Freelance goal-setting

As a freelancer, there’s no one standing over your shoulder, telling you what to work on next. No one measures your progress or checks off your milestones. And there’s no one making sure your career is on the right path. All of that falls on you.

If you want to be successful, it’s essential to set effective goals. Goals are the beginning of your plans, barometers of your success, and the launching-off points for your work. They offer several significant benefits that freelancers can’t ignore:

  • Goals give you focus and direction by creating targets for which you’ll aim. 
  • Goals help you see how far you’ve come. 
  • Goals help you gain skills and improve yourself. 
  • Goals ensure you deliver quality work to your clients to ensure you always meet their needs.
  • Achieving your goals makes you feel confident, empowered, and motivated to keep growing as a freelancer. 

Marketing guru Seth Godin says it perfectly: “The thing about goals is that living without them is a lot more fun, in the short run. It seems to me, though, that the people who get things done, who lead, who grow and who make an impact … those people have goals.”

In this article, we cover freelance goal setting. We explain how to craft quality macro and micro goals using the SMART technique and offer some goal-setting best practices.

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SMART Goal Setting

Freelance goal-setting

Not all goals are equal. A poorly crafted goal is hard to achieve or even impossible to achieve. So before you start working toward your goals, it’s important to craft quality goals that keep your motivation high, give you something to work toward, and accurately measure your success. 

Whenever you set goals, they should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

A specific goal has a clear objective. It tells you exactly what you hope to achieve and how.

A measurable goal shows you exactly what success and failure are. It usually involves a number, but not always. 

An attainable goal is something you can actually accomplish. The goal should be big enough to impact your career but not impossible to achieve. Unattainable goals will kill your motivation quickly. 

A relevant goal matters to you and your freelance career. If it’s irrelevant, you won’t be motivated to work towards it. 

A time-bound goal has a clear deadline. The purpose of a deadline is to motivate you to take action. If the goal lacks a deadline, it’s easy to put it off for another day. 

Let’s illustrate this with a couple of examples:

“I want to make more money!” 

This example is a poor goal. While it’s attainable and relevant, it’s not specific, measurable, or time-bound. How will you make more money? How much money do you need to make to meet the goal? What is the deadline?

“I want to earn $10,000 through referrals within six months.”

This example is a much better goal because it meets our SMART criteria.

  • Specific: It explains how you’ll earn the revenue.
  • Measurable: It states precisely how much you need to earn to meet the goal.
  • Attainable: It’s a reasonable amount to make in six months from new business.
  • Relevant: Earning income through freelance is obviously relevant to a freelancer.
  • Time-bound: There is a clear deadline. 

“I want 500 more clients!”

This goal is relevant and measurable, but it fails the test for specific, attainable, and time-bound. Unless this is a 20-year goal, 500 clients is a lot. How will you get those clients? By when?

“I want eight new medical office clients through cold outreach by December 1, 2023.”

This example is an excellent goal because it meets all five SMART criteria:

  • Specific: You know which type of client and how you’ll get them.
  • Measurable: It states how many clients you expect to obtain.
  • Attainable: The number of clients is reasonable. 
  • Relevant: ‘More clients’ is relevant, especially if you work with medical offices.
  • Time-bound: There is a clear deadline. 

Any time you make a goal, whether a daily goal or a five-year plan, make sure it meets the SMART criteria. If your goals don’t pass the test, revise them before you start working. This standard is critical to maximizing your success in achieving those goals. 

Macro vs. Micro Goals

Now that you understand the qualities of a good goal, let’s talk about the size of your goals. 

Many freelancers make the mistake of setting broad, overwhelming goals. These goals may meet the SMART criteria, but they aren’t actionable. In most cases, it’s best to break your macro goals into micro goals. These little goals are small, easier to achieve, and take place over shorter time frames. 

Let’s look at one of our goal examples from earlier:

“I want to earn $10,000 through referrals within six months.”

