Reader question: When should I turn down well-paying work?

photo-265Today’s reader question comes from a woman I’ll call Amy. She works full time (35-40 hours/week) from home as a contractor to major tech companies. She also runs a creative business on the side. She devotes about 5 hours a week to that. She was recently approached about doing a bigger digital creative project that would be something new for her, but fits with the long-term mission of her creative business. Even better: this new digital project would pay the same rate as her biggest day gig client.

So what’s the catch? Well, it’s even more hours, and Amy has young kids. She has only recently scaled the contracting business up to full time, and is still figuring out how to make that more intense schedule work. So her question: should she say yes or no?

This question of when to accept or turn down work is one any free agent type eventually faces. There are obvious reasons to turn something down: the pay is lousy, or it’s decent, but the project in question would make you hate your life. Those aren’t tricky decisions to make.

But what if the pay is good? What if the project sounds intriguing?  

I always struggle with this myself. When you run your own business you eat what you kill. You’re always somewhat worried that the herd of wild game will move on and you’ll be left with nothing to roast on the campfire. When someone is offering you a project that you didn’t have to hunt for, and it looks like a nice fattened beast, it is extraordinarily difficult to remember that, you know, you do have a lot of beasts already stacked up in the cave. And it’s pretty hard to eat all of them.

In Amy’s case, she didn’t need the money. Since she’d recently scaled up the main business, she was already more flush with income than she’d been in the recent past.

So I said her answer should hinge on two questions. The first was how excited she was about the project. When she pictured herself doing it, did she feel happy? Did she think she would learn something new and valuable? Would she find it interesting for its own sake, or would she be constantly trying to minimize time spent on it?

The second question was whether she could get her head around the extra hours. Maybe the answer is no. If the transition to full-time work was already rocky, then she could decide now was not the time. But if the answer to question #1 was that she was really interested, then there might be a way to keep the extra hours in perspective. She could add up a time estimate for the project, figure out how long she was willing to work near peak capacity, and parcel out the hours equally over that number of weeks. If this project would require an extra 8 hours per week, she could perhaps get extra childcare one evening, and ask her husband to cover a weekend shift.

She could also examine the hours she was already devoting to her creative business. Could anything be put on hold for a while?

She could also enlist help. While it’s often hard to capture efficiencies with a temp assistant during a short period of time, she could try this approach. She could spend an hour or two figuring out what she needed to do, and what less-skilled work she could farm out. If the project went smashingly well, and looked like a direction she wanted to take her business, she’d be a step ahead on having a team to tackle it.

All of this would be an experiment, but likely the project would only take a few weeks, so it wouldn’t be an eternal thing. At the end, she could look back at how it had gone. If the experience made her think “never again” then she’d know her work limit. But if it went all right, she’d know that she could take on intriguing extra projects when she wanted to, and possibly view the extra creative work as an option if she ever wanted to scale down the tech work.

If you’re in the free agent camp, how do you evaluate what projects to take on?  Are you willing to scale up your hours at times for something interesting or well-paying?

Photo: Unrelated to this post. My second grader’s teacher baked “Monster muffins” with spinach, and my kid tried them and liked them. So he came home with the recipe and I baked them last night. The green was a bit much for the 5-year-old, but the 3-year-old ate most of one (the chocolate chips on top helped). The 7-year-old ate several. I guess we’ve added a vegetable into the rotation!

9 thoughts on “Reader question: When should I turn down well-paying work?

  1. Such great advice! How often do those of us who feel passionate about our work end up overextending! Almost 60 years old and I’ve never read anything quite so succinct and well said. Thanks.

  2. Your advice is spot on. Would it bring her joy? Does she think she will feel resentful working on this project when compared to all of the other things she could be doing in her life? If the answers are YES and NO, then she could proceed to other considerations.

    May we get the muffin recipe?!

  3. I’ve been struggling with a similar issue, although not in the freelance context. There is a possibly that I may be recommended for a significant promotion in the next few months, and I’m trying to wrap my head around whether I can handle the added responsibilities and hours when I’ve got two little kids (4 & 1) and I’m commuting an hour each way (we moved away from my work because of my husband’s job — it’s not required that we live there but the housing is provided so we will have no mortgage as soon as we sell our house). I’m already working full time, but I’m able to work at home 2 days a week. I wouldn’t be able to do that if promoted. And I’m not willing to rent an apartment and sleep away from my family on a regular basis – I already don’t see them enough. Help!

    1. @Sarah – that is a tough question! Would it change your thought on spending the night occasionally if it meant you could see your kids *more*? Rather than look at each day, you look at the whole 168 hours in a week. I’m not sure how much flexibility your job would have. It won’t let you work from home, but maybe the hours could be semi-flexible? So maybe two days you work really, really late and stay over, and then the other days you go home much earlier. So you miss the evening and bedtime 2x per week, but you’re home 5x (3x during week plus weekends). I don’t know – could be an option. If you’re interested in the job. I think these are separate questions: whether you want the promotion, and what it would take to make it work.

    2. Also, are you sure a promotion would *require* you to stop working from home? If they value you enough to promote you, could you negotiate the working from home to continue and just map out a detailed plan of how you can be reached, etc.? Are there other remote workers at your company, maybe even some who are full-time remote? Maybe talking to them would help?

  4. “And it’s pretty hard to eat all of them.” Thanks for this reminder — I need to tattoo it to the back of my hand! The problem I run into is my extra projects are all short-term, so I can justify almost anything for 2-6 weeks. They’re also intriguing and I always add to my experience — and that’s sometimes enough for me, even if the pay isn’t great … until I’m in the middle of a painfully overbooked period.

    How does one turn down work without jeopardizing future offers from the same potential client? That’s my biggest fear. So far, I’ve been lucky by letting clients know when there are decent blocks of time I’m available or not available (moving, new baby, the sort of thing that can be planned for), but I always worry about it.

    1. @Meghan – if you figure this out, I’d love to know the answer too… I think your approach — giving a specific reason, like you said at the end of your comment, and then also saying when you will be available helps. You don’t say “no” you say “I’d love to work together. I’m taking new projects starting in March!” Or something like that.

      1. Thanks – I’m definitely going to use your response in my approach! I do try to indicate when my calendar will be clear again, but it’s good to have a reminder to do so. I know I don’t always remember.

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