When And How To Say No To A Project

“Uhhh…. I don’t think I can…?” I quickly look side to side like a shifty villain.

“Sorry, but I can’t.” I hang my head and do a half grin.

“I’m sorry, but no.” I smile a big flashy smile, maybe that’ll soften the blow.

“No.” I start sweating. I sweat when I’m nervous, okay?!

Welcome to what used to be my inner monologue when I had to tell someone no.

Telling people we can’t (or won’t) help them is uncomfortable, and goes against our instinctively social nature. We want to be accepted, want to be recognized for the good work we do, and, to an extent, want to please.

The biggest problem with saying no is that it taps into the deep-seated fear we all have of being rejected. It makes sense, since originally this was a survival tactic. You want to say yes and please the group so they like you. If they like you, then you get to continue being part of said group, and hopefully rely on the safety of the masses to continue living, thus not being eaten by a hungry predator lurking in the bushes.

But now?

Now, our fear of saying no makes us say yes to crappy projects that deep down we know are awful. It makes us agree to that big last-minute change that’s not part of the original project scope. It makes us agree to work for less. In short, it makes us miserable.

But we’ve got to get over it. We’ve got to learn to stand up for ourselves and respect our time. No one else is going to do it for us.

So, how do you say no?

Planning Always Comes First

Before you decide whether or not to take the project, you need an idea of what it will take to finish it. You need to plan it out.

This may or may not be something you enjoy. I personally don’t enjoy planning, but you can bet your ass I do it for all my projects. It’s not hard, just not something I find particularly fun.

So, what are the basic workings to a great plan?

Of course this involves a list. From beginning to end, list all the tasks that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For a more in-depth guide, here’s a great resource on how to effectively plan a project.

Planning is a skill that you’ve got to build into a default habit. Whether you’re brand new to freelancing, or have been doing this for 10 years, every project needs to have a solid plan so that you don’t get blindsided midstream.

How to decide if you should say no

So you’ve planned out what it’s going to take to do this project. But do you really want it after all? Here’s a checklist to help you decide:

1. Do you have the time to take on this project? What does your project calendar look like? (If you don’t have a project calendar, definitely start one!)

2. Will you enjoy the project? Is the project something that you will find interesting and fun to put together?

3. How much will it pay?

4. Are there any side benefits? Is this a good potential recurring client? Will it get your work in front of a lot of people? Will this client’s name look impressive in your portfolio?

If you’re hesitating on the project, and don’t answer three of these four questions positively, don’t take it on unless you’re really struggling to pay the bills. As Ran Segall mentions in his book Value for Money, any time you take on a project that’s just okay, you could be missing an opportunity to take on a project that you’re really excited about.

So, here’s an example from my own experience. I was approached by a website that wanted to feature my writing, and I needed to come to a decision.

  1. Time: I had the time, because I was in between projects.
  2. Interest: On a scale of 0 – 10, a 10 being, “I want to do this every day!” the project was about a 4. So not great.
  3. Pay: Nothing, it was supposed to be a pro bono for generating content.
  4. Extra Benefits: They didn’t have a large user base and didn’t have much interaction on their site, so in addition to me really pushing my articles, it might get a handful of likes and shares, which isn’t much.

So, since three out of my four questions were negative, I passed on the project.

How to Say No

Remember that “No” is a complete sentence. You have permission to say no to anything you don’t feel comfortable with.

Many of us are brought up thinking that no is self-serving, rude, or dismissive. It’s not. Saying “no” is actually honest and kind because you’re not just telling someone what they want to hear.

Instead, you’re both getting what you actually want: you want to work on something else, and they want someone who will give their project the time and attention it deserves.

Treat the client the way you’d want to be treated

No matter how right it is, it’s still hard saying no. But turn it around for a second. Think about how much more you respect people that play it straight with you. Whether it’s dating or business, no one likes being strung along. So be upfront and tell the person no. Just be sure to emphasize how you not doing the project is actually the best option.

Having the conversation.

This is a general way that you can say no, either over email or in person. You’re being honest about the outcome, but still offering a great solution.

Thank you so much for reaching out to me on this project. Looking at my project calendar, I can’t do my best work for you and meet the deadline you need. I want to make sure that your project gets completed and you’re happy with it, so I can give you the names of a couple other people who may be able to help.

If the problem is the dreaded scope creep, you can use this:

I understand the changes that you’d like to do on this project. Looking at my project calendar, I can’t do my best work for you and meet the deadline you need. I can complete the changes you’d like by TELL THEM THE NEW DEADLINE. Since this wasn’t included in the original scope we set, I’m happy to send you a proposal on the cost for this addition. I want to make sure that your project gets completed and you’re happy with it, so if this updated deadline doesn’t work with your needs, I can give you the names of a couple other people who you could talk to for this part of the project.


You might be thinking, “I’m saying no because the project is boring, not because I don’t have time.” And while this may be true, think about it from your client’s perspective. Even if they know it’s kind of boring, you don’t want to say, “Hey, your project sounds a lot like the work equivalent of going to the dentist, so I’m gonna have to pass.” That’s just crappy business, right?

Instead, just keep it general, simple, and clean.

What We Lose By Saying Yes

I used to hate disappointing people, so saying no used to be very hard for me to do. I ended up agreeing to stuff I felt I should do, but not that I really wanted to do. I worried that if I said no, people would get upset with me, or think I couldn’t handle the work.

Now though, I think about it differently.

By not taking on work that doesn’t fit in with my needs, I’m actually helping the potential client get what they need: Someone who is happy and excited to do their project.

When we say yes to projects that we should say no to, we lose our sense of control. We allow ourselves to feel bullied into saying yes, and that’s not a good place to be. Like I said before, you’ve got to stand up for yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you.

It Gets Easier

The first time you say no to a potential client might feel pretty gross. The second time might not feel any better, either.

But as you practice, you’ll get more comfortable with it. You’ll notice that you’re spending more time on projects you actually enjoy and feel empowered to make the decisions you really want.

You’ll also notice something else start to change: People will respect and value your time more because you respect and value your time.

And really, who can say no to that?

Post by Marisa Morby

Marisa is a copywriter who loves traveling, working on creative projects, and starting great conversations with new people.

value for money book

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