your freelancing questions. If you have a question for Ask A Freelancer, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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