People assume that the hardest thing about being a freelancer is time management. “Oh, I could never do what you do,” they say. “I’d be so tempted to go shopping or watch Oprah.” Trust me, just because you feel like doing that on your day off does not mean that this pattern of behavior holds any interest after three or four days. It becomes extremely boring. Before you know it, you find yourself glancing at the clock and wondering how it’s possible that it’s already 4:30 PM and where all of the hours have gone. It always seems like there’s no time.

And then I realized my problem. It’s not that I have no time, it’s that I struggle to say “no” to clients, especially my good clients. This weird inability to use my own personal n-word often leaves me working long hours juggling multiple major deadlines and swearing that next time I will follow Nancy Reagan’s lead and just say no. The work always gets done, and always to the client’s satisfaction, but at what personal cost?

This has prompted me to implement detailed project forecasting that lays out how many working hours exist per week, how many hours I have committed to specific projects, and how many hours need to be applied to administrative tasks like marketing, contract negotiations and bookkeeping. That leaves me with a concrete number of hours with which to tackle additional projects. Any projects that go above and beyond those available hours now fall into the category of “no” time.

I have made a pledge to myself that I will balance time, sanity and client needs in a way that makes everyone happy. I will learn to say “no”. There’s nothing wrong with “no”. And there’s especially nothing wrong with telling a client with a last-minute request, “I can’t drop everything to help you on short notice. But if you can be flexible with your deadline, I can give you two hours this Friday and 10 hours next week.” Of course, it all sounds good in theory, but it’s still hard to do.

Today had a breakthrough. I spent some time talking to someone who had been on the receiving end of my inaugural “no” campaign when I made the decision to pass on a lucrative project that was entirely too large to balance with my existing client workload. She told me that she really respected the fact that I told her that I couldn’t take on her project, because that made her even more certain that I was committed to providing a quality product. She said that she admired my conscientiousness and rather than turning her off, she’s actually more interested in working with me than ever before.

I have to admit that her perspective helped me to breathe a sigh of relief. I’m hoping that it makes it a little easier to say “no” again the next time the situation arises.

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