In the many years now (going on 9?!) since I’ve been running my own business and managing my own projects, I’ve sure taken on some doozies: projects that I had bad gut feelings about, work that definitely didn’t align with my design style, and work where I simply served as the user of tools for the client.

Should I take on this project?

Over time though, I’ve gotten a lot better at sniffing out opportunities that just aren’t going to work for me. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.

#1 Know what your gut is trying to tell you

I’ve done enough work and met with enough clients now that I know when you get a bad feeling about a project or arrangement, you should always trust it. Will you be wrong sometimes? Of course. But I think it’s worth avoiding a potential disastrous relationship or project from hell. If you get a bad vibe (or just think your personalities/styles will clash), politely decline their project and refer them to some helpful resources.

#2 Know your workload

I used to be the queen of taking on every last project—regardless of what my current workload looked like. Rather than telling potential clients I was booked until a certain point in the future, I’d just saddle up, take on the additional work, and tell the client I could start right away. Big. Mistake. Learn to schedule in projects (even just a month or two into the future), and you’ll save your sanity and reputation in the process. You can always bump a project up if you find your schedule opens up, but it’s much harder to push something back after you’ve already promised you’d hit a deadline.

#3 Know what you hate

I used to take on ANYTHING that came my way. For instance, I’m really not a fan of creating huge print catalogs, yet when I first started out, I took on an enormous jewelry catalog design and was paid way under what I’d normally charge just to fit my client’s budget. Yikes. Some things that come your way are not going to be your cup of tea, and, if you’re anything like me, when you take those things on you almost immediately regret it, sometimes resent the client, and then drag your feet on the project because even straightening up your accounting is more exciting than the work. Know what you hate, be okay with it, and then start turning that stuff away (or even better, hire someone to help you with those things!). You’re leaving yourself open to finding a project that fits in with your interests and skills.

#4 Know what you’re worth

I’m going to admit something that you’re probably not supposed to admit: when I first started out, I used to 100% base my rates on my prospective client’s budgets. You only have $500 to spend? Sure, I’ll make you a website for that! This wasn’t fair to my higher paying clients, and absolutely not fair to myself. Set your rates and stick to them—100% of the time. Also consider working in several levels of your primary service offering at different price points. I’ve done this successfully with my website projects: if a client doesn’t have the budget for a full-fledged website design project, I can offer them a more simplistic template website—with lots of love and customization baked in—but at a much lower entry price point. It’s a win-win.

#5 Know how to bounce back

I think we’ve all probably had sucky projects that totally went off the rails. Maybe you didn’t see eye to eye with your client, maybe your client didn’t totally get your work style, or maybe you just dropped the ball at some point in the project and ended up disappointing your client (I’ve had all three happen). It’s really tough to come out of a situation like that with just as much confidence as you went into it with, but there’s something to be said of walking out with your head held high. As long as you learned from what went wrong—and I mean truly learned something, not just passively acknowledged that it was a bad project—you can move forward and bounce back, totally prepared to take on your next, similar project. Don’t shame yourself or think you’re a failure: there will always be more work and new opportunities you can totally rock.

What about you? Any tips for taking on new projects? Any disaster stories to share? Leave a comment below and let’s commiserate together 🙂