Just two letters. One syllable. It’s easy, isn’t it? Apparently not. And I’ll come clean. I’m not sure I have learnt to say ‘no’. Not with any purity of conviction. Not really.  But getting to ‘no’ is a journey anyway.

It’s hard and it doesn’t feel natural to me. Hell, according to statistics, it doesn’t feel natural to most freelancers, or women or fate.

8 months ago I was one of Doing It For The Kids’ first contributors. In the social media bar that is Instagram, Frankie found me in a dark place and asked me to write about dealing with quiet spots. At the time I felt like I was the only person in the world who would never work again. Obviously this was demonstrably not true — fast forward to August and I was so busy I collapsed.

The doctor said it was bacterial tonsillitis, but I knew what it was really. It was working full-time hours on a day and a half childcare a week. It was running the house, my children, it was not taking care of myself.

The doctor said it was bacterial tonsillitis, but I knew what it was really. It was working full-time hours on a day and a half childcare a week.

Not that I took any notice of this of course. I’m a freelancer and I still had results to deliver and no sick pay or second-in-command to put on the out of office. I still had to pay for childcare — so I needed to earn. Such is the lot of the freelancer.

A week passed, and then another. And then I got a vomiting bug, then a cold, then bronchitis which became chronic, then sinusitis…

I knew that I was working too hard but the residual fear of the freelancer is hard to budge. Too hard to budge until, of course, I couldn’t go on anymore. I had to start declining. But why was it so hard? Yes, there is the freelancer guilt but it’s more than that. Studies show that whilst everyone, to a certain extent, finds it hard to say no it’s women in particular who find it the hardest.

In 2014, Katharine O’Brien, a postdoctoral research associate at the Baylor School of Medicine, and Eden King of George Mason University conducted a series of studies, which concluded that women find it harder than men to decline assignments that aren’t part of their normal jobs. They discovered that it wasn’t a difference in personality but that social norms guided women’s behaviour.

“Women typically are regarded as nurturers and helpers, so saying ‘no’ runs against the grain of what might be expected of them,” O’Brien explained.

Women who turn down requests experienced worse performance evaluations and fewer recommendations for promotions and were considered less likeable when they did not behave communally, O’Brien said. But women who over burden their workload by taking on extra work can be just as bad for performance as saying “no” because it can put an employee’s future success at risk.

I knew that I was working too hard but the residual fear of the freelancer is hard to budge.

So I made a pact with myself that I would be clearer about what time I had available to clients and what times I wouldn’t. When my diary filled up I sent an email alerting my regular clients that I was full until which ever date because I knew if they asked me I wouldn’t be able to say no. It’s an affliction.

Now that it’s more manageable I can’t tell you how light I feel knowing that the workload I have fits in the time I have to do it. More or less. I’m lucky that I don’t need to earn a lot and that whilst I do need to bring in some cash, we can manage on a bit less; but It’s scary. In fact, this whole article feels a bit like tempting fate. Look out for my post about dealing with having no work again… in about 3 months!

So with this in mind, I thought I’d put together a little guide to when it’s good to say NO:

  • The project raises a red flag; maybe it’s the ethics of something that just doesn’t sit right with you. You’re unlikely to do your best work if you don’t believe in the message.
  • If the client wants you to work for free, much less than your normal rate, or the amount of work required would lower your hourly rate. Of course this isn’t hard and fast and, in those scary empty periods of time I had last winter I probably would have taken a project like this — any project! But also, sometimes the prestige can make it worth it, like the models who don’t get paid to appear in Vogue… not that I’m going to be appearing in Vogue anytime, ever.
  • If a client has a reputation for being difficult or overly demanding — self explanatory, this one.
  • When the project is doomed, i.e. you know from the request that the client wants something that just won’t work or has no idea what they want.
  • If a project coincides with a planned holiday — burnout isn’t worth it; I’ve been there, kids.
  • And of course, time. Do you have enough free time (and childcare) to give the project the space it needs? If you don’t, you risk increased stress and more hours of cBeebies than you’d care to admit to. Is it really worth it (I mean sometimes it definitely is, right?).

Photograph by Kelly Pike.

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