How to Set Effective Goals for Your Freelance Business

By Erin Ollila on January 2, 2018

I love to ideate.

When it comes to setting business goals, whether for an entire year or a shorter time span, I could spend hours each day dreaming up ideas I'd love to turn into reality. However, a business can't thrive on goals alone. Thoughts need to be nurtured into actions, and learning how to set effective goals is integral to making that happen.

But where do you start? When there's a list of items you want to accomplish, it's important to identify what criteria you'll use to establish which goals have wings so you can keep the others temporarily grounded. As I've grown into my role of a small business owner, it's become clear that I need a system to run my ideas through. Before I take action on anything, I see if they pass the SMART criteria, a concept that has been credited to both George T. Doran and Peter Drucker.

I ask myself: Is the goal specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based? If it's not, it needs either fine-tuning or to be moved to a list of future ideas.


One of the first questions I ask potential clients who want to hire me as their content strategist is what they want to accomplish together. I'll often hear the same generic answers: "I want to create more content" or "I want to grow my audience." While these are smart goals for any business, they simply aren't specific enough to get started on a project.

Imagine if you wanted to cook a detailed family recipe for a holiday dinner. If you put your spouse in charge of picking up the ingredients with a shopping list that simply says "food," you can't get upset if they bring home a kiwi, spaghetti squash, pie crust, and Sriracha sauce. They needed details from you in order to bring home what you needed to cook.

The same goes for goal setting. Knowing how to set effective goals starts with providing as much detail as possible for the goal you'd like to accomplish. For example, when I ask potential clients for a bit more specificity, I'll learn that email marketing is a serious priority as their list only has 14 subscribers. So yes, they want to widen their audience, but what they really want is to grow a specific marketing tool. Once we identify this priority, we can work on a sales funnel that drives people onto it and work on email content that converts.

If your goal is to gain more clients, and you're realizing it isn't detailed enough, try this instead: "I plan on pitching ten new prospects, checking in with five lost leads, and actively following five new brands on social media each month."


Before you can determine whether something is successful, you'll need to define what success looks like, and this varies from person to person and project to project. In the above example, a baseline of success is communicating with 20 potential clients every month, and an additional accomplishment may be two booked clients.

However, measuring a goal may be more complicated. One of my goals this year is to develop a few self-paced courses for potential clients. One way to measure my progress toward this goal is to start by making a complete inventory of all the steps I'll need to take, like developing written guidance, designing workbooks, writing scripts, filming videos, and uploading all content into a teaching platform. Then, I can make these tasks even more specific and break them down into smaller tasks. Measuring success by this method may simply be indicating how many items you have the ability to check off the list on your own without having to hire help.

making a list SMART goals

Image attribution: Green Chameleon


Now, I could set an income goal of 4 million dollars this year, or I could be realistic and choose a number that's just out of my reach to work toward. A successful goal doesn't have to be easy, but it does have to be attainable, even if you need to struggle a little to get there. Income targets are easy examples to understanding how to judge whether your goals are realistic or not, but any goal can be checked in the same way.

When a client tells me they want to build a content library, I first ask them what type of content they want to create, and second, how much time they have to develop it all. Blogs, photographs, videos, podcasts, workbooks, e-books, long-form social media posts-these things all take a lot of time to create, edit, and publish.

Be honest with yourself when you review your goal to see how realistic or attainable it is. Even if you determine that it isn't attainable at this time, you can shelve the idea for the future when you may be better able to work on it.


One of the mistakes I made in the early stages of my business was trying to be everything to everyone. I wrote in any niche. I switched back and forth between copy and content depending on who hired me that month. I wasn't forward-thinking about my long-term work goals and where I wanted my work to take me.

Whenever I come up with a new idea, I ask myself, "How will this move me forward in my business?" This is my first check point to determine if the goal is worth executing. Then, I press on with more questions: "Will my audience relate to this?" "Will it help me reach my income target?" "Is this an original idea, or is the market already saturated?" If the idea isn't relevant for me personally or for the people I'd offer it to, I press on with something else.

time Smart goals

Image attribution: Harry Sandhu


Learning how to set effective goals means taking into account how time factors in. Ask yourself, does the goal have a time limit? You don't want a perfect-for-now plan to drag on too long, interrupting anything else you want to work on later on.

To be strategic, you need a mix of long- and short-term goals. If you're only thinking of the immediate future, you can't be sure the ideas you're putting into action are sending you in the right direction. Also, any preset long goals will help you determine if you have time to tackle any additional short-term goals.

Then, determine how much time each phase will take as you work on your goal. Will some time turn into expenses? If you're hiring contractors or virtual assistants to help you implement it, time literally becomes money. If you can complete the work yourself, realize that the time you spend working on the goal is unpaid.

Learning how to set effective goals for your freelance business takes time, trial and error, and adjusting expectations along the way. Tell me, do you use SMART goals in your business planning? What works best for you?

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Tim Graf


Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at