How to Create Benchmarks When You Work for Yourself

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If you’re one of the many people who have chosen to work for themselves, you’ve probably wondered more than once about where to start, how to determine your goals, and how to improve. The task can feel daunting.

“When we work in a corporate setting, we get feedback about our performance at a minimum once a year, but our interactions with our manager and colleagues are usually a good indication of whether or not we’re doing a good job and on the right track,” says Bonnie Marcus, president of Women’s Success Coaching and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. “When we work for ourselves at home, we get no such feedback, positive or negative. With the absence of that feedback, our tendency may be to over-criticize our work and beat ourselves up for not accomplishing more.”

First, take comfort in the fact that you’re far from alone in this. The Freelancers Union’s sixth annual “Freelancing in America” survey found that 57 million people in America work freelance —that’s 35% of the country. That’s not even fully accounting for people who have started their own businesses and thus also don’t have a boss. 

The desire to work for yourself has increased. In fact, 40% of millennials and 53% of Gen-Z have freelanced, while the same can be said for only 29% of baby boomers and 32% of Gen X. The Freelancers Union also found that 60% of freelancers chose it as a career path versus being forced into it through unforeseen circumstances such as layoffs. It’s far from a bad choice considering that freelancers make on average 70% more money per hour than other U.S. professionals. 

While the term freelancing often lends itself to common practices such as writing, editing, and other creative fields, today’s freelancers work across industries, trying to find markers for their success. Professions may be different, but the practices to create this are the same. Here’s some key things you need to know about creating benchmarks for success when you work for yourself. 

Change the way you create goals 

It can be all too easy to only focus on goals that are outside of your control, instead of setting ones you can choose to accomplish. “Instead of the goal ‘secure one new major client in November’, the goal could be to outreach to 50+ potential clients before November 1. Focusing on, and enjoying the process of building your business, whether it’s successful right away or every season, will help ensure you have the stamina to push through,” says Stephanie Thoma, a networking strategy coach. By changing the way you set some of your goals, you’ll find yourself accomplishing even more of them and feeling motivated to continue. 

Keep track of your progress daily

“My best advice is to keep a success journal,” says Marcus. “Every day, make at least one entry of something you accomplished that day, big or small. At the end of the week, review your entries and ask yourself, ‘What does this say about me?’” Maybe you work for yourself as a social media manager. Take the time to look at daily engagement, followers, and the quality of the content you’ve put out. This allows you to look back at how far you’ve come and what to prioritize for the coming days. 

Measure your progress against the previous year

If you’ve been working for yourself for some time now, use last year’s numbers as the benchmark by which to measure your accomplishments. “I track my progress against a previous time period, typically the previous week. This is fairly easy to do with the wide range of SaaS products available today that we use to achieve goals and make progress,” says Marty Spargo, cofounder of energy drink company Reize Club. Whether it’s looking at how many clients you have, your income, or a variety of other factors, measure yourself against where you were to see how far you’ve come—as well as where you’d like to improve. 

Forecast your success

On the other side, use that progress to set future targets you’d like to hit. Maybe your income increased by 5% from last month. Set that increase in your head for next month and work towards hitting it. “I compare my actual progress to my forecast results. I try to set realistic, but still optimistic targets that will require me to really push myself to achieve,” Spargo says. 

Schedule check-ins with yourself

As your own boss, a challenge can be a lack of consistent reviews of your work and progress. While you don’t have someone overseeing you to conduct them, take the time to do it yourself. “I hold a monthly meeting with, well, myself,” says Kirsten Trammel, founder of publishing services company Trammell Publishing. “At the close of each month I block off half a workday to review growth, areas for improvement, and what new goals I have for the next month. This is a check-in with myself to make sure I am hitting my benchmarks in finances, client services, and also how much I am enjoying the process,” she says.

Connect with another person working for themselves

Sometimes what you really need is another person to reassure and guide you on the right path. Who better to do that than someone in a similar situation? Jenna Hillier, a business consultant, suggests meeting with or talking over the phone to this person once a week for an hour to share where you’re at with your weekly goals and accomplishments.

Set short and long-term goals

This may be the hardest but most important step towards creating tangible benchmarks for yourself. When it comes down to it, setting goals requires digging deep into what you really want to achieve and the steps it will take to get there. Say, if you’re an interpreter, do you want to learn another language to increase your range? As a photographer, do you want to reach a certain income in order to purchase better equipment? Marcus emphasizes the importance of setting those daily and weekly goals to keep yourself on track towards the bigger ones. That may be just networking with one person this week or negotiating a pay increase, but each accomplished goal serves as a benchmark hit.

Create your own mission statement

Just because you’re working for yourself that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a guiding line for how to run your business. “I suggest creating a company mission statement based on the values with which you want to serve as your compass,” says Cori Dixon-Fyle, a psychotherapist. “These values serve as an anchor through the storm of being a business owner.” She recommends returning to your mission statement once a quarter to evaluate how well you’ve followed it and if there’s any changes you want to make to it. If you’re a tutor, for instance, this may have to do with the quality and commitment put forth in each session you provide. By doing this you’re giving yourself a guide by which to weigh your goals and decisions against. 

Don’t ignore the small successes

While scoring a big client or reaching your financial goals for the year are amazing accomplishments, don’t forget to celebrate the steps that got you there. Did you negotiate your rate up slightly? Did you create a logo design that received positive feedback? Allow yourself to appreciate each win. “Because it’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business operations, I created spreadsheets to track not only these fun milestones but also key business metrics: conversion rate, number of orders, marketing campaign performance, sales volume, web traffic, and SEO improvements, for example,” says Matt Glodz, founder and managing partner of Resume Pilots. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can feel your successes adding up when you take the time to acknowledge them.

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