How to Decide Whether to Take on a New Project or Not

You are in charge of your art career.

This means you are the person who decides what to do immediately and what can wait for tomorrow, next week, or next month.

This sounded ideal until you realized how hard it is to prioritize your life and business by yourself.

You might have been accustomed to a boss telling you where to focus your energy. No more.

Entrepreneurship issued a wake-up call. You want freedom? Here it is! Go decide for yourself.

Painting of a yellow rose by Laureen Marchand
©Laureen Marchand, Curtsey. Oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches. Used with permission.

If you’re actively looking for opportunities, as you should be, there will be a time when you have more opportunities than you realistically have the bandwidth for. You’ll be hit with new invitations and requests from all corners.

But it’s unrealistic to involve yourself in every opportunity that comes your way.

Intellectually, you understand this. Emotionally, you want to believe you are somehow superhuman.

The projects might be exhibitions, commissions, licensing deals, wholesale contracts, teaching possibilities, separate jobs, or something else. They’re all projects that beg for your time, and they sound so exciting!

Your resolve is being tested by a voice that some people call a gremlin or troll. I call it The Tester.

How serious is she about this other project—really?
How good is he at knowing what he wants and needs?

All good entrepreneurs struggle with decisions in moments like these, especially if there is the potential for a big pay off at the end.

This is when you must ask yourself hard questions to help you answer the biggest question of all:
 Should I take on this project?

Below are some of the questions I ask my clients, which you might adapt for your own process of deciding whether or not to take on something new.

Does It Feel Right?

Painting by Jill Soukup
©Jill Soukup, Scanning the Herd. Oil, 7 x 5 inches. Used with permission.

Most of us rely on intuition before signing on to something big, so this is a natural place to begin.

When I consider taking on this project, how does it feel? If you’re not enthusiastic about it, there is little need to go further.

Will I enjoy the process? You don’t really know what will happen, but there are clues. For example, if your tummy turns at the thought of painting another pet portrait, for Pete’s sake, don’t accept that commission.

While your gut may not get the ultimate say-so, it shouldn’t be ignored.

Is This Aligned With My Goals?

Consider whether or not this project supports the goals and vision you have for your art career.

Will this get me closer to my goal?
Will it completely sideline me?
What other projects might it jeopardize?

Will it move me into a new, equally or more positive area? Sometimes it is wise to change course when opportunity knocks. That’s how Art Biz Success came about. If I had stubbornly pursued the path I started, I would never have discovered such rewarding work with artists like you.

How Challenging Is the Project?

It’s deeply satisfying for artists and entrepreneurs to challenge themselves to learn a new technique, technology, or medium. If you’re bored or stuck, the siren call of a challenge might be a temptation too great to overlook.

Will this project force me to learn something new that I could incorporate into my work in the future?

Will I be taken away from my best work in order to learn something that I may never use again? The learning curve will add extra time to your already-full schedule.

Do I Want to Work with These People?

The people involved in a project can make it all worthwhile, or they could make it a nightmare.

Painting by Lynn Lobo
©Lynn Lobo, Shrine 4 – A Time to Shed. Oil on Belgian linen, 30 x 40 centimeters. Used with permission.

Do I like the people I’d be working with?
Are they responsive to my questions and generous with their guidance?

Are there people involved with the project that I could learn from or benefit from knowing? It doesn’t hurt to take on a project just to rub elbows with someone you’ve always admired or who could help your career.

How Much Time Will It Take?

Time is the great mystery, which is why you must always err on the side of overestimating your time. Some experts suggest estimating your time and then doubling it for a more realistic view.

If all goes as planned, how much time will it take?
 No, really. Be realistic, Self.
What are some of the unknowns that could take more time?
Do I want to give that amount of time to this project?

What Is the Potential for Profit?

If you need to earn a living, you can’t forget the money part of the equation.

What’s the profit potential? Yep, get out your pen and paper and start figuring out income, expenses, and the bottom line.

In a best-case scenario, how much money would I make?

Worst case, how much would I make (or lose)? Is it worth it? It might be worth it to make less if it leads to future opportunities that have bigger payoffs.

What Opportunities Could It Lead To?

A project is rarely fulfilling if the only reward is monetary. We’re likely to be even more thrilled with the results when it benefits our future.

