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Dealing With Overwhelm: Learning to Say No

Whether you’re a full-time freelancer or still juggling a day job, one thing’s for sure….you will burn out from time to time.

It’s inevitable.

There is so much to do and not enough time.

We are responsible for our income and growth. Want to make more? Put in more work. Want to grow faster? Take on more clients or create new offerings.

For me, the fact that the possibilities for growth are endless, is exactly why I love working for myself so much.

How much I make and how fast I reach more goals is 100% up to me.

On the flipside however, is the fact that it can be hard to stop (or slow down).

And eventually, the long hours, new clients, new projects, and general workaholism can’t sustain itself.

Although I have many tips on preventing overwhelm in the first place (another post for another day), when it happens, there is really only one solution.

Learn to say no.

If you’re anything like me, saying no is difficult. You feel like no means you’re letting people down.

Letting yourself down.

But we can’t do it all, all the time.


Here are some things you need to learn to say no to, if you’re reaching the brink of burn-out.

Say No To Extra Projects

Ideas ideas ideas. They come often and are so tempting. A new service, a course, an ebook. There is so much more you could do than what you are doing right now.

You may be thinking:

  • If I don’t do it now, someone else will.
  • It will help me reach a new audience.
  • It will increase my “expert” status.
  • So and so will hate me if I don’t say yes.

You can’t put your best stuff out there when you have too much on your plate. Say no now, so you can give it your all later.

Say No To Clients

There will always be more clients. Say it out loud. Seriously. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. So repeat after me: There. Will. Always. Be. More. Clients.

If you are reaching burn-out you have to say no to clients. Especially clients you know in your gut aren’t good for you.

There will always be more clients. (Tweet that!)

Say No To Perfectionism

Stop tweaking your website.

Stop spending hours and hours on blog posts because they don’t feel just right.

Stop agonizing over what to say in your newsletter or when to send it.

Stop trying to learn everything about a certain topic before executing it.

Just do it.

Put your stuff out there and learn and tweak as you go.

I’d love to hear from you

What do you need to say no to right now? How do you deal with overwhelm?


Leah Kalamakis Leah Kalamakis is the founder of The Freelance To Freedom Project and a web designer/developer for brilliant entrepreneurs. When she’s not hanging out in the FTF Community, you can find her people watching on the streets of NYC. Come say hi on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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{ 31 comments… add one }
  • You’re a mind-reader this week Leah. I’ve been feeling exhausted since I closed the doors from my last launch about 2 weeks ago. I’ve been questioning “what is wrong with me”? And it hit me, “DUH”, I’m tired, I’ve worked soooo hard this past 12 months (creating, launching, obtaining, etc, etc, etc). It’s time to take a break from creation until true inspirations strikes again (because right now “doing more” feels like more of an obligation, which isn’t ideal).

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Exactly. I think launching is a lot more draining that we realize. At least that’s what feels like has happened to me. Glad you can recognize that and take it a little slower so you are ready with fire for the next big thing for you.

  • Leah, you read my mind this week! Thank you for this article. Just last week, I was unbelievably overwhelmed, juggling around five or six client projects along with school and building my business. I fell into a depression because I felt like there was no escape. Now I know that I need to start giving myself breaks and manage “busy periods” better by having a game plan in place.

  • I couldn’t agree more. This is something I am also dealing with. Although, we all know we need to be very selective on what or who we take on – we still say yes out of fear or guilt. After reading this I see how that is just foolish.

    We are running a business and if an idea or client doesn’t necessarily fit then we have to “put our big girl pants on” and simple make an executive decision.

    Asking ourselves, is this the right fit?

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      YES! Because it’s not all the right fit. I have this feeling a lot with being asked to do interviews or guest posts or that kinda of thing. I’m always thinking I have to say yes to it all. And although I would like to, I have to learn to focus on the most important stuff at any given moment. Thanks for sharing!

  • Amen, sister! You KNOW I’m all about working on my “no-saying” abilities/skills (as seen in my recent blog post – I’m still working on it…and working on not worrying about all the what-ifs…b/c I’m repeating after you: There. Will. Always. Be. More. Clients. 🙂 Thank you for this GREAT post!

