too much freelance work

How to Say No to Freelance Work

For many freelance designers, developers, and other skilled individuals, there comes a point when there’s either too much work coming in, or the reward isn’t worth the effort.

As a college student or unemployed individual, it sounds absurd to think, but one day you just might have more freelance work coming in than you can handle. Once you learn a technical skill, every Tom, Beth, and Sally you’ve ever met will come calling looking for help with their random projects. “I’ll buy you a six-pack if you can help design a logo for my band!” “How much would you charge to build a website for my dad’s business?” “I’m sure you’re sick of people asking, but could I pay you $50 to help with some video editing?”

Why turn down work?

If you’re spending your day working a full-time job in your specialized field, there’s a good chance you’ll want to clear your head of it in your time off. Web designers might get burned out coding all day, then come home only to start up on smaller side projects.

In other instances, what seem like minor projects often get overblown into far bigger endeavors. Someone asking for a simple logo may come back with a dozen rounds of edits. You might wind up spending eight hours and be paid a minimal fee, or something other than actual currency for your efforts! Would you rather have $20 or two hours of your weekend back? For most designers, the choice is easy.

Only when the reward exceeds the time, effort, and work put in does it make sense to take on the task. Whether a fair price to you is in the form of money, a trade for another service, beer, getting closer to a crush, or even pocketing an I.O.U. from a boss, it’s up to you to decide what’s fair.

So you want to turn down the project. How?

If there’s just nothing enticing in it for you, and the only reason you can find to take on the project is out of guilt, then you should just politely decline. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. It could be your own grandpa asking! How can you say no?

  • Well, what is the truthful reason? That’s probably a good place to start. If you’re uninterested in the project due to the amount of time it will take, you should probably tell the person that. If the project would be super boring, tell them.
  • Tell the person you’re burned out. “Oh man, I’d love to, but with my full-time duties and other side gigs, I just don’t have the willpower to take on more erotica illustrations right now, mom.”
  • Lack of time is usually the real reason for turning down projects. Just exaggerate and tell the person you’re so backed up with other projects that it would take like four months before you could possibly squeeze it in.
  • True or false, just tell the person you don’t have the skills to do the project. “Yeah, this sort of website is a little out of my wheelhouse. I really only work on the WordPress platform. Not sure I would be able to help.”
  • Lie and tell the person your computer broke or has a virus. If they say “well what about your work computer?”, say they’re really cracking down on personal usage.
  • Tell the person you have a “non-compete” agreement from a rival company, and working on their project could be grounds for legal action.
  • Pawn the project off on someone more junior than you who you know can’t say no to freelance work.
  • Agree to do the project, but keep putting it off and coming up with excuses until they just move on.
  • Tell the person you have to charge an obscene amount. “I’d love to do the logo for you, Brenda. I charge $125/hour now, though, so… I’m not sure if that’s within your budget or not. I wish I could go lower, but if anyone hears you paid lower they’ll know they can take advantage of me.”
  • Tell the person no and throw someone else under the bus for your reason why. “I’d love to do the band logo, Nick, you know I would. But the old lady’s on my ass about not spending enough time with her and the kids. She’s limiting my computer time to 30 minutes before bed. You believe that shit?!”
  • Say no and blame injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. “The doc says I need to seriously limit my computer usage outside the office. My wrists are just killing me.”
  • Get out in front of the situation if you can’t handle any more work. Make a public announcement on social media. “Wow, thank you everyone for the continued support, but at this time I have more side work coming in than I can possibly handle.”

My Hot Take

It’s kinda hard to believe how hard it is to find people to build a website or do similar freelance work. Someone once offered anyone in our office $1,000 for what would have been a one-day web design project, and not one person would take it.

As an experienced professional digital marketer with an expansive background in graphic design, writing, web development, and of course email marketing, I get on average 3-4 freelance projects sent my way per week. I rarely turn anyone down, but the turnaround time on projects is getting to the point where people have begun writing me off. A simple request for a PDF or email will take 7-10 days to fit in, and logo projects even longer.

I have 5-8 regular freelance customers who take precedence, and then immediate family, and then a handful of close friends. Any projects that come in after that, I have to pick and choose. The ones I turn down are usually ones that I actually don’t have the skills to do, don’t think I could do a good job of it, or it’s too big of a project and I don’t have the time.

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