What kind of recognition would I receive?
What’s the potential for media coverage?

What opportunities might come my way as a result of being involved with this project? This is the most critical question because a chance at future growth is the reason most of us take on more than we can handle.

Painting by Daniel Ambrose
©Daniel Ambrose, Evening Magic. Egg tempera on panel, 7 x 9 inches. Used with permission.

If you can find good reason to start a project when you don’t really have time for it, you probably need to look at everything else you have going on and adjust your priorities. You're going to need the energy.

Your Turn

How do you make tough decisions like whether or not to involve yourself in a new project?
Have you ever taken on a project that you regretted? If so, were there any warning signs you should have seen?

This post was first published on March 10, 2016. It has been updated with original comments intact.

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61 thoughts on “How to Decide Whether to Take on a New Project or Not”

  1. This is a great list, Alyson. I can relate to all of your criteria and am glad you put them together as a list! I have an exhibition coming up and was just going over the goals I have for myself. It is in an alternative space and work isn’t likely to sell, but I’m using the opportunity to launch a new project and produce an exhibition catalog, both of which I can announce/market to my on-line followers.

  2. Thank you Alyson for these questions. After reading it through, I was able to pull away from one project and focus on one that is more rewarding and profitable long-term. Time is so precious.

  3. Another artist friend and I were discussing this just last week! I will definitely share this list with him. I particularly like this piece of advice from your list:
    “When I consider taking on this project, how does it feel? If you’re not enthusiastic about it, there is little need to go further.”
    It seems so simple, but it really rings true. If your heart is not in it from the beginning, it can easily become a project you grow to resent or dread working on.

  4. Great topic. I have a problem saying no to “opportunities” and your list helps to clarify how to rate them. I agree that some of my best opportunities have come from the chance to work with people I admired. It opened doors to projects that made it easier to say no to less beneficial things I would have been tempted to do.

  5. Thank you Alyson. You have an incredible ability to distill to the essence, a concept, or situation, and provide the pertinent questions we need to ask ourselves when making decisions about our art careers. Very helpful!

  6. Susan Drawbaugh

    Wow!!! I woke up feeling soooo overwhelmed with my “must do” list! Can’t believe the great timing of this. Thank you – I needed this.

  7. In my conversations with fellow artists, as soon as I say the word “commission,” a groan is the immediate response. We’ve all had those projects that wouldn’t go away, crushed our spirits and ended up costing us money in the end. We hope the next time will be better. I agree with this list wholeheartedly and plan to utilize it in future projects! Thank you.

  8. This is my number one dilemma it seems! I really appreciate your ideas on the topic. For self-employed artist / entrepreneurs, we are pulled in so many directions it’s impossible to fit it all in… like a kid in a candy store at times! My husband and I are both self-employed artists and we are raising two children… so we use the motto – “Sleep is for sissies”. Maybe if we use your check list, we could get some well needed rest around here 🙂

  9. The Universe tests our resolve to complete a goal. It throws rocks on our path to see if we trip over them or jump over them. I practice monthly intentions, which start with the new moon and end with the full moon. It is a very clear intention, often with steps I have to take to work toward that intention and it doesn’t always have to be something big. It is my north star. I review that intention every day. After the full moon, I release the intention and all the energy to the Universe to do its magic. The goal is to work with your intention and not grasp it so tightly that it cannot flow and breathe.

    1. Echoing everyone else here, too – THANK YOU for this article, it’s perfect timing. Trying not hyper-ventilate when I think of every direction in front of me… 😛

      I love this thought, Jan, I’ll have to give it a try! Seems like a very calming, focused way to proceed on the journey.

  10. Ohhh boy…I asked myself most of these questions over and over again 2 wks. ago when approached by someone in the Middle East. I questioned first whether it was legitimate and researched them…seemed okay as was also confirmed by the line of conversation in emails. Next she wanted a phone call which is unusual for me but for 4 paintings upwards of $10K each I welcomed it. Immediately the call was not about refining details of the paintings, discussing price & closing the deal, which is how it usually works when a client insists on a call. This was to tell me her client was Prince & was coming to the U.S. next wk. and could I meet him in another state…of course I declined but said I’d be happy to refine details directly with him for the 4 paintings & I was confident I could do the job to meet or exceed his expectations. (I knew this project would take me backwards to classical work when I want to go forward toward fresher paintings…I was thinking merely of the money). Toward the end of the call she said it wasn’t 4 paintings but 30 and they were all 5 feet! I didn’t flinch but knew it was crazy…wondered if they were farming it out to other artists or not…was not given a deadline…too many questions, yet I heard myself still leaving the door open all the while contemplating how I could physically do it with new techniques, how many paintings I could do in a year, etc. Ultimately I actually prayed for guidance and lo’ and behold they never contacted me again and simultaneously I’d admitted that no money was worth compromising my life that much. Lesson learned: Don’t let anyone pull me from my goals.

