3 Smart Goals for Creative Freelancers

Successful freelancers are setting these 2023 goals.

Did you know that many hiring managers and companies consider freelancers an increasingly valuable part of the design process?

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Nearly 8.2 million people have joined the freelance marketplace since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 70.4 million freelancers working in the US as of last year, the opportunity to build a meaningful career as a freelance designer or creative has never been greater.

But why do hiring managers want freelance workers? They bring unique ideas to the table and a fresh perspective to a company’s marketing efforts. In some cases, they can be more cost-effective than in-house hires.

Why is it important to set professional goals?

The most successful freelancers are those who know what they want. They set and prioritize goals to help shape their careers. That includes seeking valuable certifications and a continuous-learning mindset.

Goals can help you create the future you want. They can guide and motivate you as you build a successful freelance career. Attainable, realistic goals can be as big or as small as you like. For example, some people create short-term goals for a month or quarter. Others have year-long plans and fold smaller goals into their process.

No matter how you want to build your goals, they should always be measurable. Goals with action steps and forethought are much easier to accomplish than those without.

Three smart goals for creative freelancers.

Have you ever set goals that you had trouble achieving? It’s a common problem. Perhaps your goal was too broad, or you didn’t give yourself enough time to get the work done. Fortunately, there’s a framework that can help you avoid these pitfalls: the SMART method.

This method first made its way into the popular consciousness via George T. Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. It continues to influence companies and individuals today.

SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These guidelines offer best practices for setting a goal and determining its success. Every SMART goal should have the following qualities and answer the following related questions:
  • Specific — Is there a clear description of what you want to achieve? 
  • Measurable — Is there a metric or number that helps measure when you’ve achieved the objective?
  • Attainable — Is it realistic to accomplish this goal in the chosen time and with your allocated resources?
  • Relevant — Is the goal meaningful and aligned with your business priorities?
  • Time-bound — How soon does the goal need to be completed?
Setting SMART goals as a freelancer might be different than setting goals as part of an organization. For example, companies often use SMART goals to gauge performance, but as a freelancer, they’re an important self-accountability tool.

Sometimes goals can feel insurmountable until you break them up into smaller components, especially if they don’t neatly fit the SMART guidelines. But those smaller goals can be SMART on their own.

The following three popular freelancer goals show how smaller component objectives can help make big goals seem doable.

Goal #1:
Develop stronger business habits in 2023.

Developing stronger business habits in 2023 can be a good starting goal, but how can you improve it? You can specify the things about your business habits that you want to change. For example, some specific details to focus on for this goal can include:

● Increase annual earnings by doubling my rate.

● Improve time-management skills by dedicating specific hours to client projects.

● Network with at least five new freelance professionals each month.

● Improve work-life balance by scheduling more time away from work.

Know your worth.

There’s a common mistake that many creative professionals make when they enter the workforce: undervaluing their labor and skillset. Maybe they’re excited to get paid for what they’re doing, so they charge less than they should. Or they charge nothing and do it “for exposure” or experience.

But even a beginner’s work has value and deserves fair compensation. And the best way to determine that compensation is to know your worth. 

Companies hire based on personality, aptitude, and experience, but they also have to balance their budgets. That means freelancers may need to research their field and clients to find the magic number. To help determine and set rates, they should:

  • Use online resources, like the Bureau for Labor Statistics and industry reports.
  • Check out salary surveys in trade publications or magazines.
  • Talk to peers who have related jobs or similar experiences.
  • Account for everything, including time away from work.

Ultimately, freelancers need to protect themselves by saying no to projects that don’t provide value. That means setting boundaries around doing work outside of scope and doing work for trade. 

Effectively manage your time.

Time management is one of the biggest obstacles to productivity, and it’s even more of a hurdle for freelancers. Productive creatives have many tools in their kit to manage their day, but even the best tips don’t matter without consistency.

How do some of the most productive creative pros manage their to-do lists? As it turns out, there are a few key themes:

  • Create a consistent schedule and stick to it. Your working hours are your working hours. Blocking off time to focus leads to higher productivity. To further protect those times, schedule meetings or calls for specific days. Consider dedicating time to correspondence like email and only checking your inbox during that period. More importantly, don’t forget to build days off into your schedule
  • Create to-do lists to stay focused. Whether you use a bullet journal, app, or other method to track your to-dos, making a list allows you to prioritize daily tasks.
  • Track your time. Some creatives track their time for billing purposes. Others do it to see just how long it takes them to work on a particular task. Tracking your time can help you visualize your workload. It also enables you to avoid scope creep and plan for future projects.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Like with billing, saying no to projects you don’t have the capacity for helps you ensure the quality of your existing work. Likewise, don’t be afraid to turn down new jobs (or even tasks for existing ones) that your schedule can’t accommodate.

