Saying No When You’re a Freelancer

from iClipArt
from iClipArt

I am, in general, in life, one of those people who has a hard time saying no. The fact is, it’s worked pretty well for me. It’s a rewarded behavior. I did lots of activities in high school, and I didn’t have a difficult time keeping up with my studies then, so I got into a good college. In college, my grades weren’t quite as good, because it was hard, but I made up for that by working on the school paper and freelancing for local newspapers. Once again, I was rewarded: No one in media gives a shit about your college GPA, as long as you can write decently and fast and accurately. I had tons of experience already, so I could jump right in.

Once I got to what had always been my dream job, writing for Entertainment Weekly, I moved up from assistant to correspondent to staff writer to senior writer partly on my talent, but, I believe, to a large extent, on my work ethic. If somebody asked me to do something, I did it. I did everything, for the most part. This looked particularly good at a time when massive layoffs were happening; I had made myself indispensable by saying “yes.”

Now that I’m a freelancer, and my freelance career has gained some momentum, a problem has cropped up: There comes a time when you must say no. At EW, I finessed these moments a little: If what someone was asking me to do truly required warping the space-time continuum, I simply said something along the lines of, “I’d be happy to do that, but here are the other nine things on my plate. Which would you like me to prioritize?” This was a way of making the editor tell me which things to say no to. It worked well for a staff job. It is not possible when you’re a hired gun for many different organizations at once.

I have this problem lately where I keep scheduling things into places on my calendar where, technically, they fit. Someone says, “Can you have this thing to me by Friday?” I look at my calendar, and Friday has enough space on it to get some things done, so I say, “Yes.” Someone else says, “Can you do this thing for me every Wednesday for three months?” I look at those three months and Wednesdays aren’t that overloaded yet, so I say, “Sure.” Eventually, my weeks end up looking like the last few have for me: I run from one location to another, as dictated by my calendar. It says I need to be in Midtown, I show up, I look at the people there, and I think, “Oh, right, you’re the people I interview about X. Here we go.” I run to another location and remember that this is where I teach a class. Then I run home and churn out some copy for a website whose name I’ve written on my calendar on this day. (In fairness, I’m exaggerating slightly. Obviously I prep for my classes and interviews. But this is how I feel: Wait, who are these people, and what did I promise to do for them? Oh, right …)

This particular phase is thankfully winding down as of today. But I know now that I need to be more aware of my actual limits, rather than simply the limits of my Google calendar. It takes a while to build up a freelance business to the point where you have too much to do — and not enough to do is always around the bend, and I need to keep the money rolling in. So if anyone has any suggestions for dealing with freelance work flow, let me know. For now, I’m just trying to stay aware of when my gut is telling me things are getting to be too much — and learning to say “no” when I can.

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