You should now have a good grip on the state of your freelancing business and some goals for the coming year. This time of year there is lots of discussion about “resolutions,” and I suppose you can think of setting annual goals as deciding on resolutions.
But, most of us aren’t very good at sticking with our resolutions. That’s not what you want when it comes to your business. In this post, I’m going to lay out a step-by-step process for making a practical, realistic plan to achieve your freelance business goals.
What makes a good goal?
Before we leap into the nitty-gritty of goal planning, let’s consider what makes a good goal vs. a poor goal. There’s a classic formula for this — the SMART goal. The original SMART goal framework (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related) was designed for a corporate framework, so I’m going to suggest a slight modification* that’s more appropriate for freelancers and microbusinesses.
As you look at your goals, consider if they meet these criteria. If they don’t, rework them until they do. A good goal should be:
Specific. You should be able to clearly explain to yourself and others precisely what the goal means. A vague goal like “Grow my business” isn’t specific enough. “Grow revenues,” however, is more precise and gives you something specific to shoot for.
Measurable. At the end of the year, you’ll want to be able to definitively know whether you achieved your goal. If you’ve grown your revenues by 2%, will you feel that you achieved your goal? And will you be happy with that? A measurable goal might be something like “Grow annual revenues by 10%.” Even goals that aren’t numerical can still be made measurable. Are there one or more yes/no questions you can ask yourself to determine if you’ve achieved your goal? That makes it measurable.
Relevant. I like to use this as a quick check on whether I’m pursuing the right goals. Is the goal I’ve set relevant to my larger vision for my life and my business, or am I just pursuing more something for the sake of growth? If the goal is not relevant to you and your business, you’ll probably struggle to maintain the focus and energy required to achieve it. And even if you do, you’ll end up wondering why you bothered. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself why you want to pursue a specific goal.
“Be clear that your ladder is leaning against the right building.”
— Brené Brown
Time-bound. Finally, a good goal has a deadline. If you never achieve your goals, what’s the point of having them? For annual goals your default may be “by the end of the year.” And for goals related to things like annual revenues or goals that will require a lot of time, that’s fine. It may make sense for other goals to have different deadlines — by the end of a certain month or quarter. If your goal is to redesign your website, you shouldn’t have to spend the whole year doing that.
Breaking down your goals
Once you’ve selected a handful of annual business goals to focus on, it’s time to develop a plan for each of those. For each of your goals, do the following:
1. Brainstorm obstacles that might prevent you from reaching that goal. Reviewing the SWOT exercise you did earlier will help you here. The important thing is to recognize that challenges will arise throughout the year that could throw you off course so you can plan for them.
2. Come up with a list of ways you might overcome these obstacles. What you want is a series of “If X happens that could prevent me from achieving my goal, then I’ll respond by doing Y to overcome it.” Here’s an example: Suppose one of your goals is to do more work for large corporations, which often pay better than smaller organizations. One obstacle you might run into is a lack of business liability insurance, which is often required by large companies for all vendors they work with. This doesn’t mean you should run out and get that insurance today (it’s not too expensive, but don’t spend money before you need to). But understanding this possibility ahead of time will help you respond quickly if this issue comes up.
3. Break your goals into quarterly objectives, with a special focus on the first quarter. You don’t need a comprehensive plan for the entire year for your goal, but you want to know what actions you’ll need to take over the next quarter to move you toward your goals. If you have some idea of what your actions will need to be in the second, third and fourth quarter, you can sketch those out, too. Taking our goal of doing more work for large corporations, a quarterly objective might be something like “Submit at least three proposals for corporate work.”
4. Break your quarterly objectives into monthly targets, again with a focus on the first month (January, if you’re doing this at the end of the year). What actions will you need to take and what will you need to accomplish in the next 30 days to move you toward your quarterly objective, which in turn should move you toward your annual goal. If you know you have a quarterly objective of submitting at least three corporate proposals, what are the things that you need to accomplish this month to move toward that? These might be activities like reaching out to corporate contacts you already have, becoming active in a professional association where you can meet new corporate contacts or asking others for referrals to corporate clients.
5. If appropriate, establish indicators you can track. In the daily hustle and bustle of our lives, staying on track even for a monthly target can still be challenging. Consider establishing weekly or monthly performance indicators you can track (weekly is better). If your target for this month is connecting with more corporate contacts, you might track the number of phone conversations and in-person meetings you have with those contacts each week. Tracking that should help remind you that you need to do things to make those contacts — networking, scouring your LinkedIn contacts, asking for introductions, etc. A simple spreadsheet that you update once a week can work wonders here.
Be realistic in your goal setting and planning process. If you haven’t achieved the goal before, it’s difficult to be certain that you’ve taken into account all of the activities and contingencies necessary. Asking others for advice on this is helpful — you can learn from their successes and mistakes. But your experience will never be identical to someone else’s, and the future is never identical to the past. There will always be some uncertainty.
Because of that uncertainty, I like to take an iterative approach to planning goals. Each month I consider my monthly targets — did I hit them? If not, why not? If so, do I think I’m still on track to achieve my quarterly objective?
Every quarter, you can repeat those questions on a bigger scale. Did you achieve your quarterly objectives? Why or why not? Are you on track to for your annual goals?
If your goals are the least bit challenging, I can almost guarantee that you’ll miss some of your weekly indicators, monthly targets and quarterly objectives. That’s OK. In fact, you should view those “failures” as learning opportunities that will improve your odds of success. Those failures will help you identify areas where you need to change your strategy or tactics, or where you need to do a better job of executing your plan.
Of course, if you repeatedly fail — week after week, month after month, quarter after quarter — then you probably need to reconsider whether your goals are the right ones for your business this year. During your quarterly reviews — and especially at the end of the second and third quarters — re-evaluate any goals that you’re not making steady progress toward.
Maybe that ambitious annual revenue growth goal isn’t going to work out this year and you should consider adjusting the goal downward to something that’s still challenging, but is more achievable given what you’ve learned so far.
You decide on your year
You may find yourself reading this at a different time of year. That’s OK. If you haven’t done annual planning, you can do it anytime. You may choose to shorten your time frame — focusing on goals between now and the end of the year, for example. Or you may simply choose to have a different 12-month period that you plan for.
The annual planning process I’ve outlined here will probably take you a fair bit of time. And the planning process itself may raise questions you haven’t thought about. But this investment of time and energy in planning makes it much more likely that you’ll end up where you want to be 12 months from now — or that you’ll at least have moved in the right direction.
* I’m not the first to suggest these modifications to the SMART acronym, but I don’t know who should get the credit.