When To Say "No" To New Work

Freelancers find it hard when workflow is unknown

World Domination Summit 2013 - Portland, OR
Chris Guillebeau/Flickr
I can't begin to count the number of interviews I did over my years in personal finance with authors who wrote about the difficulty of saying "no" when you work for yourself. I heard all the advice, asked all the right questions, and then promptly forgot all of it when I started working... for myself!

I had a "normal," salaried job for more than 20 years. I knew exactly what my paycheck would be each month. I knew exactly what I had to do to earn that paycheck. I knew what my employers' expectations were of me. And I knew what I had to do during those 20 years to advance my career and my work profile. I had a plan, I stuck to it, and it worked. It was a trajectory, and with a couple of exceptions, I didn't deviate from what was a pretty straight line to the top of my profession.

Venturing into Foreign Territory
But working for myself? Foreign territory. I had no idea what my value would be on the open (freelance) market. I had no idea if or when I would have a paycheck. And I had no idea how I would define whether or not I was being successful in this new venture.

I also didn't want to read any more advice books that could answer those questions. (I should've paid attention the first time around.)

So for most of the past year I've alternated between times of panic, because I didn't have any projects on my plate, and times of feeling utterly overwhelmed by all the work I'd managed to score. I'll leave the panic times for another post (hint: it's not pretty). In the good times, I find that the biggest issue is deciding what to say yes to, and what work to turn down, despite the fact that I want as much money coming in the door as possible. It seems almost foolish to turn down ANY work when you're out on your own. So I've said yes to things that I wasn't excited about, purely for the paycheck. And I started asking myself why I didn't just stay in the job I had if all I cared about was the paycheck? It was silly to say yes to anything that I didn't truly want to do.

But it's really easy to say "Oh, I'll just turn down anything I don't love..." until you remember you have a budget that needs an accounts-receivable side, not just an accounts-payable side. So making those decisions has been much harder than I expected. I'm currently involved in two projects that don't really float my boat, but they pay ok. I'd much rather be living by the Derek Sivers model of "No more yes. It's either HELL YEAH! or no." But reality gets in the way sometimes.

What I really strive to remember is that I left my job for an adventure. Adventures should be fun and new and exciting and rewarding. That's a lot to ask of a job -- but I don't think it's too much. I still have to figure out the acceptable ratio of adventure to need.

What's your ratio? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Share your stories in the comments section below and email me at jobsedit@teamaol.com.

And come back here every Wednesday morning for my next post.

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In many countries such as China, Japan, or even Korea, you will have to bath and entertain with your coworkers in order to build bonds without pay at the expense of the companies just like the way that US military personnels around the globe. Attending these functions are NOT optional and sometimes even parttake prostitutions with your fellow executives is almost the norm how it operates. I am not sure how it work with female executive but that is where the glass ceiling exist around the workplace. Any female executives wants to elaborate on how they do it just by going along or refuse and risk of being OUT of contention for the next promotion?

October 06 2013 at 6:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is somewhat similar ......I was a late bloom actor, age 42, had done some classes at HB with Miss Hagen, and typically New York actors.....we do not get paid at first. Nope, sure dont. Some other staff members at HB told me if you are not getting paid for your work do it for 3 differerent reasons

1. To be seen, advance your career
2. Have the ability to now add this performance to your resume
3. Simply, that the performer really likes the piece of work.

I always followed those guidelines. One time, I did not. (There was a semi famous writer, who was doing a play in NYC, she had many television credits, and had been up for an Emmy. I was her second choice, as the other actor had a prior job. And I was very unhappy the entire run of the play).

Of course, after about two years or so, and I was now in the all 3 of the unions, I made different choices. Some jobs, I really did for the money. And I did not regret it. I did a small childrens theatre piece in Long Island, where I palyed a big singing bear, and to this day, it is still a favorite of mine (I did it for a 100 bucks).

YOu have presented something that provokes thought. Thanks.

October 06 2013 at 2:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to fred's comment
Tess Vigeland

Thanks, fred. Yes, it is an ongoing debate with ourselves, isn't it. The issue of not being paid is a whole other discussion, which I've written about elsewhere. It's really hard for me to justify saying yes without getting paid, unless it's for charity.

October 10 2013 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My bad. Thought the article was about what to do when you're asked to do something at work when OTHERS (who were ORDERED by the boss) refused. Oh, by the way, THAT is INSUBORDIONATION.

October 06 2013 at 8:23 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to billv0164's comment

Depends on the situation. An employee has the right to say no. This is not the military nor is it slavery.

October 06 2013 at 9:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to charlie's comment

as I stated, the CHECK-SIGNER ORDERED them to do what was asked. "I don't WANT to do it" is NOT an option.

October 06 2013 at 9:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

Gee I could really relate to this. I love how you talk about the see saw that happens when you freelance; you are excited to be called, even if the project doesn't thrill you. Then sometimes, both happen at once. It's a tough balancing act.

October 03 2013 at 8:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know a brilliant woman who works for herself, and I think she's come up with a great solution for the feast or famine issue, at least for certain types of freelance work. During slow periods, she cultivated relationships with a few flexible interns/assistants with varying skills looking for experience over making money. When things get harried, as they tend to do all at once - never fails! why is this?? - she can usually find one to assist, thereby letting her bite off a little more than she could chew on her own; the extra work covers the stipend she pays the intern(s) for research, calls, and so on. Wish it were my idea but thought it was an approach worth sharing. (Of course, you get what you pay for: sometimes interns flake, and she ends up doing the work - but she treasures the reliable ones and finds perks to keep them loyal.)

October 02 2013 at 1:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to deanna's comment
Tess Vigeland

That's a really interesting idea, deanna -- thank you for sharing it. Who couldn't use an intern?!

October 10 2013 at 6:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Appreciate you sharing your story, Tess. I spent about a year on the independent front and decided returning to the full-time workforce was the right choice for me at this time. And now I get to work with you! Not everyone has the option to pick the timing for their launch. Look forward to hearing more about what you've learned in the process.

October 02 2013 at 10:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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