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.
I am back to square one, maybe even square negative five, regarding my fitness level. Similarly, but much less drastically, I’m at a low point in client numbers. Fitness and business have always swung along the same pendulum in my life, likely because they both depend solely on my own motivation and willingness to do the work. At this particular moment in time, I’m working on the basics for good health and for a prosperous business. You know, paying attention to what and how much I eat, making a point of doing some form of exercise everyday, making marketing calls, sending out queries, referring back to my business plan.
And it’s freaking hard.
Easing myself into things, as I do, I started counting calories two weeks ago, and have kept it up. Now it’s time to add in exercise, and that is tougher. I’m trying to follow a fun, slightly silly workout plan, that uses the language of RPG (roll playing games). It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and it looks pretty simple. Except, on the first day, I am supposed to do 100 reps of four bodyweight exercises. I’m going to try, but don’t have much faith that I’ll be able to do it. The first set of 25 almost killed me.
Similarly, I started sending out marketing emails a week or two ago, but I know that to see real results, I’m going to have to do much more. Like make 10 calls a day, every day, for a month or two, and continue to send out several emails per day. That’s just how it works. For someone like me, who feels weird and awkward on the phone, and who struggles with any kind of social interaction, this stuff is hard. Probably not as hard as getting back in shape, but still not exactly as easy as writing a blog post.
The important thing to remember at times like this is that it’s only hard for a little while. It won’t take long before I’m looking forward to working out, or before the marketing has done what it always does and I only need to send out 2-3 queries each week to stay busy. Everything in life is that way. When I first built my flower garden, it took a lot of work to break up the grass and fluff up the dirt. But the next spring was easier, and every one after has been too. Any BIG THING is that way. You have to approach it a bit at a time and know that it will get easier.
A friend learned to play guitar as a teenager. Then she got a job, raised some children, and didn’t play. Recently she picked it back up and says the same thing about her practice sessions. They are tough, but she knows they will get easier.
Have you ever started over with something? How did it go for you?
One of my big things for 2015 is publishing fiction. It was one of my big things for 2014, too, but it didn’t happen. Lots of other good things happened, but I didn’t publish any fiction. This year, I’m taking a few proactive steps to push myself along:
I’ve taken a spot on the calendar of a very in-demand professional editor. In December, she announced that her first available opening for 2015 was August, and I grabbed the slot. So, I now have a deadline.
Writing fiction is scheduled, just like my client work. Each day begins with #firsthourforfiction. (Except today. Today I’m sick and haven’t written any fiction yet. Having that time as part of my daily schedule makes doing the work easier. Just like when I rode the city bus to school and walked to class. Exercise was a built-in part of my day and much easier to fit in.
Daily reporting on what I’m working on will give me a good reason to actually do the work. I’m posting #firsthourforfiction reports on my public Google+ profile, and have also joined a couple of accountability groups.
All of those things may seem like normal, common sense things, but in reality, they are tactics for dealing with fear. Feeling afraid of writing is something new for me. Writing is what I do; it’s what I’ve always done. Writing is how I make decisions, it’s how I work out tangled emotions, it’s how I speak most clearly. I write hundreds — often thousands — of words almost everyday. I’ve written and published a non-fiction book without the least bit of fear. Articles don’t scare me, nor blog posts.
Why is fiction scary?
It’s not because it’s a window into my soul or anything cliche like that. I have no plans to write any kind of ground-breaking literature. I just want to tell a story. This book will be the equivalent of a TV show you might watch for entertainment. I’m not trying to change minds or say anything important
It’s not because I fear rejection. Since I’m going to self-publish, there won’t be anyone to reject it. I don’t expect it to be a best seller or anything like that. If things go according to my long term plans, it will simply be the first of many entertaining stories that will provide some small income for my retirement years. I have no plans to market this one story at all. I will simply write it, polish it, and publish it, then move on to writing the next one.
I think it is scary because some people I respect will read it, and maybe they won’t like it. Writing is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. People pay me money to write things. If the people I respect don’t like the stories I write, maybe I’m not really good at it. Then, I’m not good at anything.
