Getting it Done: A Guide to Productive Goal-Setting for Freelancers

Are you setting goals for your freelance writing business?

I strongly recommend you do. But more than that, you need to set good goals.

What makes a good goal for a freelance writer?

This question recently came up when I got this posting in late July, in the Share Your Goals accountability forum in Freelance Writers Den:

“I will land and complete my first paid freelance writing gig by August 31, 2012.”

Now, that is certainly a great thing to aspire to — to break in and get that first clip all in about 5 weeks flat.


This is not a good goal


This goal is not within the writer’s control.

You might wish it, but you cannot make it happen.

You can market your little fanny off — send queries, letters of introduction, network like mad, tap your social-media connections — and it might take 60 or 120 days to start paying off.

What if this writer got an assignment, but the deadline is Sept. 15. Is she now a failure because she did not meet her goal? I would want her to feel totally victorious, but setting this bad goal would steal that victory away and make her feel “behind” in her timetable.

What makes a good goal? Here are my requirements:

  • Realistic. You want to get at least most of your goals accomplished, not hit the end of the month and have nothing you can check off. That’s depressing. You want to build a sense of accomplishment here. So the first step in goal-setting is to look at the month ahead and what is planned. Are you going on vacation? Will relatives be visiting? Kids still on vacation? Get real about what you can get done in this specific month, given your life circumstances.
  • Well-prioritized. When you look at your wish list of what you might do to market your business, which items have the most potential to bring you the best-paying sort of clients? Those are the ones to put at the top of your list…not the ones that seem easiest. That’s why checking Craigslist ads should be on the bottom, if it appears at all.
  • Simple. Keep it uncomplicated and straightforward. “I will send 10 letters of introduction” is good. “I will send 10 unique marketing emails to prospects with income over $500 million” has too many rules. What if you see a prospect that’s a perfect fit for your interests, but only $100 million in revenue and you want to email them? You should, but detailed rules like these might discourage you from pitching that prospect. What if you find another prospect where a virtually identical letter might work? Don’t talk yourself out of doing marketing that might pay off in a perfectly nice client by throwing up too many parameters.
  • In your control. Focus your goals on what you can do to forward your career, not what you’d like the universe to give you back. All we can do as businesspeople and writers is put it out there, and keep trying different approaches until we see what hits. But I can tell you, I know few writers who actively market their business who don’t see results fairly soon. So focus on your actions — they will pay off.

After talking about my philosophy of goal-setting with this writer, here is the revised goal list she set:

1. Get my writer website/blog up and running.

2. Make contact (either by email, LOI, phone or in person) with 50 potential clients.

3. Write every day.

You can see that these are all achievable goals that should move the writer closer to her dream of getting a paying assignment and turning it in. I love that her list isn’t too long.

At the end of the month, hopefully she can check them all off, feel like she’s making progress, and move on to new marketing goals.

Keep that up, and your end goal of finding more and better-paying work is going to happen.

What are your goals for September 2012? Leave a comment and create some accountability by sharing them. (Feel free to come back in a month and tell us how you did, too.)



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24 comments on “Getting it Done: A Guide to Productive Goal-Setting for Freelancers
  1. Joe Wickman says:

    This is the perfect post for today. Today I spent two hours mapping out goals for the Fall. They included, among other things:

    – Break the 50 Follower Mark on my blog

    – Writing 1 Guest Post weekly for other blogs

    – Create a Portfolio page with clips on my website

    These goals are so humble that it’s embarrassing to post them, but they’re all within my control. I have to keep in mind that next month’s goals will not be the same as this month’s.

    Thanks for the encouragement!
    Joe Wickman recently posted…Why I’m Reading Less of the BibleMy Profile

  2. Terri H says:

    I completely agree with this post. Unless, done correctly a to-do list or goal list can still keep people unproductive. For example, I’ve noticed that some people’s list tend to lack focus and have 5+ items on the list. Doing so makes you feel overwhelmed and lack direction. And then, as you mentioned, you feel defeated when you barely scratch the surface. I find it’s best to keep goal lists concise and focused and limit the items to only 5 items or less. Of course, this depends on the allotted time frame though. Goal setting and list making truly seems to be an art that most people are struggling to master.
    Terri H recently posted…How a Post-It Note Changed My Life ForeverMy Profile

  3. Anne says:

    Makes perfect sense. I can definitely see how these goals (in the closing) are achievable. Most importantly, they’re in the writer’s control. We can’t control if we’ll be given a job. However, we can control how many letters or inquires we make about jobs.

    Thanks for this.
    Anne recently posted…British Or American EnglishMy Profile

  4. I’m not so sure that emphasizing “within your control” works for everybody. Take it too literally and you’d have to virtually rule out setting goals at all: your research might be delayed by a computer virus; you might miss an appointment due to a car accident; or a hurricane might blow through, leave your home town in chaos, and set your whole schedule back two weeks. And I know a LOT of writers and business owners who say that minimum-income goals, even if they aren’t always achievable, are the best possible incentive to effective focus of efforts.

    I should put that on the Forums page: it could generate a great discussion.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…It’s a Too-Casual WorldMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Sure, go ahead!

      I think you don’t want to overthink the whole control thing. In general, assuming no major natural disaster or computer failure, it’s within our power to write every day, and to do marketing activities. More so than to proclaim that we’ll get a $1 a word gig this month. We might…but we cannot MAKE that happen — the decision is in someone else’s hand.

  5. Honor Bright says:

    This is the first time I have ever responded to …is this called a blog?
    In New Zealand where I live, the date is Tuesday 21st August and the time is approx 10.40am.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Honor — yep, it’s called a blog. You left a comment, we call it. Congrats!