This example is a SMART goal, but it’s a bit overwhelming. More importantly, it doesn’t give us any information on how to achieve it, so it needs to be broken down into steps that deserve their own micro goal. Assuming today is January 1st, we might develop the following micro-goals:

  • Write a customizable referral request to send to clients by January 3.
  • Customize the referral request for each client and send it by January 8.
  • Follow up with each client regarding the referral request by January 20. 
  • Reach out to new prospects and request a meeting by February 10. 
  • Conduct first meetings with new prospects by February 25.
  • Create and send pitches for new services by March 15. 
  • Begin servicing new clients by April 1. 

As you can see, those micro-goals are far more manageable than the big goal. Each micro goal tells you exactly how to achieve it by performing tasks that you complete all the time. You won’t be intimidated by asking for a referral because you already know how to do that. 

You should have no problem achieving the macro-goal when you complete all the micro-goals. If you hit each milestone and bill your new clients for April, May, and June, you’ll hit your $10,000 macro goal. Your workflow, dates, and revenue will all vary, of course.

If it helps, think of your macro-goals in terms of time. You might set a big macro-goal for the entire year. Then you could break that macro goal down into four smaller goals for each quarter. Then you could break those quarterly. Turning goals into monthly or weekly goals will help you keep yourself on track. If you set your goals well, achieving your micro-goals should make your macro-goal inevitable.

10 Tips for Better Freelance Goal Setting

Freelance goal-setting

Now that you know what well-crafted goals look like, let’s jump into some tips to help make your goal-setting effective and ultimately achieve those goals.

1. Start Setting Goals Right Now

If you haven’t established any goals, it’s important to do so right now. Don’t wait until the end of your current project or the end of the year. It’s okay if you can only set super short-term goals. The sooner you start goal-setting, the better off you’ll be. 

2. Build and Maintain Your Habit

You want goal-setting to become habitual and automatic. It takes 66 days to build a habit, so you need as much practice as possible, as soon as possible. In the beginning, you’ll have to do it often, even when you feel a goal isn’t needed. 

For instance, if you like to respond to emails first thing in the morning, set a mental goal: “I will clear my inbox by 10 AM.” Since you would have cleared it anyway, this helps you think about work in terms of goals. In time, you’ll find yourself making quick mental goals automatically. 

3. Focus on What You Can Control

We only have control over ourselves. We can influence other people and events, but we can’t control them. Making goals that require the participation of other people is a recipe for failure. Failing your goals often is discouraging, so it’s better to set goals that are challenging but still likely to achieve.

For instance, let’s say you made a goal to market yourself by appearing on ten podcasts as a guest. Ultimately, you can’t force a podcast to invite you to their show. That isn’t something you can control. However, you can control the number of podcasts you contact to offer yourself as a guest. That’s entirely within your control. A better goal, therefore, would be to pitch yourself as a guest to 20 shows. 

4. Share Your Goals With a Friend

If you work alone, it’s easy to ignore your own goals. After all, there’s no one to admonish you for failure; no one to prod you when you aren’t making progress. People who work on a team have this benefit, but solo workers need to create it for themselves. 

You can increase the likelihood of achieving your goals by sharing them with a friend. Ideally, this person is another freelancer who understands your work. Document your goals for each other in an email or a shared Google Doc. Meet each month briefly to discuss your goals. Did you meet them on time? Why were you late? Why did you fail? The purpose here isn’t to upset each other but to create accountability. 

5. Prioritize Your Goals Based on Value

Once you set the habit of setting goals, you’ll notice that it’s easy to develop new goals. They will pop into your head all the time. You will probably generate so many goals that there won’t be enough hours in the day to complete many of them. 

In cases like this, your best course of action is to prioritize your goals based on how they add value to your business. For instance, finding new clients relates directly to your freelancing success. Growing your Twitter following may also affect your freelance success, but less so than signing new clients. So while gaining Twitter followers is good, you should only focus on it after finding enough clients. 

What “value” means changes throughout your career, as well. Getting clients is your most valuable activity when you’re just starting your freelance journey. But if you’re a veteran freelancer and find yourself turning down more clients than you accept, “value” might refer to raising the price of your services, productizing your services, or simply taking time off. 

6. Make Sure Your Goals are Achievable

Earlier, we spoke about creating attainable goals, but this point requires more explanation. Many optimistic freelancers create goals that are well-natured but hard – or even impossible – to achieve. Doing this will inevitably lead to failure and loss of motivation. 

