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How to choose projects

Last updated on January 11, 2023

I may not always have time to answer all of the questions after a conference session, but I do make note of them and try to address them later. Today’s topic is a common one: how to choose projects.

This is probably the most important lesson in any freelance or small business scenario. Choose wisely, and you can build a partnership that lasts for years. Choose poorly, and you’ll spend your weeks shouting into the void, desperate for feedback. Or worse — not getting paid.

Important Questions

Who is my primary contact at this organization? Are they respected? Responsive? Do you sense any red flags that would make this a challenging situation? Remember, as I always say in my talks, that “initial consultation” is as much for you to get a feel for them as it is for them to get a sense of your capabilities.

Is the organization stable? As a lifelong fan of Cary Grant movies, I often come back to a quote that stuck with me since childhood: “In confusion, there is profit.” (Operation Petticoat, 1959) Tony Curtis’s character was only half right. Sure, in confusion there can be profit. But sometimes, confusion is just chaos. Know your risk tolerance before proceeding.

Will I learn something new in this project? Look, there are some times where it’s great to just set the autopilot and choose projects that you can do in your sleep. But this isn’t sustainable. My brain — and probably yours, too — needs challenges. I recommend stretching the limits of your knowledge whenever possible.

Am I solving a problem in this project? Let’s face it: there’s a real satisfaction that comes from problem-solving. If I’m not solving problems, I’m more likely to feel stagnant. Find projects that stimulate and inspire.

What are my working hours? I post my office hours in my proposals. Anything outside those hours — nights, weekends, early mornings — is above and beyond my standard scope of work, and priced accordingly. This minimizes the expectation that I should be at someone’s beck and call 24/7. I only choose projects where clients understand and respect this.

What does my gut say? Before I prepare any proposal, I take a moment, reflect on our initial consultation, and listen to my gut. It rarely steers me wrong.

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