  11. Thank you so much Alyson.

    You have a wonderful way of creating succinct systems. So often I see many of the opportunities you mention, and I think “Oh that artists did that, and it was so successful so maybe I could do my art like that” or “That artist does what I do so maybe I should do that event….” or I worry that people will say “You should just give it a go” but how can one person do everything? – and I end up doing nothing because I have lost time and confidence, getting overwhelmed by indecision, so I now use the mantra “Will it get me closer to my goal” – it’s such a great focusing tool and immediately brings me right back to where I need to be – what do I want and what do I do.

    1. Thanks, Kas. I’m so happy you find my suggestions helpful. And that sounds like the perfect mantra.

      I also believe that any action is better than inaction. It’s better to be a little off-course and testing things than to wait for something else to happen.

  12. Yes, very timely. I took on a commission thinking it would help motivate me to just get back to the studio and hopefully work on my own pieces eventually toward a future show. But here I am…doing a subject matter that is not my ‘specialty’…..struggling….not excited….and really dragging. Ugh! Will be sure to use your checklist NEXT time!

  13. This is such a good list of questions. For me the biggest issue of all of them is that I expect time somehow to be elastic. Surprise, it never is. And then I think, “What, again?” I’m going to use your questions to inject some much needed reality into that part of my decision-making. Thanks!

    And also thanks for including my painting in this post. What a pleasure 🙂

  14. This is my 15th year of being self-employed and I really can’t imagine working any other way. My big challenge now is that I’m taking care of an elderly parent as well as myself it’s gotten more difficult to not “overestimate” how much time I will have available for a given project. Saying no to projects which don’t give me something to look forward to (besides money) is even more important now. It’s a juggling match, but the decisions have to be made daily.

  15. I woke up today feeling unsure of what to do next. Normally I am overwhelmed with so many tasks on my to-do list but at this moment I feel like I am only being asked to do craft fairs and donate artwork. My focus has been on getting into galleries but I’m discouraged with constant rejections. This post is a great reminder to persist and stay on track!

    1. Nicole: I think you might benefit from creating some of your own exhibitions and opportunities. I know you are very personable and would be great in those situations.

    2. Thanks Alyson. I did create and host a few of my own solo shows the past few years but would like to get some of my inventory down by using galleries. I’m going to get back into researching better fits in other states. I am hoping to take some of your courses soon; should have taken the 5 month one!

  16. Great article. Ah such an important one too, think I will bookmark this great list. I recently had someone asking me to get involved in a project that I would not necessarily see any profit from till maybe a year down the line etc..anyway it wasn’t any good but I was dragging my feet on the decision until I met up with my little art group and explained it to them…the message was clear and I emailed the next day saying no way! Ha maybe next time if I am finding it that hard to decide I will know it is probably a no!

  17. People seem to like my old work the best, because it arouses nostalgia, but it no longer interests me. I did the comissions anyway, and I am glad I did, because I learned a few things. I came out ahead financially, too, besides working with some really great people! Maybe after this next show, I will just be a housewife for a year!

    1. Sometimes we need to take on work outside of our current interests. But what you did, Karen, is take on work that you were already very competent with. At least there was no learning curve involved on your end.

      But what (as you mention) did you learn?

  18. This is great to have as a reference whenever choosing which projects to take on. Thanks! I learned from projects and jobs I took on that were not the best choice, that there had been an element of fear, worry or obligation motivating me. When I am hesitant I check in to see if any of those are influencing my decisions now. These questions will be extra helpful as well and make choices that much clearer and easier to make! Although I try not to regret anything and have found value in every project I’ve accepted or pursued, as I continue to develop my art practice I see more and more the value to being selective, and making choices aligned with my goals and interests. I am learning to trust there is an abundance of opportunities.

