"How are you?"
"Well, busy is good!"
I've had this conversation countless times. For a long time, "Busy" was my standard answer for small-talky we-should-get-together chitchat. It was a shorthand way of saying, "I'm successful and in demand, how about you?" Except I could never really get as far as agreeing with the "Busy is good" conclusion. I always rather resented my busyness, because I wasn't really that successful or in demand. I was busy with work that kept me from the fun projects I'd rather be doing.
And then two years ago, in a rare moment when I was both busy and being paid well for it, I realised I'd been too busy to work on any of my fun ideas for five years. One reason for that was fear-induced procrastination — a topic for another post — but I'd also never allowed myself the choice to work on the fun stuff because I kept choosing to be busy with the wrong stuff instead. And although my busy schedule was proving lucrative at the time, I had a sneaking suspicion even those profitable projects were the wrong stuff, because I just wasn't enjoying them.
That's when I decided to rethink my criteria for accepting work. I'd never taken it much further than, 'Do I have the skills? Do I have the time? Does it pay?', and it was time to get fussy.
Selfish for my own good
The problem with my default approach to assessing an opportunity was it weighed too heavily in the prospective client's favour, at my expense. I needed to be more selfish in my decisions, for my own good, and ultimately, my clients'. If I kept taking on work that was ill-suited to my skills or priorities, it would only result in mediocre work for the client and frustration for me.
So my new criteria focus on my needs, and I recommend them as a starting point when you think about what your criteria should be: a project must contribute to your bank account, your portfolio and your happiness. If it offers gains in at least two of these areas, it might be worth doing; if not, you're better off turning it down.
Your bank account
This is the most obvious criterion, and the easiest to understand. If you're not being paid for your work, it's not sustainable. And yet, many of us need to be reminded of this more than we'd admit. Whether it's because you feel awkward talking about money, or you're so eager to please that you throw in one freebie too many, it's far too easy to underprice yourself. It might seem innocuous, but it's a dangerous habit. When you're working late nights and weekends to meet deadlines and keep clients happy, if that extra mile is not worth the effort, you'll quickly resent it. Of course money won't make you happy, but if you can pay your bills it's easier to focus on the things that will.
So you have two clients throwing money at you and begging for you to take on their project first. Which one do you choose? It's worth thinking about what else you'll get out of the job. Will you be free to craft an award-winning masterpiece or just rolling out material to comply with a dreary CI? Does it give you a chance to try a new style or add to your skill set or will you complete the job on autopilot? In short, will you be more marketable when you're done with this job? If you ignore this question, you run the risk of looking back on years of hard work with little to show for it other than a healthy bank statement and, if you're lucky, good memories. Sadly, neither of these will help you win new work and move up a level to fulfil more ambitious professional goals.
That said, be wary of the exposure fallacy. Unless you're working on a cutting edge campaign for the Nikes and Coca-Colas of the world, high profile work rarely translates directly into real career progress. Consider the exposure, but don't let it weigh too heavily in your decision. And if it's the client that brings it up in negotiations, ignore it altogether: it's almost certainly worthless.
No job is smiles and good vibes all day, every day. There will inevitably be days of dreariness and doing things you don't want to, no matter how much you love what you do. But how much of that can you tolerate? Where's your pain threshold for spending days, months, years of your waking life on unpleasant, meaningless or unfulfilling work?
I'm okay until the moment I realise I'm not enjoying something, and the simple mental effort to 'just get through this' becomes a nearly impossible demand to meet. It's a weakness, but I'm learning to reduce its influence by considering its potential influence on a project: the more likely I am to wake up realising I hate the client, or the project, or my role in it, the less likely I should accept the project. And the more excited I am about the project, the easier it will be to brush off the occasional bad day and stay motivated.
Sizing it up
When an opportunity comes up, or you have an idea for a self-initiated project, anything that makes a demand on your time and attention, examine it through the lenses of your bank account, your portfolio and your happiness. At different times each of these may be more important than the others, but together they'll give you a good all-round assessment of what's in it for you.
If it meets your requirements in all three areas, consider yourself lucky: you have a dream project on your hands. Don't let it get away. Two out of three is a good indication you won't regret saying 'yes'. One out of three means you probably will; rather move on and keep yourself available for the next good opportunity.
In the two years since I adopted this approach, I've benefited from it in two ways. The first was immediate — it helped me evaluate opportunities much more critically than I used to, filtering out the low-value jobs and leaving room in my schedule for the good ones. At the same time, but more gradually, by focusing my attention and efforts on income, career and satisfaction, I've seen advances in each one: I'm happier, better qualified and more financially secure than I was two years ago.
I still tell people I'm busy these days. But it's a more balanced busy, with greater purpose, one I don't resent any more, because I'm choosing the right stuff to be busy with. And when I'm not so busy I'm comfortable with it. I know I've earned that space to recharge, appreciate the downtime and spend it with my family, or use it to pursue one of those elusive fun projects, knowing my finances, career and job satisfaction have been given the attention they deserve.