One of my strengths as a writer is being able to think up lots of ideas—story ideas, ideas on how to tell a story, ideas on how to find new clients, ideas about running a business. Ideas are usually the easiest part of the process.
Even though I like brainstorming and coming up with ideas, I don’t usually enjoy pitching story ideas to publications. One reason is that it takes a ton of time, and it’s unpaid time. Another is that publications aren’t great about responding an uncomfortable percentage of the time.
The problem is that if I don’t spend time brainstorming on a fairly regular basis it’s much harder. Recently, an agency client asked me to put together a list of potential ideas for one of their clients. They were paying me to do the work, which was awesome, and since it’s one of my favorite things, I agreed. When I sat down to actually start the list, I felt that deer-in-the-headlights thing. Frozen. Unable to come up with anything. For one panicky moment, I thought I’d lost it; my idea well had run dry.
Of course, 10 minutes of reading and an hour or two of thinking (while doing other things—you can’t let ideas know you’re chasing them, you have to come at them sideways) I had a pretty good list. But it was a good reminder that even the things you’re good at require some practice.
I’m adding “participate in a pitch fest once a quarter” to my list of goals for 2022!
Do you participate in business planning? Does your plan sit in an ignored folder all year? This post details my planning process and it’s long. I’d love to know if you have a similar planning process!
I’ve always been a planner. Usually, the urge to start making lists and considering goals and looking at the previous year starts in December, but this year it came a little early, and deserves a bit more thought. In 2020, I tossed the plan out in March and decided to simply concentrate on survival and self-care. At the end of 2020, I decided to carry through with the same in 2021. Like many others, I wanted some time to recover from living in the middle of a pandemic.
This year, though, I’m ready to return to my plan because without it, I feel a bit lost. I still have goals, but I don’t have a clearly mapped path to reaching them because my plan has always served as my map.
It came to my attention recently, during an excellent Thursday session of #FreelanceChat on Twitter, that not everyone plans in quite as much detail as I do. I’m sharing my planning process in case others may find it a useful jumping-off point for their own planning.
Everyone I’ve ever talked to about planning, calendaring, or tracking goals has a different set up, so what I’m describing is the mishmash of tools that works for me. There are several elements:
My notebook – I use a half-size, 3-ring binder with some dotted paper and some plain paper for the different sections, which include my daily task lists, my home-related goals, an area for jotting and journaling, and a budget area.
A Google Drive file – it’s officially called Notes, but within the folder, there’s a document titled “Marketing 2021” and that’s where I pretty much free-write what I want, how the previous year went, what I’m planning, and anything else remotely related to my business.
Wave Accounting – Although it may not seem like a planning tool, my accounting software is also my client list, and it shows how much I earned from each client, my monthly earnings, my previous years’ earnings, and any weird dips or spikes in my income.
Google Calendar/Calendly – These tools are for the day-to-day, nitty gritty but are also useful in planning my marketing efforts across the year.
A Google spreadsheet – I track potential clients using a spreadsheet. I note their name, title, company, LinkedIn profile, email address, date contacted, and the result. If I’m actively seeking work from them, I try to get in touch every three months either by email or through LinkedIn.
I told you it was a mishmash! It works for me though. Now, I’ll explain how I use the tools and end up with a clear map for running my business.
Using the tools to plan
When I begin planning, the first step is to dig into the plan from the year before. I can’t do that this year, but I can look at my statistics from the last few years. Did my earnings increase? (they did!) Did I have a more balanced client list? (in some ways) Were my earnings spread evenly across my client list? (more than in years past, but there’s room for improvement) Did I keep up with my marketing plan? (no plan meant nothing to keep up with) How many hours did I work, on average? (this number is ALWAYS lower than I expect it to be, which isn’t a bad thing)
And, because I can’t separate my professional life from my personal life, I also look at my household goals (like budgeting or saving, home improvements, and vacations) and my self-care goals (fitness, nutrition, health concerns, craft projects, books, and on and on – this is often the longest list!)
Once I’ve taken a hard look at what happened the previous year, I start thinking about what I want for the next year. I figure out how much money I want to make, then break that number down into quarterly, monthly, and weekly amounts. I decide if I want to actively seek new clients, and if so, how should I find them? I think about the industries I write for, and whether or not I’d like to add to that list and if so, what do I want to add? I consider personal projects that are related to work, like writing this blog, or working on a fiction project. I jot down pretty much all of my wildest dreams — for the next year — in this phase. This part is pretty fun.
I do the same kind of thing for household and self-care.
Next, I try to be realistic, and decide if anything on the “wildest dreams list” should be pushed out into a 5- or 10-year plan. I look at the gains made in the last few years and try to aim for similar improvements in my goals and also try to figure out what the “stretch” goal would look like. Then, I break it all down again into quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals.
