The Power of No: Why Saying No is Just as Important as Yes

When you start working for yourself there’s a temptation to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way – after all, you don’t know what will help you break through to the next level or where your next project will come from. But, the more experienced you get, the more you realise that not every opportunity for work (or just for your time) is the right one.

In worst-case scenarios, learning this lesson comes from frequent periods of burnout and working with clients that weren’t quite the right fit for you (though that may be an understatement!). It’s important to remember that you only have so much to give – in time and energy. When your clients choose to work with you, they’re paying for both, so you need to price appropriately for the effort and time something takes you to do, or you’ll feel taken advantage of. Give too much of yourself, and you’ll start to lose your sense of “self” – so it’s essential you learn to say no.

Why is it so important to say no?

When you tell someone “no”, you ask for respect and you set healthy boundaries. You tell them what you will and won’t stand for, and perhaps more importantly, you empower yourself with the power of choice. Instead of being sat in the passenger seat, allowing any driver (AKA client, friend, or family member) to come along and take you along for the ride, you drive the car yourself.

You decide which projects or responsibilities you’re willing to take on. It helps you avoid feeling taken advantage of, allows you to actually strive toward your goals rather than hoping you somehow reach them, and allows you to protect your white space. As creatives, having time away from our work to refill the well is so important. When you feel so run down that you have nothing more to give, you simply don’t have the creative “juice” to create the outstanding work you want to be known for.

Saying “no” also empowers you to work on projects you are truly passionate about or care about – you can avoid working on projects that bore you, and avoid working with projects and clients whose values do not align with your own. There’s nothing more difficult than working on something you do not agree with on a fundamental level. When you say no, you choose yourself – it’s an act of self-love and it increases your self-worth.

How do I know when to say no?

A lot of it comes down to intuition and gut feeling, though the more experienced you get the more likely you’ll have a list of criteria that cause you to end a relationship with a client or say no to a potential project. This will differ from person to person – while one person may enjoy a client who wants to work collaboratively on a project, another will find that constant contact constraining.

There are also more obvious signs to look out for. Some of them are:

  • They want you to do something, but not use your brain (for example, they want you to make their website but they want to do the layout, the branding, and everything else)
  • They ask for a discount or if your costs are negotiable
  • They don’t speak to you in a respectful way (via email, on the phone, or face-to-face)
  • They treat you like an employee, not a company they’ve hired for their expertise
  • Vague ideas or ever-changing ideas – these clients don’t know what they want and so will likely change their mind
  • Scope creep – to build on the above, their needs are evergrowing. It’s a major red flag if they do this and don’t suggest additional compensation for this creep or an adjusted timeline
  • They don’t seem to understand that you have other clients, a family, hobbies, or need to sleep

You’ll have or will find things that are red flags for you. Write them down somewhere if you need to so you don’t say yes to these new clients or changes to projects. Sometimes, you’ll simply need to reinforce your boundaries and say that it can’t happen on this current project. (Pro Tip: if you don’t have a strong contract, this is your sign to get one!)

How do I say no?

First, step into the person you want to be at your next income goal, and imagine you have that money in your bank account. Would you want to take on that project? If no, then think about the way they would say no. Don’t use apologetic language or soft language – it’s possible to be strong while being polite! Remember, saying no is a good thing for both of you, it will allow both parties to find something better aligned with their needs. Don’t ever do something just because you need the money – it should also feel good!

Politely say “no” when necessary, here are a few ideas to get your mind turning:

  • Thank you for your enquiry! At this time, I don’t have space for…
  • That’s a great idea – but let’s park it until we finish this project. It may…
  • I don’t [something they want] so I’m not going to be the right [what you do] for your project.
  • I don’t offer discounts to ensure my clients get premium quality work. If you’d like to move forward with this project…

It’s key to remember that saying no does not make you a bitch – you are simply advocating for yourself and your business. You make space for more creativity, joy, and better things that are coming. You will never clear out a bad client and fail to get any more clients – a better client is just around the corner, but if you’re wasting your time and energy on someone you’re not a good fit for, you won’t have the energy to offer them when they arrive. Never haggle on price or take on a project for fear of not having enough money – it’s the hardest thing to do sometimes, but it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, your mental health, and the health of your business.

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