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How to Set Effective Goals for Your Freelance Business

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If you’ve ever worked for a company, large or small, you’ve probably seen that goal-setting is something they take very seriously. Many companies devote large amounts of time to setting goals and objectives for the year—not just for the company overall, but for each division within it, and for each employee within each division—and then measuring progress towards those goals at the end of the year.

Yet, in my experience, most freelancers don’t tend to devote nearly as much energy to setting goals and objectives. We claim to think of what we do as a business, but often we don't have any plan other than “get more clients”.

So this tutorial is aimed at showing you why you need to set clear, effective goals for your freelance business, and how to go about doing so. I’ll start by examining the benefits of setting yourself clear objectives, and then take you through the practical steps of deciding on your priorities, establishing well-defined goals, and tracking your progress.

Companies understand that clear objectives are a critical component of achieving greater success, growth and profits. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll understand that too, and will have a clear idea of how you can move forward with objectives that help you take your business to the next level.

1. Why a Freelancer Needs Clear Goals

Although I used the example of companies setting goals, your situation as a freelancer is not completely comparable. A large company might have thousands of employees scattered all around the world, and it needs to set clear goals as a way of making sure everyone is pulling in the right direction.

As a freelancer, it’s just you, and you already know what you need to do. So you don’t need goals, right?

Wrong.

It’s easy to think that because you’re a one-person shop, you don’t need to go through a formal process of setting objectives. But in fact, you need them just as much as Citigroup or GE. Here’s why.

Goals Help You Grow

As a freelancer, it can be very hard to grow beyond a certain point. There are only so many hours in a week, and once you’re fully booked with work, it’s easy to fall into the habit of just working away, meeting the deadlines and accepting that you’ve reached a “ceiling” in terms of earnings. In other words, you’re working hard just to stand still.

For some people, that might be OK. If you love what you do, and are happy with the amount of money you’re making, then you can just keep going as you are.

But the process of setting goals may reveal other desires, like boosting your savings or having more time to spend with your family. If that’s the case, then the status quo won’t cut it. You’ll have to achieve growth.

There are many ways to achieve this, of course, such as:

  • creating eBooks, videos or classes that you sell from your website, giving yourself an income that’s not tied to the hours you put in
  • raising your rates
  • moving to an agency model, where you farm some of the work out to other people instead of doing everything yourself
  • offering new, higher-value services

There are many other possibilities, of course, depending on the business you’re in. The point is that in order to grow, you need to think strategically and change the way you’re working, which is something you’ll probably never even think of unless you’ve taken the time to set goals and priorities.

Setting Goals Forces You to Step Back

As a freelancer, you get to set your own agenda. You don’t have a boss telling you what to work on each day—instead, you decide for yourself.

At least, that’s the idealized view of the freelance life. In reality, the way you spend your day is still largely determined by other people—it’s just that, instead of the boss, it’s your clients. You have to meet that urgent deadline for one client, and answer those emails from another one, and request a clearer brief from that agency that never seems to know what it wants.

Your day is full, and you are busy working... but are you working on the right things?

There are two measures of importance, after all: urgency and impact. The danger for freelancers is that you end up always working on the most urgent stuff, neglecting things that would have a greater impact on your business, but don’t have a deadline attached.

That’s why so many web designers never get around to updating their websites, why photographers often make do with a headshot they’ve never been happy with. They know these things are important, but they’re too busy with all the things that are more urgent.

Setting goals forces you to step back and decide on what’s really important for your business, so that you can make sure you’re working on the right things, not just the most urgent.

Goals Keep You Accountable

Setting goals is one thing, but tracking them is even more important. If you take the process seriously, you’ll have a constant daily reminder of what you should be working on, and how it fits in with the bigger picture.

I’ll talk more about accountability and how to stay on track later on, but for now just understand that it’s a powerful benefit of goal-setting, helping you get motivated to achieve more than you did before.  

2. Deciding on Your Priorities

So how do you set effective goals?

It starts with deciding on your priorities. Priorities are not the same as goals: while goals are specific, targeted objectives, priorities are the broader desires to which you’re aspiring.

What’s really important to you in life? What kind of life and career would you like to have? What are the most important things you want to achieve? These are the kind of big questions that you need to answer before you can begin setting goals.

There are many ways of doing this, but my favorite is to picture myself at various points in the future:

  • a year from now
  • five years from now
  • ten years from now
  • at the end of my life

When I say “picture myself”, I really do mean that. I’ll actually describe a typical day in my desired future life: the house I’m living in, what I do, who’s with me, what the scene looks like. I find that helps me to get really clear. If you’re visually inclined, you might like to draw the scene, or paint it, or create a collage using images you’ve grabbed from the web.

Try to cover not just work, but all aspects of your life. The point of your work is to support your life, after all, and the idea is to decide on what’s really important to you. So consider not just work achievements, but also things like lifestyle and relationship goals. It may help to present the information in a spider chart or “life wheel” as follows, rating your satisfaction in each area and aiming for a full, balanced wheel.