The big plan is useless if that’s where it ends. I review it all each quarter, and make adjustments to the monthly goals if necessary. Each week, when I lay out the two-page daily task spread, I look back at the monthly plan and fill out a section titled “this week.” That section also includes things like due dates, bills to pay, and anything else important to remember.
(A note about the weekly and daily lists) This is super nerdy, but I write the day/date in a different color pen. Monday might be blue, Tuesday, pink, and so on. I write the list itself in black, and cross items off in the color pen for that day. This helps me to see exactly what day I did the tasks on the “this week” list. It also gives me a decent overview of my productivity. I’m almost always most productive on Monday and it declines as the week goes on.
Another element of how I plan has to do with adding or taking away parts of the process. I used to treat my 3-ring binder like a bullet journal, with all the pretty spreads and such. Now I simply use my color-coding system and create the sections. I don’t find a lot of creative fulfillment in drawing pretty headers for each week or graphs for progress toward goals. I’d rather spend my time working on a quilt or reading or taking a walk.
One area that I’ve included in my plan each year and struggled with is that of professional development. One year I planned to read one business book per month and only finished one or two. Another year, I planned to do a couple of courses but didn’t. I want to give this area more thought, figure out exactly what the specific barriers are, and try again to get better at what I do.
I’m thinking more about the number of direct clients versus agency clients that I work with, which is another fairly new element to my planning process. I tend to prefer agency clients, but with worries about the PRO Act, I think it’s wise to balance things out a bit and add more direct clients to my roster. I’m also spending much more time analyzing how I found the best clients on my list. I’m hoping that can inform my marketing efforts. Sadly, I think most of the best ones came from sending LOIs (letters of introduction). LOI campaigns are an enormous amount of work.
(A note about LOI campaigns) My ratio is usually somewhere around 1 good client for every 100 or so LOIs sent. Finding the companies, the correct contacts, their email addresses, sending the emails, following up, and tracking it all takes a ton of time and effort. Usually, if I’m doing an LOI campaign in a given year, I pay for LinkedIn Premium for a month or two, along with an email finder (it’s been Hunter.io in the past) then spend a set amount of time each day building a database. Once I have 200-500 potential contacts, I cancel the paid subscriptions and start working the list, sending LOIs, followups, following the people on LinkedIn and Twitter, and commenting on their stuff.
I have several friends and colleagues who are my accountability partners. One exchanges emails with me at the end of each month, saying what we did and didn’t do and what we want to do in the next month. Another has become something of a planning partner and we’ve been doing Zoom calls where we discuss our client lists, our niches, our incomes, and so on. We’re doing a series of calls to help each other work through the planning process this year. I’m also part of a group of technology writers who casually chat and discuss issues we might be having or brag on ourselves, or whatever.
Each of my accountability partners has been crucial to my business journey. If you’re going to plan, it’s enormously helpful to have someone help you pay attention to whether or not you’re following it.
My Plan Is My Map
You can probably see why I felt a little bit lost the last year or so. Without the detailed plan to refer back to, I didn’t always feel like I was on the right track. Instead of following a defined and clear path through the forest of running a business, I was taking a leisurely stroll whichever way the wind blew me. For some people, strolling is the better way because there’s less pressure. But for me, the map can serve another purpose, and that is confirmation that I’m actually getting somewhere.
Plenty of times, I’ve gotten out my quarterly plan, and been able to see that I did exactly what I set out to do. Maybe minor adjustments are in order, but often, I’m trekking along the path I charted at the beginning of the year. That is as motivational as anything else I can think of.
I’ve been thinking about the word nourish lately. What it means when it comes to nutrition, creativity, self-care, business, and even lead generation. I guess this time of year is the time when I reflect on my goals in every area and what’s working and what’s not.
I used to divide my task list each day into sections: Work, Self, and Home. It helped me remember that the tasks I did to take care of my household were important, and not just impediments to running my business. The Self section came after that, when it became clear that taking care of myself was equally as important as my business and my household. If I’m not engaged in some creative pursuit, my performance in all other areas suffers. If I’m not taking care of my health, my productivity declines.
This time of year, I look at each of those areas and think about what my goals for the year were and how did I do? Did I get closer? Did I change my mind about any of them? Did I just ignore them and coast along?
After a visit with my doctor last week, it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t making progress toward some of my health goals, which made me reconsider the work I’ve been doing in that area, which led me to the word nourish. As I began to plan some shifts in how I eat (I’ve been following a low carb, keto-ish plan for a few years, and I’m going to move to more of a whole-food, lower fat plan), I also began to think about what else I might need to spend some time nourishing.
Google tells me that there are two definitions of nourish:
1. provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition “I was doing everything I could to nourish and protect the baby.” 2. keep (a feeling or belief) in one’s mind, typically for a long time “he has a long nourished an ambition to bring the show to Broadway”
Those two definitions can apply to all three of my focus areas. There are certain business goals I’ve nourished for a long time (I’m happy to tell you that one of my longest-held income goals is within reach this year). This week, a friend and I have blocked out some time to talk about our business plans for 2022, and help each other figure out how to reach our goals.
