Strategic Planning for Freelancers

"If you don't know where you are going, you are certain to end up somewhere else."

Yogi Berra is known for quotes that don't make sense, but this one does.

Without a big-picture goal, chances are you'll get sidetracked along the way.

I've always been big on setting goals and planning ahead. When I worked in direct sales, it was required by the companies I worked for. So planning became ingrained in me over those 15 years.

Twice a year, my sales manager and I would get together for an entire day. We'd review the previous year, strategize for the next six to 12 months, and even map out a three-year scenario.

These strategic planning sessions gave me a target to aim for. They helped me increase my income every year. More than anything, they gave me a "grand vision" of my business, which kept my long-term goals in focus while taking care of month-to-month objectives.

Are you looking to do the same? These principles apply equally well to your freelance business.

Your semi-annual "grand vision" session

First, I recommend that you structure a day off twice a year to take care of this important piece of business. Don't try to do it on your usual day off. You will more than make up for a missed day of writing with the increased productivity you'll experience afterward.

Second, this strategic planning is not just about goal-setting or New Year’s resolutions. It goes deeper than "I'm going to make a six-figure income this year" or "I'm going to write every day for two hours" and gets into the hows and the whys behind what you do.

In fact, I would avoid doing this at the very beginning of the year to differentiate it from a standard goal-setting exercise.

Try the end of January and the end of July (my preferred times) or whatever time works best for you. Just be sure to space the sessions out by six months and stick to the same schedule in future years.

Finally, you can go through this process alone at your desk, although I'd recommend teaming up with another freelancer friend or even a spouse.

The seven components of a powerful strategic plan

Although there are some basic elements that should be included, there is no set way to create a strategic plan. You'll most likely tweak and improve yours each time you do it. Here's what I include in mine:

1. Take stock of where you are right now. Be honest. Are you rolling along like you anticipated or are you struggling? What are you doing right? What could you improve on?

2. Grade yourself. What have you accomplished in the last six months? The last 12 months? If you're keeping track of your number of projects, proposals, and income (see my article from yesterday, "Why Detail-Oriented Writers Succeed"), analyze those numbers. Give yourself a grade.

3. Look forward. In your mind, project out three years. What kind of income do you want to be making? What type of clients will you have? What kind of projects will get you excited? Where will you be living? What will your lifestyle look like? Get really detailed with this part and go beyond just writing down numbers.

4. Figure out your "whys." What attracted you to the writer's life in the first place? What do you love about being a writer? Is your writing a step toward a bigger goal, perhaps owning your own publishing business? Have you found your "purpose"? How will achieving your goals affect the people you love? This is the part I usually spend the most time on, and I find it drives everything else I do.

5. Work backward from your three-year picture. For example, let's say one of your goals is to be earning six figures in three years. Now, break that down to a two-year, one-year, and six-month figure. It could be $50,000 in two years, $25,000 for the coming year, and $12,000 in the next six months. Do this for each aspect of your three-year picture (income is the easiest, but you can also write out goals for number of clients, types of clients, average size of clients, etc.).

6. Determine activity required to achieve your income goals. Using our example of a goal of $12,000 in the next six months, calculate your other key factors: prospects, contacts, conversations, proposals, projects, and working hours (all spelled out in "Why Detail-Oriented Writers Succeed"). This is where keeping careful records becomes important. It's also kind of fun when you see yourself improving!

7. Reward yourself. These first six components would be drudgery to me if I didn't find a way to reward myself along the way. I love traveling, so I set travel rewards for various things. If I hit my six-month numbers, it might be an overnight getaway to a bed and breakfast with my wife. One- and three-year achievements come with bigger rewards, of course. I know copywriters who have bought themselves a new car, a remodeled kitchen, or new furniture for hitting their goals. Make the reward match the goal, and make it something you'll stay excited about.

This all sounds pretty easy, right?

Take a day away from writing to work on your strategic plan, and then do this: write it out. Refer to it weekly, if not daily. Repeat every six months.

What's your plan?

Let me suggest an opposite to Yogi Berra's quote: When you know where you're going, there's a good chance you'll end up there.

One of my big-picture goals is to pay off my house completely within four years. I plan to sell it at that point, take a year off to travel the world with my family, then come back to the States and build my dream home.

That's what keeps me fired up on a daily basis.

It keeps me going when I hit the occasional writer's block, have to burn the midnight oil to hit a deadline, or rewrite copy for a client when I thought I nailed it. That's when I pull out the most recent copy of my strategic plan and remind myself why I do what I do.

How about you? Why are you doing what you're doing? What big things do you want to accomplish this year? In the next three years?

Figure out the "whys" in your plan, and there will be no stopping you from living your unique version of the writer's life.

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Published: January 11, 2012

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