I’ve been thinking a lot about goals lately—my own career goals and how setting goals can help freelancers achieve success in a field where success is a moving target and maps are almost non-existent.
At the beginning of my career, my goals were often vague—more wishes for my future than concrete objectives that I could work towards. There’s nothing wrong with daydreaming about the shape of a career in five or ten years, but unless you create your own roadmap and have the discipline to follow it, getting there is awfully hard.
When I began to take my own goals more seriously, I started to see my career move in encouraging directions. I also felt like I had some control—a good thing in a career where so many aspects are out of our control.
What kind of goals?
I work better if I have a mix of goals, both short- and long-term. Shorter-term goals could involve sending off a certain number of pitches or attending networking events. A long-term goal might be to eventually get published in a prestigious magazine or write a book proposal.
Michelle Nijhuis (bio) cautions against setting overly specific goals. “Because those things depend on many factors that are totally out of our control, and I wouldn’t want my sense of professional success to depend on getting through any one tiny little wormhole,” she says. “But I think it is very useful to say ‘I want to do the *kind* of work that so-and-so writer does’ or ‘I want to do the *kind* of work that x magazine does’ and figure out the specific month-by-month steps that you need to take in order to live in that neighborhood.”
Hannah Hoag (bio) sits down in January to map out her goals for the coming year (read her post on goal setting). I also find it easiest to manage goals on a yearly basis. Sure, some of the long-term career goals are going to require more time to pull off but in the year to come surely there are steps I can take to move myself closer to that end.
I try to restrict my yearly goals to about a half-dozen. After all, I’m setting myself up for success, not overwhelm but I also want to challenge myself. I focus on objectives that will move my business forward, either by growing my income or finding better clients or more interesting projects. I also keep in mind my happiness—am I balancing my business aspirations with my personal ones? (See this post by Susan Moran (bio) on balancing passion, professional and profit motives.)
It doesn’t matter how you record your plan—in a special notebook, a spreadsheet or some other document—just that you do. I write a paragraph on each goal—as descriptive as possible and with a sentence about what desire or need it satisfies. I also tend to rank them, if I can. This helps me better understand what’s important to me and determine where I want to expend more effort. For each goal, I brainstorm a number of smaller steps that I can take to get me where I want to go. Then I put these steps on a calendar (a Planner Pad), spreading them out realistically through the year.
“I add my goals to the spreadsheet where I track all my projects, income, and unpaid invoices because I open the workbook weekly, so I know I’ll check on my goals regularly. If I’ve done what I said I would do, I make a note,” Hannah explains in this post.
By reviewing the plan every two or three months, I can see where I’m moving forward and what’s bogging me down. I’m constantly updating the plan. Do I need to make changes to stay on schedule? Is this goal no longer one I want to pursue? Did my personal life implode and I need to step back into maintenance mode? Things happen, right. Not only is it okay to reassess, it’s essential.
Ideally, the satisfaction of achieving a goal should be all the reward that’s needed but life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we need a little extra motivation. Robert Frederick (bio) gives himself gifts, usually something work-related, when he reaches a goal. “This strategy of goal-setting-and-passion-gifting has been very helpful in my being a freelance because it gives me rewards I really want and helps me advance my vocational and avocational pursuits.”
Michelle recommends working on goal setting and tracking with a friend “who knows you well enough to call you on your BS—one who can say ‘I’ve heard that excuse before.’”
Friends can keep you accountable and your plan on track. Knowing that I have to report my progress at the end of the week or month is often enough to get me to take an extra half-hour in the midst of a busy day to ensure that I am making progress. (See a post by Helen Fields (bio) on writing contracts for a way to set up an easy accountability system with a friend.)
Emily Sohn (bio) gets together with writing colleagues at the beginning of each year to drink beer and set goals. “Hearing their goals (and their successes) helps inform my goals and we do check in every few months, usually as an excuse to get out and drink beer again.”
The scenario I’ve outlined is my ideal. That doesn’t mean that I always live up to it. Some years, I only have the energy to maintain the status quo. Other years, a mega-goal, like getting the Handbook published, crowds out every other goal. Sometimes, I’ll realize that I haven’t done even one goal-related task in weeks. It happens.
What I do know is that my career success builds in proportion to the amount of time that I spend on planning and achieving my goals. It’s one way of stacking the odds in my favor and charting career success in my own terms.
Image credits: Ritu Raj on Flickr.