Join a freelance community.

Networking is one of the most critical tools to help freelancers and creatives build their careers. By joining a freelance community, you can meet with other professionals and find support and encouragement from people who know exactly what you’re going through. 

Freelance communities offer opportunities for mentorship and job-sharing, too. If you’re overloaded and need to pass something off, who better share it with than someone you trust in your community? 

How can you find a freelance community? Some of the most common entry points include:

  • Private discussion groups formed as part of an online course
  • Freelance chat rooms, including Slack or Discord communities
  • LinkedIn

Building a community with other creative professionals helps reduce the loneliness that can sometimes occur while building a freelance career. In addition, it’s a valuable resource from which anyone — even those with full-time jobs — can benefit.

Schedule time off the clock.

Remember how we said it’s important to schedule downtime as part of your freelance experience? We meant it. Work-life balance is essential. Whether that means working shorter and more intensive sprints or adhering to a traditional workday, you need to give yourself a break without feeling guilty.

Many creatives recommend pursuing a hobby separate from their regular freelance work. That means doing something without thinking about how to monetize it. Sometimes those projects can help you overcome a creative rut because they offer the freedom to work without constraints. Or they might be something you just do for fun.

That same grace extends to taking vacations. Studies show that lost leisure time costs money as employees suffer burnout and develop negative attitudes. But as a freelancer, the only person who can force you to take time off is you. Because you’re not employed by a company, you need to work your “paid time off (PTO)” into your billing. That way, you can still get paid while sipping a cold drink on the beach.

 Learn from mistakes.

Working as a freelancer provides many learning opportunities, especially regarding healthy work habits. Whether you’re transitioning from a salaried position to full-time freelance work or you’re working to supplement your income, try to avoid the following pitfalls:

  • Accepting low-paying gigs. While everyone starts somewhere, that doesn’t mean you need to accept terrible pay. Know your worth! Only take jobs that will serve you by helping pay for your needs, offering creative growth, or both. In addition, late invoices and lean months can create issues. Factor those hiccups into your rates as well. Building a career from different revenue streams is the best way to avoid relying on low-paying clients.
  • Taking on too much work. We’ve all done it, but accepting more work than you can handle because you think it’ll reflect positively is a recipe for disaster. Instead, if you’re at capacity, consider using your network to pass the opportunity along to someone else.
  • Working around the clock without a schedule or routine. As a freelancer, you need to protect your leisure and rest time by scheduling routine workdays. It’s worth it.
  • Neglecting personal care and mental health. Burnout is real and disruptive, and recovery takes a long time. Taking time for personal care and mental health is essential to an effective, productive freelance career. Don’t skip meals to do work. Don’t pass up exercise because you think it’ll take too much time. And don’t neglect personal relationships to focus on work. These things are all vital parts of life.

Another way to learn from past mistakes is to take some time to review your work, processes, and results after a project. Did you accomplish everything you wanted to? Are you proud of the work? What kinds of improvements would you make to better communicate with the client?

Use your answers to make intentional improvements in how you design your freelance career.

Goal #2:
Grow your skills and get certified.

People learn by doing. Continuous, steady improvement is often the best way to show others that you’re good at what you do. Another way to show clients that you’re ready, willing, and able to do the work is by pursuing professional certifications.

Let’s talk about the ways freelance creative professionals like you can change the way you think about design and earn the right certifications to impress potential clients from the outset.

Improve your design process.

Did you know many employers are curious about how freelancers approach the design process? A recent survey revealed that potential clients want to understand how designers work or what makes them tick. That means they might ask you the following types of questions about your design process:

What are the habits that make you successful during the creative process?

  • Why are you passionate about design, and what do you perceive as beautiful?
  • What do you usually do when you have no inspiration?
  • Where do you get inspired? What steps do you take?

It definitely pays to think about how and why you do your work, including both your big-picture motivations and the minute details of your day-to-day habits.

Get certified.

Whether you’re making a mid-career pivot or want to build upon your existing skills, one of the best ways to show your abilities and confidence is to earn certification in a particular software app or skill.

One of the biggest benefits of Adobe Certification is that it provides demonstrable proof of your skills with one or more Adobe Creative Cloud apps. This can make a big difference, especially if your portfolio doesn’t contain a lot of client work. Earning specialty credentials is an extra step that shows a true commitment to mastering multiple powerful Adobe apps.

