Knowing When to Say No to a Freelance Project

5 min. read
August 4, 2023

During a recent Ask Me Anything session for the Advantages beta, a freelancer told me she was still quite reactive, not strategic, when opportunities come up. She asked me if I had any advice on how to evaluate projects and opportunities and subject them to a bit more scrutiny before saying yes to them.

My Opportunity Bouncer is a good place for her to start, and you too if you find yourself in the same boat.

I’ll explain where this tool came from and how it works.

For years my scarcity mindset caused me to say yes to just about everything: “Warm body, ready cash, doesn’t seem like a total psychopath? Sign me up!”

Various frustrations down the road proved that yes as the default response wasn’t serving me. One hotshot real estate developer was clearly on drugs during the get-to-know-you call, where I said maybe fifty words. Jordan, the founder of the agency who brought me into the project, told me that the developer couldn’t recall my name immediately after the call when Jordan asked him if he’d approve the extra budget for copywriting: “Austin, who’s that?”

Granted, drug-induced memory problems are an outlier, but looking back, I can see common threads in projects that didn’t turn out well. It wasn’t until I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown that I thought more deeply about the criteria I should be using to evaluate new opportunities. In the book, McKeown talks about minimum criteria and maximum criteria:

  • 3 minimum criteria are what must be true about an opportunity for you to even consider it. For example, “The client must have at least $1,000 to spend with me, or the project is an automatic no.”
  • If the opportunity satisfies all 3 minimum criteria, then it’s a “maybe.” It must also meet two out of three of your maximum criteria to become a “yes.”

McKeown’s concept of minimum and maximum criteria made a lot of sense to me, so I came up with an “opportunity bouncer” for both Balernum (my freelance consulting work) and Freelance Cake (my mentoring and training work).

Here are my minimum criteria for consulting projects:

  • At this point in my career, I'm not interested in a project unless I can make a 20-40% profit margin on top of my target Effective Hourly Rate (aka, my Dream Rate). Of course, when you’re selling your own skills and aptitudes as a creative project, there’s really no such thing as a profit margin, but you get what I’m saying. Every budget needs to be high enough that I see potential for a surplus of cash left over after I pay my EHR.
  • I also want a seat at the strategy table. I’m simply not interested in projects that involve someone giving me a plan and saying, in effect, “Here's what we're going to do. You don't really have a say in it. We just need you to implement it.” I've been in too many situations where I've been asked to implement a plan that ignored or contradicted my own experience and expertise. I will not sign up for that kind of misadventure anymore. If a client is hiring me, they have to be open to my perspective and open to changing the strategy and plan.
  • I'm also done trying to collaborate with clients I don’t admire as people. I want to work with people I like. No more persuading myself that someone I found obnoxious in the discovery phase will magically become someone I enjoy once they start paying me! Nothing adds to the solopreneur sads like spending most of your waking hours with people who grate on your nerves.

Here are my maximum criteria:

  • I want to get paid to further develop my capabilities or process. Projects that force me to stretch and become a more accomplished and effective consultant appeal to me.
  • Next, the client must have a clear and reasonable time frame, expectations, and deliverables. Clarity around those facets of the engagement comes during discovery. I'm not looking for extra stress as a result of poor planning, office politics, or broken process on their part.
  • The final thing I consider is, “Would I be proud to add this to my portfolio?” It’s okay to take on the occasional “payroll” project. If I can do a decent job and I want the cash, sure, why not? However, most of my projects I accept should be ones that truly move my career forward.

If a project meets all 3 minimum criteria and at least 2 of my maximum criteria, then I will consider it.

This opportunity-bouncer, or decision-making rubric, has been a game changer. It enables me to make more dispassionate decisions. It helps me remain clear-eyed and objective and not let a persuasive prospect corner me into accepting a project that’s a bad fit for me.

We’re all emotional at times, and the goal isn’t to suppress what you feel but to create the right tools and scaffolding for making sound, strategic decisions no matter how you feel.

Here’s the Opportunity Bouncer itself, which I carry around in my planner:

Notice that my two sets of criteria for Freelance Cake opportunities are totally different than the ones for consulting engagements.

Freelance Cake is a different type of company (media and education) with a different business model (digital downloads, courses, and coaching).

What makes an opportunity good can change based on those factors, as well as your goals, schedule, lifestyle, health, bandwidth, or your business’s maturity or stage in its lifecycle.

If you don’t already have an Opportunity Bouncer for your freelance business, I encourage you to spend 10 minutes tomorrow morning writing down ideas for your minimum and maximum criteria.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info

Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (, a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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