      And when you left that it was about 4 pm here the day before…fascinating to me when people leave me comments from tomorrow!

  6. Honor Bright says:

    Hello Carol,
    I am partway through my freelance journalist training, my background is alternative healthcare. My gaol setting has unrealistic and not within my control, so THANKYOU for these points…I had a big ahHa…moment.
    Warm Regards
    Honor Bright

  7. Fantastic and timely post. Thanks for the reminder.
    Magdalena VandenBerg recently posted…The Power of Sharing Knowledge.My Profile

  8. Harry says:

    Great advice.

    It’s also called “internalizing your goals”, so that its realization doesn’t depend on anything external but entirely on your own effort. For example, my goal is not “to win this tennis match”, but “to play as best I could in it.” By internalizing goals this way, you will often get the same if not better results than defining them as pure objective statements.

    Check out my website if you’re interested in learning about a new fun way to keep your goals on track.:-)
    Harry recently posted…How to Take More Action: 9 Powerful TipsMy Profile

  9. Lisa Gilbert says:

    Thanks for the help with goals. I find myself setting goals and failing over and over. These are my goals to reach by the end of September:
    1. Write 5 days a week.
    2. Market my writing to anybody. This may seem too small but this terrifies me. I will send a query or LOI to 5 publications by the end of September.
    3. Log in to Freelance Writers Den daily for motivation and encouragement.

    Good luck to me.
    Lisa Gilbert recently posted…Why I Need To Win Freelance Writers DenMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Nice goals! If you haven’t started marketing yet, “start marketing” is a good, simple goal. Sometimes just doing ANYTHING is so big that it can create momentum.

      But why the terror? I have yet to hear of a writer who died of sending a query letter. All they can do is say ‘no,’ and then you move on to the next target.

      Definitely post these in the Den forum if they’re not there already, and maybe pair up with a writing buddy for accountability to keep your goals on track!

  10. J. Delancy says:

    I agree with e the technique of the first commenter (Arjen ter Hoeve). I often set goals way outside of my capabilities and work towards learning the skills that will help me to meet the goal. In the short term, “Write everyday” is hard but invaluable to anyone serious about a writing career.
    J. Delancy recently posted…The Midlife Man’s Guide To Dealing With SiblingsMy Profile

  11. Carol, I love the clarity you bring to this topic!

    I haven’t set goals for September yet, so I’ll do that now:
    – Send all my blog’s email subscribers a copy of my giant list of higher-paying blogging gigs
    – Pitch Carol Tice a really great guest post idea
    – Query at least 3 potential clients in the science & technology niche.
    – Interview at least 2 successful freelance bloggers about their career path

    Making goals simple, realistic and within my control isn’t a problem, but I must admit I don’t always prioritise with the highest-paying clients in mind. That’s something I’ll work on now that you’ve pointed it out!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Look forward to seeing that guest-post pitch, Sophie!

      If you’re like me, you tend to set more goals than you’re really going to get to in a month, so we need to know which are the top priorities we should tackle first.

      Sophie, I recommend putting these goals in the “Share your goals” thread in the Den forum, so members can support you and you can create accountability for that. Since you’re a Den member, take advantage of it.

  12. John Soares says:

    Very important points Carol.

    It’s critical to have goals that are realistic and achievable — and under our own control.

    Studies find that when people set goals and don’t achieve them, they feel discouraged and are actually less likely to succeed.
    John Soares recently posted…How the Web Changes Your Brain and Hurts Your LifeMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Absolutely, John. I think a lot of writers are feeling insecure to begin with! Then pile on setting a few goals that you can’t meet, and you start to really doubt whether you can do this. You want items you can check off and feel that sense of accomplishment — it’s key.

  13. Lois Mazza says:

    Those are great goals and I am going to borrow them for my very own. Another goal: decide what I really want from a part time free- lance career and what my true capabilities are in view of the amount of time I actually have to write. This also requires I realistically figure out the true amount of time I have to devote to a part time free-lance career.
    I need to do all this, of course before I plow ahead and take on all the work that will no doubt come flooding in once I set and work on my goals.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Feel free!

      I think a lot of writers don’t stop to ask themselves where they really want their freelance writing career to go. It’s just about jumping on any and all offers you get. But then you wake up 5 years from now and you’re still scrambling and scrounging and having to take anything, because you haven’t been strategic and focused with your marketing time, and steered the ship the direction you want.

  14. Hey Carol,

    Great point about only setting goals for things we can actually control. Doing this is also a great way to stay centred and take more control of the things we can influence.
    Damien Elsing recently posted…Do You Know What You Don’t Know?My Profile

  15. Hi Carol,

    Very smart to create goals that only depend on you to make them a reality.

    Still I would add a couple of them to the goals list as well. The paid gig goal could be the full goal or mission for August. The personal action goals might be looked at as tasks you need to do in order to make your goal be a reality in time.

    What I often do is make use of big goals. Often 10 times bigger than I could get done. This helps me to think outside the box in order to get there. Getting stuck with mediocre goals holds many people back. Thinking 10x is a great tool to grow faster.

    Thanks for your inspiration!
    Arjen ter Hoeve recently posted…The Most Important Mind Map Program For Mac ListMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know Grant Cardone is big on that 10x approach.

      It’s definitely good to have big long-range goals, and I find most writers have them. Where it falls down is figuring out how to break that down into the actions you need to take this month and this week, which is why I tend to focus people in that direction. And on what is within your control to do to get to your end goal.

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