For newer freelancers or people just starting their careers, earning that certification can help you stand out in a crowded field. It can even help propel you onward in your career

There’s never been a better time to earn certification in almost any professional skill. Online universities and continuous-learning opportunities are easy to find and can create a versatile career path for any creative professional. And for those who want to use industry-leading apps and services like those in Adobe Creative Cloud, scheduling your exam and becoming an Adobe Certified Professional provides that extra level of credibility and expertise.

If you’re unsure where to start, looking at exam guides and practice tests can give you a solid idea of what it takes to earn certification.  

Goal #3:
Showcase your skills.

You have the skills, but now it’s time to share them in a tangible way. Your resume lists your skills and certifications, but your portfolio shows prospective employers and clients how you put them into practice.

Update your freelance portfolio.

What do potential clients and employers look for in a portfolio? Most hiring managers want proof of experience. Others want to see diverse concepts that show evidence of versatility. Above all, prospective clients and hiring managers want to see a creative spark of originality. 

Your portfolio is the visual representation of your resume. It’s proof that you have the skills to do the job. As with resumes and cover letters, you should update your portfolio regularly. In fact, customizing your portfolio for each client proposal can help you win business.

Portfolios vary by industry and skillset. Some hiring managers want to see a physical book, while others prefer a digital experience. No matter what shape it takes, a solid creative portfolio typically includes the following details for each project:

  • Case studies to show how your work solves business challenges
  • Snippets or excerpts of the work
  • Screenshots of digital elements
  • Results in the form of success metrics
  • Testimonials from satisfied clients or colleagues
  • Samples of your work, including personal projects
  • Awards and achievements

Sometimes you can’t include previous client work in a portfolio because you don’t have permission to use it. That’s why it’s always good to have a diverse set of options.

In addition to a physical portfolio, consider building a digital version with Adobe Portfolio that prospective hiring managers can easily review. This helps develop your online presence and allows you to showcase your certification badge(s).

 Expand your network.

As you build your portfolio, don’t forget the importance of networking. Personal connections can help you cultivate relationships and put your work in front of others. It’s also a good idea to know the key players in your industry. While you may not be able to network with them directly, being able to speak to what they do well can show that you’re aware of industry trends.

Not sure where to start? Consider joining the Adobe Creative Career Discord or checking out Adobe Live on Behance. Don’t forget about social media, either. Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Instagram can help foster connections with other creatives.

Collect testimonials.

Testimonials are important. Over half our surveyed hiring managers told us they’d be more likely to hire an applicant with less experience but more positive testimonials from clients. But what kind of testimonials should you request from your clients, and how can you showcase them?

Here are some ideas:

  • Written reviews. The most basic testimonial form is a short quote that you can display in a highlight reel, carousel, or other digital form.
  • Social media tags and posts. One of the best ways to showcase your creative work is on Instagram. Ask your clients to share and tag the work you've done for them so you can gain exposure to a wider audience.
  • LinkedIn recommendations. You’re on LinkedIn. So are your clients. Have them vouch for your skills and write recommendations. Lean on previous employers, too, especially if you still have good relationships with contacts at that company.

Testimonials are essential because clients want to do business with freelancers they trust. They’re social proof that you know what you’re doing and can do it well. 

Goals are the difference between having a design hobby and a design career.

Design is a rewarding experience, but there’s a big difference between having a hobby as a part-time designer and building a career. Setting goals for both the long- and short-term allows you to gauge your success and find out whether owning your own business (or even working in a design environment for an agency) is for you. And as we’ve discussed, creating SMART goals is one of the best ways to stay on target.

If you’re interested in taking the next steps to build your design career but aren’t sure what goals to set or how to format them, download the worksheet linked below and fill it out.

Frequently asked questions

What is a freelancer?

Freelancers work on a project-by-project basis. They can work remotely or in person and typically have the flexibility to set their own rates, hours, and workloads.

How can I become a freelancer?

As a freelancer, you need to take several steps to ensure that you can find and keep clients. First, you should know your skillset, and then you should develop a portfolio of work showcasing those skills. The next step is to find clients through networking or cold contacts like emails. Platforms like Fiverr or Upwork can help you find jobs, but relying on gig work platforms could lower your earning potential.

What does a freelancer do?

Freelancers take on work of varying types, from creative projects that involve design or videography to technical projects that require coding.

How can I start freelancing as a student?

Students who start as freelancers gain valuable experience that they can then use to sell themselves to clients. The process of becoming a freelancer is similar for students and professionals. Consider networking with other students to help them with projects that require your skillset. You may not be able to charge them as much as you would a traditional client, but you’ll have the opportunity to gain experience and build up your portfolio.

Become an Adobe Certified Professional.

Certification is more accessible than ever before. Schedule an online exam or visit a Certiport Authorized Testing Center to showcase your skills.