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      ohh, great post! I hadn’t seen it, but so glad to hear you’re workin’ your no muscles and baby steps are oh so important!

  • You’re right on Leah, and yes a bit psychic. I started freelancing full-time a couple months ago, but 2 weeks ago I got an onslaught of epiphanies and had to execute them all! I realized my target market, revamped my portfolio ( yes an ongoing process, trying to get a handle on this!), learning to write effective blog posts, and oh yeah! I make websites and need to work on projects!

    I did experience overwhelm and “brain fry” as I call it. There is also an element of “I should do it now while I’m fired up and can deliver” because I may not be in the same mindset later. Have you experienced this? I keep telling myself it’s just for now while I get set up and established, then I can concentrate on client work. But maybe it’s ongoing?

    Thank you for the post. A welcome reminder to slow down and remember why we are doing this in the first place 🙂

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Oh yes, the familiar brain fry! I do think it’s an important balance to find, and yes, sometimes you do need to fight through moments because you’re more likely to put stuff out there when you have that motivation. But I think you need to start saying no when that motivation is no longer there for any one particular thing because there is too much going on in too many places. It’s a constant struggle and I don’t think it goes away 🙂 Just need to learn how to recognize and deal with it.

  • This is a great post Leah! I’m only a few months in to my journey and the momentum is really just starting to pick up, but I’ve worked every single day (literally) for the past month and a half. I know that when you first start this is normal, but I’m realizing I need to take some time and do something for myself that isn’t chores or errands (currently one of the only things I feel justified taking time away from work to do). So tonight, I’m going to a 3 hour course on learning how to weave on a lap loom. Something I’ve been wanting to learn for a long time. And this weekend, I’m taking at least one day off to sew myself some new clothes (or at least half a day) because it’s HOT here and I have nothing to wear. I just got an email this morning from 99U that had an article on avoiding burnout as well, and they talk about “Satisficing”—getting things done to a certain degree of greatness and going and doing something else, instead of slaving away all night making it perfect. So many signs telling me I need to take some time away from working I think…

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Oh I feel ya! It’s been a year since I left my day job and I can probably count on one hand the amount of true full days I’ve taken off. It’s hard in the beginning, but I think it’ll always be a challenge to deal with as an entrepreneur. So glad to hear you’ve scheduled some fun stuff! Gonna go check out that 99U article, thanks!

  • Meg

    This is such a good reminder … thank you!!

    It comes hot on the heels of me reading ‘The Big Leap” – I am practising my enlightened NO’s to all kinds of things – especially clients that aren’t quite the right fit … and perfection (with all its attendant paralysis and overwhelm).

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Oh yes, that book is amazing. Speaking of which, I’m due for another read-through for sure. Good job with your active practicing!

  • Thanks for this interesting post. Overwhelming is something inevitable that I experience from time to time. Most of the time it happens when I’m falling out of my routine, for example, when I learn something new on the Internet that I’d like to give a try. Things like how to better market yourself on social media, etc. Or another example you mentioned, getting overwhelmed with more clients I can handle.

    As for the first one, timeboxing seems to be working best for me: I promise myself not to spend more than 0.5-1 hour/week on it (I use pomodoro technique).

    Having more clients you can handle? Well, that’s a good problem to have!

    I’m still experimenting with this idea, but what I do is to build a buffer time in my quotes. For example I quote a project for 2 weeks even though I can get it done in just 1 week.

    If there are no new projects, I finish in 1 week, the client is impressed and I can take on something else. If a new project comes in, I split my time between both and still deliver the first project on time.

    Another thing I noticed lately, is that when there are more projects than I can handle, I feel less stress raising my rates. 🙂

    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      What a great tip about the buffer time! I think that’s definitely key to taking off some of the pressure. I need to try some time-boxing out for sure, thanks for that rec!

    • I’m like you David with setting buffer time though I always end up using it. It’s almost like the more time I give myself the longer a job takes! It’s not usually from my end though as I have seem to have a habit of expanding my client’s horizons to the point that they want to add x, y and z and are willing to pay for it to a job I’m doing for them which makes scheduling and booking jobs a nightmare! I still haven’t figured out the best way to handle it. At this point the best I have managed is to give clients estimated start and completion dates so I’m not locked into anything. Most are pretty understanding with that so that’s great!

