Contract work can be feast or famine. My workload is usually a small snack peppered by a random all-you-can-eat buffet. As of 2020, I’m a mom first, but love graphic design and have a lot of experience doing it, so I enjoy the challenges that sporadically come my way. I like to work. But, I don’t like feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin. I also hate letting people down. So, saying “no” has never been a strength of mine. All of this can lead to a lot of stress and hard choices (not to mention many grey hairs) if not managed well. Over the years, I have learned how best to evaluate which project mix is best, and what I need to kindly decline. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not always the projects with the highest payday that make the A list. Here’s why:
1 A Thanksgiving turkey would be nothing without the sides.
What designer doesn’t want to design a big glossy magazine, multi-tear website, an entire branding system, or fun series of packaging? All at the same time? Not fun. I like to remember advice that my sister-in-law gave me when she was teaching me how to knit: Always have a couple of projects on the needles. That way, you won’t get bored. I also like to remember that design is only a part of my life. There are other demands on my time that are equally, if not more, important than whatever project comes my way.
So my advice: remember the sides. If you have a few projects to choose from, take a big juicy one, but throw some fries on that plate as well. Now, this could be a bigger project too, but maybe it has a looser timeline, so you won’t be working full throttle on both at the same time. Maybe, it’s updating a website you did a while back in addition to that 24-page catalogue. It could also mean working with a familiar client while working with a new one. You know what you can give and take from the known, but a new one may need a little more active attention.
2 Saying “no” doesn’t have to mean “goodbye.”
Trust me. Business people are used to hearing “no” a lot. If you handle it well, they’ll return to you with the hopes that the timing will be better next time. How do you do this? Flattery, and then, what I like to call, “explanation light.” Don’t overwhelm them with details about why you can’t help them out. Just thank them for thinking of you and tell them you’d really welcome the opportunity to work with them in the future, but your docket is already full. That’s all. Further explanation will just waste their time and doesn’t change the end result. They may even leave the conversation a little impressed that you are so in demand—they have good taste!
Additionally, give them a time when they can return to you and then reach out to them at that time instead of waiting for them to make the first move. This shows them that you really do want to work with them, and you were counting down the days as to when you could see their lovely address in your inbox again.
3 Play favorites (with projects, not people).
How you mix up your workload should depend on a longer-term way of thinking. If you start to get busier, take a breath and look at what’s on your plate. Are the projects helping to serve your portfolio or develop the skills you would like to see improve? Is the client pleasant and easy to work with, appreciative of your skill as a professional, respectful of your opinion? If you are successfully growing your business, you’ll have the luxury of being a little pickier. Think of your portfolio like a vision board. If the only things pinned on your wall are projects that just pay the bills or take forever to finish, then maybe you should rethink the mix. What do you want that wall to look like and then take the projects that help you reach that goal.
I realize none of this is rocket science, but it helps to have someone remind you that it’s OK to say “no”—especially for us people-pleasers. As long as the reason you’re turning work down (or taking work on) helps you to feel satisfied in where your business, time and energy are being directed.
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[…] I work better when I feel better. I work well when I feel like I am not a slave to my clients. I feel balanced and positive about my work instead of harried and beholden to it. If there is a unique project that requires a full eight hours that day, I may take care of it in the evening and order takeout for dinner or throw that hot potato to my spouse to deal with. I have also learned not to take on too much to begin with. You can read more about how to do that here. […]