Goal setting aims to keep you on track and apply light pressure to your progress, so there is always a forward motion. But a goal won’t add hours to your day or deposit money directly into your account. You still have to do the work. So it’s important to set goals that you can reasonably accomplish. It’s okay to fail a goal now and then, but if you consistently fail to meet your goals, they are likely too challenging.

You may find it helpful to write down why you want to achieve each goal. It will remind you of what you’re working toward whenever you read your list of goals. It’s beneficial for long-term goals where you may forget what inspired you to set them. 

7. Try Using Technology/Apps

It’s perfectly reasonable to write your goals in a Doc or on a slip of paper, but those methods are easy to ignore when you’re busy. A goal-setting app lives on your phone, so it’s always with you. It reminds you to stay on track and notifies you when you need to take action. They also introduce elements of gamification that can make working toward your goals fun. Some popular options include Habitica, ClickUp Goals, or

Furthermore, you’ll also want to use a time tracking app like Timing to help you monitor the progress of your goals. This tool will show you where you’re spending your time. This ensures that your work aligns with your goals. 

8. Track and Analyze Your Goals

As you work through your macro and micro goals, keep a record of your progress. You don’t need to keep detailed notes, just something to help you remember your achievement. 

For example, let’s say you had a goal of “Make 40 face-to-face introductions at networking events by September 3.” If you achieved your goal on September 2, you would simply write “Done, 9/2” or “52/40, Sept 2” (meaning you overshot your goal by 12). 

Then at the end of the year, it’s a good idea to spend ten minutes going over your goals. Did you achieve most of them on time? Did you outperform them? If so, why? If you underperformed, ask yourself what held you back. Were your goals unchallenging, too challenging, or just right?

9. Reward Yourself for Good Performance

It’s no secret that it’s hard to stay motivated on work tasks unless the benefit or punishment is close at hand. Tomorrow’s deadline is easy to focus on, but this year’s revenue goal is too abstract to deserve your attention. Breaking your macro-goals into micro-goals helps you make your goals more manageable, but sometimes you just don’t want to do it. 

An easy and effective way to keep you on track is to set up a reward system for achieving your goals. Find something you like and use it as a reward. It could be anything: a tasty dessert, a fun outing, a special item you’ve wanted, or anything else you are willing to work to earn.

How you dole out your rewards will depend on your goals. You might choose to give yourself one big reward for completing a big macro-goal. Or you could give yourself small rewards for each of your micro goals. Choose the method that motivates you the most.

10. Avoid Activities That Don’t Fit Within Your Goals

A colleague asks you to be his co-host for an upcoming podcast. He says it will be a great way to market yourself and find new clients. You think it’s a good opportunity, but finding new clients isn’t one of your goals at the moment. You are happy with your client load. Your goals revolve around charging your existing clients more or selling them more services. The smart decision would be to decline your colleague’s offer.

If you designed your goals well, they deserve your attention. Anything that doesn’t serve your goals is a distraction that isn’t worth your time. Just because something is a good opportunity doesn’t mean it’s the right opportunity for you.

Admittedly, it’s often hard to say no, especially if there’s money on the table. You might think, “I’ll just do this one job, even though it doesn’t serve my goals, because I’ll make some quick cash.” But that kind of thinking takes you off your path by disrupting your micro-goals, ultimately disrupting your macro-goals. Allow your goals to keep you focused.

This is another example of how using a time tracking app like Timing will help. It offers a high level view of how you spend your time so you can ensure that you’re only focusing on activities that serve your goals. For instance, if you look back over your week, you might notice several tasks that don’t support your goals. You would know to avoid those tasks going forward.

Wrap Up

If you want to be a successful freelancer, you have to start thinking about the future today. You use goal-setting to create plans and drive your growth. If you don’t set goals, you will struggle to build a sustainable business. Use the strategies in this article to create SMART macro and micro-goals.

If you’re ready to take a hard, objective look at how you’re spending your time, start using Timing. It automatically tracks your time so you can focus on work and review your performance later. Timing produces timesheets you can trust, even when you forget to start a timer.