  19. I’ve said it before on this forum:
    Aim- at what You, the artist, wants (goals).
    Act- on those wants(goals) and Not somebody elses.
    Achieve-Your wants(goals) and make Your life a pleasure.
    this simple mantra, after 25+ years, has and still does,
    keeps me on track for My art/craft wants (goals).
    Thank You, Alyson!!

  20. “When I consider taking on this project, how does it feel? If you’re not enthusiastic about it, there is little need to go further.”

    This, for me, is the absolute #1 question to ask. At this point in my life I can’t rely on my artwork to be my only income but I’m building my brand and a HUGE part of what I make is the joy that comes from the making itself. I have to be excited about a commission if I’m going to take it because working 2 full time jobs and being an artist is a big toll of energy taken out of me and it has to be a project that’s going to feed something back into my system for me to give it my precious energy and time.
    I have a really hard time with being inspired by SO many things and my head just filling with ideas and a to-do list that just grows to anxiety-inducing proportions sometimes. I am printing this list and tacking it up above my sewing machine~!

  21. Thank you for this list Alyson and the very pointed questions. Very helpful. I am so glad you mentioned the “Gut Check” I recently had a project offered to me and turned it down. At first, I beat myself up for saying “no” but the truth is my gut was telling me, great opportunity or not, this project isn’t for me. Art is my passion and I rarely feel uncomfortable with a project. This one had “not for me” written all over it. After reading this list, I feel good about my decision. As of now, I am revising my “To Do” project template page. Your list summarized, will be in the margin and help me stay focused and objective with what projects to say yes or no to. Time IS precious.

  22. P.S. I forgot to add, I added one more to the list: Value of the Sacrifice. What is the value of the sacrifice I am about to make? As with any occupation, our jobs take us away from people and things (however temporarily) to complete a project. If my relationships are off – so is my inspiration. If my mind, body and spirit are off – so is my health, thinking, energy, focus and goals. Life is too short to be robbed of it. What is the value of the sacrifice I am about to make? My choices effect the people closest to me and everything else in my life, pausing to ask this question, gives me the needed time to respectfully prioritize. Pausing helps me plan, schedule the needed adjustments, have the needed conversations and get a clear picture of the value, of the sacrifice before saying “yes.” If the choice isn’t a selfish one, in mind, body and spirit I am more inspired and revved than ever to take on the new project. What do you think?

    1. Judy, I am so glad you added this PS to your post. It describes so well the very elements that I have been weighing, and the struggle I’ve had in making certain decisions and choices relative to my art business. One element does affect another. Finding the right balance between relationships, inspiration, creativity, financial need, mind, body, spirit, health, energy, and goals is no easy task. And when the balance is off, it certainly can have an effect on all the other aspects of your life and well being. I hadn’t thought of weighing priorities based on “The Value of the Sacrifice”, but you summed it up perfectly. I will certainly be considering this in my decisions going forward. Thank you!

  23. An excellent read Alison. I was in the process of applying for an upcoming opportunity and not feeling overly excited about it. After reading through this list, I realized that my time will be better spent focusing on new work for my already full “calendar of events” for this coming summer and fall. Decision made and feeling great about it!
    Thank You!

  24. This is perfect, and it is the same as creatiing any work of art:

    “Will this get me closer to my goal?
    Will it completely sideline me?
    What other projects might it jeopardize?”

    I ask myself,”to paint the next stroke only if it will advance the essence of what I wish to express, and nothing more.”

    The challenge for me is the achieve “Less is More.”

  25. I love your thoughts on this! We have our own list that asks what a project contributes … Money? Influence? Prestige? Credibility? Happiness? Relationship building / access? Goodwill? Operation strengthening? Saving time or money? Experience? Leverage?

    The project must fulfill three or more for consideration.

    The list is posted on my monitor to remind me not to jump headlong into something without thinking about it no matter how wonderful it sounds.

    Your list encourages me to add a few other thoughts – thank you!

  26. Thank you Alyson! Somehow you do your magic and always come up with an excellent article that is needed. Thank You!

  27. Thank you Alyson for your great article, This year I have decided to get everything in order as toward the end of last year I was trying to take on too much, I am also sorting my studio out once a week so i am able to work more efficiently

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