Yes, it's okay to turn down work.
When I start blabbing about turning down work, you may start to think:
"Who is this crazy lady and why would she EVER recommend that I turn down projects!?"
That being said, there are certain scenarios when turning down work is not an option and other times where it might prove to be extremely beneficial. I'm specifically talking about projects from a UI/UX designer's perspective but these suggestions can be applied to nearly any business niche.
Let's review the good vs. bad times to turn down new projects.
WHEN YOU SHOULD SAY YES
1) Say "yes" when you're just starting out.
You just launched, slapped on your new branding, and are ready to start accepting work - by all means - bring on the projects. You're going to want to get your hands on anything you can. Website design for a cat sweater distributor? Yes. Mobile app design for cereal lovers? Yes. Government website for garbage and recycling? Probably, yes.
When starting a new design business, turn yourself (and your team, if you have one) into a super awesome and super absorbent sponge. Becoming a design sponge is a fantastic way to test the field, define your niche, and further develop a specialized skill-set.
It's good to keep in mind, however, that you're not going to love all projects that come your way. If you really like Wordpress-based projects, for example, spend more time scouting for these. Once you have a few in your portfolio, you're much more likely to see similar project proposals down the road. Take note if government waste receptacle projects aren't your cup of tea and soon you'll find a clear direction for your business to take.
2) Say "yes" when your workload is too low.
This is a tricky one. How do you know when your workload is too low? Sounds pretty straightforward but it ain't.
The goal here, and throughout this entire article, is to learn not to work for the sake of working. Define your business goals and once these goals are met, move on to other activities that make your life more enjoyable - like stamp collecting or eating ice cream - or working toward other life goals.
Start by creating an incoming financial goal for your month. $3k, $5k, $30k, $100k - whatever this number might be (we will discuss how to define this number in future articles), use this as a reference for where your business needs to be in order to be "successful".
Note how "successful" is defined solely by your goals and not by other peoples' standards.
If you haven't met your financial goals for the month, your workload is probably too low and I recommend accepting new projects. You can still pick and choose which projects to accept, but if your financial goals are not on target, you may need to temporarily adjust your range of acceptance.
Side note: The concept of not working for the sake of working is an incredible concept that is highly powerful for any entrepreneur. If you'd like to learn more, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. This is an insanely, valuable read for learning how to maximize efficiency and effectiveness for both business owners and employees.
WHEN YOU SHOULD SAY NO
As a freelance/contract-based business, this is one of the hardest things to do. This may sound dramatic, but let me tell you, it's definitely harder than saying "yes". If you say "yes" to any and all projects that come your way, you might be thinking:
"Hell yeah! Bring on the work. More work means more money and more money means I'm a an even more successful and awesome person."
While this might be the case some of the time, taking on every project that floats your way can also dramatically decrease your efficiency and increase your stress levels. You may find that you're less likely to specialize in a specific area of your field and therefore find yourself labeled by clients as a "jack-of-all-trades". While this doesn't sound all that bad, narrowing your niche market can be an incredibly beneficial way to maximize profits and minimize your disdain for day to day tasks.
1) Say "no" when you're not excited.
If you're not strapped for cash, it can be okay to say "no" to a project that doesn't appeal to you. By saying "no", you've not only further defined your niche market but you're now available for an alternative project to come your way. If you find yourself constantly saying "yes" to everything that falls in your lap, you may also find the desire to gouge your eyes out after spending endless amounts of time on unstimulating and uninspiring work.
It's ridiculously hard to be productive when you don't feel inspired. And no one wants a gouged out eye. My Stone Table counterpart, Phil, likes to use the term "cheese grate your face off" when a task proves particularly mundane. Whatever the phrase, our goal here is to steer away from all facial mutilation as a result of intense boredom and disinterest.
If a rather unimaginative project floats your way, it's a good idea to ask yourself a few filter questions to help you decide if saying "yes" is the right decision:
Is the dullness of this project worth the income that can be generated?
Is the income generated helping me toward my monthly financial goal?
Are a few weeks of unstimulating work worth building a relationship with this client?
Will this project open the door to other, more inspiring and/or high potential projects down the road?
If you answered "yes" to one or more of these questions, you might consider sacrificing a bit of sanity to take on this project. If you answered "no" to all questions, then by all means, turn that project down and walk away knowing you made the right decision.
2) Say "no" when you've met your financial goals.
As I mentioned above, there's no need to work for the sake of working. Once you've reached the incoming financial goal you set for yourself and/or your business, use your time for other important tasks. You can choose to dabble in supplemental business ideas - granted they don't detract from your main source of income - or choose to spend time doing things you enjoy. After all, you've reached your goal you've defined as "successful" and therefore should bask in the glory of your successful day of productivity.
Don't forget to reward yourself for reaching your goals.
There's always going to be more money to be made. By setting your financial goal you're defining a finish line for the day, week, month, year. This is a fantastic way to keep any entrepreneur on track.
3) Say "no" when a project doesn't fit your niche.
By niche I mean the boundaries you've defined for yourself as a designer and business owner. When you "specialize" in something you deem yourself a "specialist" and therefore hold much more clout over other designers who are not specialists. As a result, you can generally charge more for your services because, well, you're generally better at doing these services than other people.
If you play the jack-of-all-trades card, you might find yourself wearing too many hats. You're drowning in your task list because you can do it all. Sure, this can be a fantastic way to get your business off the ground - client hires you, thinks you're a one and done deal, recommends you to all their startup friends, etc. - but be sure you like doing it all before you find yourself buried alive in a relatively, non-specific project scope.
Phil and I LOVE to say "no" to things that fall outside of our niche.
Marketing images? Nope, sorry we don't do those.
Social media content and designs? Uh-uh.
Web design for template websites? No, hate to say it, but we specialize in custom designs only.
We have whittled our design skill-set down to fit an extremely specific, niche market. This has encouraged both greater paying clients with higher budgets AND more enjoyable workloads. Can we do the tasks listed above? Absolutely. But there are other, more specialized designers out there that can do these tasks better and for less money. When you point this out to clients, they'll thank you for your honesty and find someone else to fill the jack-of-all-trades position.
All in all, by setting boundaries and defining your financial and skill-set goals, you're creating an extremely effective roadmap for a successful business and a happier you. By saying "no" to select projects, you're also saying "yes" to other opportunities, which is incredibly powerful in it of itself. No's open doors for unforeseeable and potentially, more profitable, more inspirational, and more forward moving yes's.
It's a wonder we don't start saying "no" more often.