Now, that is the deep, dark, sinister voice inside me. It’s not the optimistic, bright outlook I work for, or even the logical, calm train of thought that I rely on. It’s the ugly thing that I try to ignore.
It won’t be ignored, though. It asserts itself. It’s the reason this novel has not yet been published. It’s the reason so many other stories are sitting, half finished, in my documents list. It’s the reason I’m still a wannabe and cannot speak about writing fiction from a position of authority and experience.
2015 is the year of seeing projects through in spite of the fear. It’s the year of having a little courage.
For about the last three or four weeks, and maybe even a little longer, I’ve been thinking about what I want. From little things like some new socks (why do I wait until every pair has holes before I buy new ones?) to bigger-picture things like
You have to start somewhere.
what I’d like my life to look like in a year, or five, or even ten. Thinking about what I want inevitably leads to thinking about how I spend my time because, as we all know, minutes make hours and hours make days and days make years. What you do with your minutes matters.
Review & Reflect
So what have I been doing? Not writing posts for this blog! The last post was in AUGUST. This blog, and in fact, my business, enjoyed an unnoticed, uncelebrated anniversary in July. Smiling Tree Writing began (both the blog and the business) in 2009. The last two months have been the most profitable for the business to date (which is one reason there haven’t been any posts since July — I’ve been working!). Both of those facts make me feel a sense of pride, as well as a drive to push harder.
Although the last two months were the best to-date, I have a confession: November was the first time I met my original, set-in-2009 income goal. It took more than five years to reach that first (quite modest) income goal.
I have conflicted feelings about that. One the one hand, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted. I had to work that hard for
Then you can grow from where you are.
that long to make that (quite modest) amount of money? Geez. Do I really want to keep on doing this? On the other hand, it can be done. I’ve learned an awful lot about it in the last five years, and it feels like that work is paying off.
Of course, reaching that original goal means I must increase it rather drastically — by about 75%. In order to increase your income by 75% you need goals, short term, long term, measurable, specific, and all of the other things that good goals are.
Set & Implement
Once I knew what I want for the next year and beyond — insofar as anyone can know since the universe always holds surprises — I needed a map. How do I get from here to there? Here’s a glimpse of what my goal setting looks like:
make $XXXX a month, from varied sources (this will require an increase in both number of assignments and amount paid per assignment)
create a list of publications to pitch
continue looking for regular, steady, paid gigs like XXXX and XXXX — it would be great to have 2 more of those
set a regular schedule for marketing, whether it’s a couple hours a week or 15 minutes per day. Just do the work.
finish the rough draft of my story, send it to some people to read, get it to XXXX for editing in August, get it
published in October.
complete the draft in Scrivener
get the whole thing printed for draft 3
make corrections in Scrivener
send to people to read
finish the tips for XXXX book, pay to have it formatted and pay mark for a cover and get it published by February.
inquire about cost for formatting.
if it’s not all already in Scrivener, get it there.
start writing on smilingtreewrites again, at least every other week.
update everything in my portfolio, add new work
As detailed as that list may seem (and it goes on for several pages, and covers a variety of categories besides professional and health) it is missing at least one crucial element. Dates. Although it mentions some months, there are no specific milestone-type dates. For example, this list doesn’t say how many letters of introduction or queries I will send each week in pursuit of new work. It doesn’t say by what specific date I will have completed the rather painful second draft of my manuscript, or what date I will have “the whole thing printed.” As it stands, this list of goals is only a partially useful.
After I wrote this list, I made another for how long I’d spend on various activities each week or month. Doing that led me to add a few things. Next, I’ll put things on my calendar, so that I see them everyday. I may even make some kind of visual aid to hang next to my desk to help me stay focused as I’m working.
The hardest part is implementation. I can write workout plans all day long, but that won’t help me become a runner again. To do that, I’ll have to put on my running shoes and hit log in some miles. Reaching your goals isn’t magic, no matter how magical it may feel when you do.
When do you review and set new goals? Do you have a process? Can you share any sage advice about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to reaching goals?