Of course to meet those health-related goals I need the right nourishment, and not just when it comes to food. That definition includes “other substances.” In my case that means the right mix of exercise, medications, and rest. The best formula of all of those things changes over time, and it’s helpful to consider what’s working and, for me, right now, what’s not.
Nourishing my creative self is one component of good mental health. The thing that’s been missing here is creative writing. I’m trying to build that habit back, but it takes consistent nourishment!
Do you find that proper physical nourishment improves your creative life? Do you have long-held goals that you keep well-fed?
As a gardener, I know how important it is to keep the soil nice and balanced and full of nourishing substances. If I can manage that, surely I can manage to nourish all the facets of myself, too.
Every spring, and again every fall, I find myself feeling a bit lost. I skip workouts, or ignore my weekend to-do lists, and feel generally either frantic (usually in the spring) or discontented (in the fall). I’ve come to realize that my schedule needs to be readjusted seasonally.
In the spring and summer, most of my spare time is spent outside, either in my flower garden or my family’s big vegetable garden. The weekends are filled with cookouts, trips to the creek, boat outings, free concerts, camping, parties, and other outside activities. It’s hot, so I exercise earlier in the day, usually first thing. I don’t love exercise in the morning, but that’s what works best when it’s 90 degrees at noon.
In the fall and winter, I have to chide myself to go outside. There’s nothing happening in the garden, other than a long list of chores that need to be done, and especially since the pandemic, friends and family aren’t having many indoor gatherings. I want to find the beauty in winter, and be comfortable with the colder temperatures (and let’s be honest here: I live in Tennessee, where it’s rarely below freezing during the day) but I’m still not there. I move my exercise to the afternoon, or in less virulent times, I go to the gym. I detest wearing layers of clothes and constantly cold toes and fingers make me cranky.
Knowing that the lack of sunshine and activity is going to affect my mental health, I’ve started focusing on projects that bring me joy and that are easier to do during the winter. I’m learning to quilt – all by hand – and find it a relaxing, fulfilling hobby. I read much more during the cold weather, and work on making my habitat more pleasant. I cook more and am always delighted to have some of the garden produce preserved. This year, I’m adding writing fiction back into the mix after neglecting it for a couple of anxiety-filled years.
One of the unexpected gifts of the pandemic was a focus on self-care during the winter. Going into the cold months of 2020 I challenged myself to find ways to enjoy being at home, and tried to embrace the idea of hygge. It worked, to some degree. I did much more decorating during the holidays, and wrote letters to friends and family I’d usually see. I printed and framed a bunch of family photos and made a big gallery wall that I love.
Even with all the activities and self care, I still found myself depressed by the end of January. This year, I’m going to try even harder to spend time outside to see if that helps. There are a couple of hikes that I want to do and I’m building a better cold weather wardrobe. I’ve returned to running after taking a year off, and that means being outside — oddly, I quite enjoy running in cooler weather, once I motivate myself to get out there — so hopefully that will help too.
I’m also trying to work about two hours a day more while it’s cold out. It seems reasonable to work a bit more when the garden isn’t calling me to come see what’s blooming. Plus, my work brings me great satisfaction and January is an excellent time for marketing.
Do you find your schedule changes significantly during the winter?
In most of my life, that’s been the key: just picking a direction and going. The hardest part, as the cliché says, is getting started.
Yesterday, I waffled back and forth about blocking here, on my professional site, where I invite prospective clients to make sure I’m real and to look at my portfolio. I want to blog about topics unrelated to content marketing, so is this really the best place for that? Also, I’m planning an overhaul that could include a major redesign, so it seems like a good time to move the blog if that’s what I’m going to do.
I went back and forth like that all day, and was still thinking about it this morning. Finally, I decided that if I want to blog again, I need to just blog again. As I discuss the future of this website with a designer, I’ll reconsider whether or not this is the best place for it to permanent reside or not. Just as there are arguments against writing about gardening, running, pets, personal opinions, or whatever else on my professional site, there’s also the fact that I don’t try to hide my human-ness from my clients. I don’t mind if they get to know me as a person.
Anyway, this is hopefully the first of many posts to come. I’m on a one-person crusade to bring blogging back in the face of social media platforms behaving badly and the world essentially being scary right now. I want to read about other people’s pets and hobbies and favorite recipes and I want to share mine, too. And, really, if I worked in an office, I’d discuss those things with my co-workers, so I don’t necessarily feel it’s unprofessional to talk about them here.
Do you have a blog? I’d love to add it to my Feedly stream. Drop a link in the comments. Let’s bring blogging back together!
Photo of me, contemplating this decision on a walk.