Life wheel showing balance in each area of life
Chart courtesy of Paul Laherty

3. Forming Clear Goals

Now that we’re clear on the big picture, let’s get more specific. Look at the priorities you’ve set, and start breaking down what you need to do to get your business to the desired state.

Start with long-term goals: what do you want to achieve in your business in the next five years? The goals should be inspired by your vision for your life as a whole, but should be specific to your freelance business. Which new services do you want to start offering? Do you want to raise your rates to a certain level, or reduce your hours to a certain point?

Keep in mind the well-known acronym SMART, ensuring that your goals are:

  • specific
  • measurable
  • achievable
  • realistic
  • time-bound

I won't spend much time on this, because it's quite well-known. But as a quick example, “make more money” is not a SMART goal. But “increase after-tax income by 25% by December 2016” ticks all the boxes.

When you’ve got your long-term goals worked out, begin working backwards, getting closer and closer to the present day. What do you need to achieve in the next year to set yourself up for meeting your five-year goals? Then break your one-year goals out month by month, so that you know exactly what you have to do each month to reach your year-end goals.

Then you can break your monthly goals down into weekly goals, and your weekly goals down into daily goals. That way, you can be sure that what you’re doing today is feeding into your long-term goals, and moving you closer to the life you want.

Of course your daily goals will also include the “urgent” stuff—the deadlines, the emails, the invoices, and other things that just need to be done. But try to make sure that each day also includes some time for the goals that are driven by your longer-term planning process.

One other key point about goals is that the closer you get to the present day, the more your goals should only include outcomes that you can personally control. For longer-term goals, it’s OK to include some things that you want to achieve, even if you’re not entirely sure how to do it. But for shorter-term goals like monthly or weekly goals, it should only be things that you can control.

The “increased income” goal I mentioned earlier is good for a long-term goal, for example. But for a monthly goal, you’re better off going for something like “Pitch five new clients, quoting higher rates than I’m currently charging.” That will contribute to increasing your income, and is entirely under your control. Whether you actually get the business is down to the clients themselves, so don’t make your short-term goals dependent on the actions and decisions of others.

And finally, your goals should excite you. Too often, our days are driven by task lists that are more about obligation than desire. By deciding on your deepest life priorities, setting ambitious long-term goals, and tying your shorter-term goals to them, you ensure that even if what you’re doing right now isn’t that exciting, you’ve linked it to something bigger, a vision of the kind of life that you want. That helps generate some enthusiasm, a key ingredient for getting things done.

4. Keeping Track

This section will be quite short, because there are so many different ways of keeping track of your goals, and it doesn’t really matter which one you use. The only important thing is that you do it, and do it regularly.

For example, I keep track of my goals in a simple, old-fashioned notebook. I like the ritual of writing it all out, and spending time with the computer switched off and my mind focused on what I’m trying to achieve. I make time every Sunday (or Monday morning if I can’t be bothered on Sunday) to look over my goals from last week, check my progress, read over my longer-term goals, and set objectives for the week ahead. Then I type my daily tasks into the Momentum app in Chrome, so that I see them every time I open a new tab.

But if you prefer, there are countless apps and programs and templates that you could use, such as GoalsOnTrack, Coach.me, Lifetick, or simple to-do lists and task management apps.

What matters is that you pick a method, set up a regular schedule, and commit to updating your goals regularly. Remember the “R” in “SMART” particularly, to ensure that you don’t overcommit, and that you’re compassionate with yourself if you miss a goal, as will always happen. Life is unpredictable, so your goals should be adaptable. The point is to move you in the right direction, not to beat yourself up if you fail.

If you’re really struggling to stay on track, you could consider finding an accountability partner, someone you call or email regularly to commit to your goals and report on your progress.

Or set up rewards for yourself, perhaps promising yourself that if you meet your goal, you’ll reward yourself with something you enjoy—a meal out, perhaps, or an exorbitant bottle of wine, or even just a day off. Whatever you can afford, and whatever will motivate you to get the job done. Bribery works.

Next Steps

You may have noticed that it’s not January. Most goal-setting and planning articles get written in January, to coincide with people’s brief bursts of hope in the wake of New Year’s resolutions. And most of those grand goals and plans get forgotten by Valentine’s Day.

I’m writing this in June because I want you to think of goal-setting in a different way. I want you to disconnect from the New Year’s flurry of diets and gym memberships, and think of it instead as a business activity, something you need to do for the health of your freelance business. And think of it as a long-term activity, something you’ll keep doing week after week, month after month, year after year.

If you do it right, setting and tracking your goals won’t take up much of your time—in fact it will free up time for you. It will keep you focused on the truly important things in your life and in your business, ensuring that you’re spending time on tasks that will move your business forward and help you achieve success in what truly matters to you. So get started today! 

Resources

Graphic Credit: Achieve icon designed by Juan Garces from the Noun Project.

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