5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Accepting New Work

This past Saturday was miserable, for two reasons.

Reason #1: A doctor prescribed me medication that did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. If you’ve ever taken medication that gives you more symptoms than it cures, you know what I’m talking about—one little pill can easily ruin your day.

Reason #2:
While I was sitting on the couch, feeling like a mixture between a compost heap and a Halloween ghoul, the second part of the misery kicked in. Someone I value very much as a mentor and colleague called me. She sounded unhappy, to say the least. After a few minutes, I learned why.

The Story

A couple of months ago, she had referred one of her best clients to me for some consulting. We agreed that I would consult, while my referrer would do any writing the client needed.

After I did the consulting, the client offered me a short writing job. Not thinking back to my initial agreement with my referrer (…not thinking much at all, in retrospect), I accepted. I wrote the piece.

The client was happy. She told my referrer as much. That’s like having your best client gleefully relate to you how someone you trusted stole your work. No wonder she was angry at me.

Wow. Am I that naïve?

For my part, I couldn’t believe I had overlooked our agreement. It seems impossible to me—I value my relationship with the person who referred me greatly. In fact, I had done the consulting as a favor to my referrer, not because I like doing that particular kind of consulting.

How had I been inconsiderate enough to accept the extra work, thus sabotaging my valued relationship with my referrer and her client? How had I completely forgotten about our initial agreement when accepting the client’s work?

If the economic crisis showed me one thing, it’s that mind-boggling naivete is possible, even when you’re an expert in your field. So I compared myself to Alan Greenspan, felt better, and looked into my methodology to see where I’d gone wrong.

The Problem

I realized that when I accept new jobs, I don’t ask one crucial question: Who am I building a relationship with? I generally accept work based on two narrow criteria: Money and time. When I do that, I don’t consider the impact of my decision on my relationships.

I just learned the hard way that not ranking relationships with money and time can devastate all three. So I created this list of questions to ask before accepting a new job. I am taping this list above my desk, and highlighting #4:

1) Can I handle it?

This is the first question I ask myself when someone presents me with an assignment. I read somewhere that it’s better to do an excellent job on a short project than burn yourself out on a longer project with mediocre results. This is an adage I adhere to.

I love a good challenge, so it’s sometimes hard to say no. But I have learned to choose projects that are within or just beyond my skill level, so that I grow sustainably rather than get frustrated and overworked on something that either doesn’t interest me at all or is so far outside my scope of knowledge that I burn myself out catching up on the topic itself.

2) Do I have time for it?

In my field, work tends to either appear in droves, or disappear entirely. This “feast or famine” setup sometimes leads me to take on more work than I have time to handle. I’m committed to doing a good job on everything I turn in. When I have too much to do, I sacrifice sleep and free time. I get tired and frustrated, a state which comes across both in my work and to my clients. Everybody loses when I take on too much—even if the money looks good.

3) Does it pay well?

This question could also be stated as: Is it worth my time? This question is tricky. Some clients don’t want to pay a lot, but could be excellent contacts in the future. Others pay well for work that isn’t particularly interesting.

Answering this question requires having a sense of overall goals. For example, if my goal is to make $60,000 this year after taxes, I’m likely to prioritize pay, not excitement. If my goal is to establish myself in a certain field, I might prioritize projects and contacts over pay.

4) Who am I building a relationship with?

This is the crucial question I didn’t ask myself when I took on the copy job I mentioned in the introduction. When the client offered the job, I asked myself questions #1, 2, and 3—and utterly overlooked the fact that I primarily valued my relationship with my referrer, and was far more interested in building it than forming a relationship with the client, whose work is rather tangential to my field.

When I overlooked this question, I ended up sabotaging both relationships. This question will definitely be on my list from now on.

5) Do I want to work with this person/organization?

This question is also crucial. It doesn’t relate directly to income or time commitment, but has a strong influence on both topics. If you take on a job you love for a client you don’t trust, is the experience worth it? Does getting paid feel good?

Similarly, if you take on a job that doesn’t interest you much for a client you adore, is that experience worth it? I have learned—especially after my recent incident—that I value building relationships over content of the work.

I have had fascinating jobs in the past, but when I didn’t like the clients, the work didn’t feel as fulfilling or useful. And when I did seemingly random work for good clients, I ended up learning a lot, and even expanding my areas of expertise as a result.


I hope these tips help you choose your jobs wisely, and with consideration. And always remember the person who referred you!

  • Ouch. You’re very brave to write about this in this forum. Congratulations on your mistake – you’ll never do it again! I’ll remember this in the future. Thanks for sharing.

  • Drea,

    Sorry to hear that you had a bad week, however you did what any successful person does: You took the bad and made something good out of it. The reason why people fail is that they repeat the same mistakes over again, not learning from from them initially. So when you’re feeling down, it’s good to focus on the reason for this, and if possible, adjust your actions accordingly so that you won’t be in that same situation again! Great post and useful ideas. Keep it up!

  • Drea, I’m a late-comer to your blog so only now finding this post. Love the transparency of your learning curve. Darn those things . . . I always like learning curves better when they are someone else’s. Unfortunately, I have my own to deal with. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be happy to re-direct colleagues to this post in particular!