  • Great Article Leah! I am on the verge of burn-out and I really needed to hear this today. It IS ok to say no. (I just need to keep repeating it over and over). 😉

  • Might need to tattoo the client one…
    Thanks for all the wisdom, Leah, you might have been an owl in another life.

  • Great advice to consider as I’m just starting out. I know the burn-out will come; I just have to learn how to handle it. Thanks!

  • Wowza, congrats! Time really flies. I still remember first finding your blog thru twitter.

    I’m still terrible at saying no, but I’m getting better scheduling and managing projects (thanks to SL&I!)

  • So needed this permission to say no right now. I’ve found I can only do about 2-3 things in my life REALLY WELL at one time (and that includes personal things like being a wife/friend/daughter plus business owner and holder of side part time jobs) and when I add that fourth item overwelhm hits hard. Every time. However, at 2-3 things I feel like I should be doing more (that I’m not stressed enough I guess, ha!) and always try to add that one thing too many. Trying to be better, but I’m sure glad I’m not alone in this. 🙂

  • Great post, especially for new entrepreneurs to remember! Always a struggle with this – but there are times to say no and say yes. I have to remind myself to take baby steps. Remembering to focus on my purpose, goals and what’s most important. Thanks for reminder and helping us all know we’re not alone! 🙂

  • Meegan

    Hi Leah – Your article couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you.

    B-School was terrific but made me realize that I want to target a whole new market in a new way. And I have a lot of work ahead – learning & doing. Great work more intune with me but, nonetheless, more ‘to dos’ to add to my already jam-packed schedule.

    Recently I’ve been in ‘learning overwhelm’ too. Too many things trying to absorb at once! This experience has taught me my limits and to add ‘brain breaks’ into my daily/weekly schedule.

    As for saying ‘no’ I actually parted with a client before B-School which was so hard to do but it had to happen. Saying ‘no’ and standing firm with my business ethics was one of the most empowering moves and I highly recommend it! As a result more clients inline with me have come my way. 🙂 Saying ‘no’ is definitely a muscle worthy of flexing!

  • Yes, yes, yes! The best lesson I have learnt in the past couple of weeks is that there are no prizes for making it harder than it needs to be! I mean I ‘knew it’ but I’ve only just GOT it. We make things so much harder on ourselves through fear and guilt. Here’s to saying no!

  • Great post Leah! I’ve always had a problem saying no but I’m getting better. In the past I haven’t been able to say no for fear of losing business and the “what if’s” but when you realise that you won’t be able to help anyone if you don’t look after yourself and your business (i.e. no lapsing standards) it becomes much easier to say no.

  • Great timing of this post. I seem to be saying ‘No’ to a lot lately and have started wondering if I was doing the right thing. This was a great reminder that yep, it’s okay to say No sometimes!

  • Right now I’m dealing with a little bit of ‘if-I-don’t-do-it-someone-else-will’ – But I can easily say no to myself at this point because I don’t want to let my down my clients by splitting my time on too many tasks.

  • I have been on the other end of the stick … having people say no to me. This week, people started saying yes! So I don’t feel like I can say no because I’m just starting out and need to get some momentum going. I will keep this in mind for when I’m a superstar like you!

  • Jan

    Hit the nail on the head with this Leah! I’ve been struggling for weeks. I just want to go into hibernation for a month, at a time when my business partner and I are building a course and getting lots of setbacks due to our health, toddler is teething and has been sleeping badly, toddler is constantly demanding my time, and I’m trying to squeeze in enough time for my husband as well. It’s all too much. I wish I wasn’t committed to the course I’m doing with my biz partner, because I just don’t have the energy to stay up late at night to work on it in the few hours of quiet that I get during the day. Then of course there is my solo biz that I am putting together when I find some spare time and I am passionate about.


    • Leah Kalamakis Leah

      Ah sorry to hear you’ve hit some overwhelm Jan! Just gotta cut back where you can now and go easy on yourself. Sounds like once you finish the course things will calm down, and you might just realize it was totally worth it 🙂

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