As freelancers, we surround ourselves with endless to-do lists, setting different targets based on head and/or heart on a near-daily basis. There are so many hopes we have for our careers, be that a dream client, a dream connection, or even seeing our work in a certain place. Perhaps as a make-up artist you might dream of winning an Oscar, or as a freelance designer your work gracing the cover of a bespoke coffee table tome.

Whichever it is, setting goals in the right way can often help us see the wood for the ‘wish list’ trees. It’s all about goal shaping as well as goal setting. Personally, I’ve found clarity with this through mood boarding. By pinning the names of different publications on a pin board, I find I realise which ones are truly on my ‘must collaborate’ list.

But goals can often get tangled up in the day-to-day to-do list and muddled in the process. It’s hard to see a goal such as ‘connect with big client A’ when it’s listed alongside things like ‘send invoice to regular client B’.

Sue Belton, a Lifestyle Coach, who works with professionals to help them set and achieve goals, explains there’s a theory of goal setting, established by researchers Locke and Latham. “There are studies around goal setting and the effects it has, so it’s really based on the premise that conscious goals effect action. They found that goal setting increases motivation, commitment and also the intensity and effort at which you do things.”

Does that strike a chord with you? Belton continues: “What I think is a key thing for freelancers – from my own experience of working from home – is it also stops ‘shiny object syndrome’, that thing of always going for the next big thing, and switching from ‘this to that’. So it helps to have measurable goals.”

“Make sure they’re SMART goals”, she adds: “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.”

As freelancers, it can be hard to set (and stick to) goals – often in a staff job, goals would be set for us via appraisals and one-to-ones. We’d have guidance from a boss as to what was a suitable goal. That’s a double-edged sword for the self-employed entrepreneur. On the one hand, a boss might steer you in a direction you’re not keen on, or stifle a goal. But they also might have a grand idea you’ve not thought of – and they’ll make you accountable, too.

For Sarah Townsend, writing and publishing her new book Survival Skills for Freelancers was a huge exercise in goal setting. She cleared time in her diary to commit to the project, and now spends time promoting it, appearing on podcasts to talk about freelancing and following up reviews.

You can also see that the one big goal of ‘write a book’ has lots of little goals surrounding it, such as ‘promote book’ or even ‘achieve #1 bestseller’. Townsend explains: “You’ve heard the expression ‘a goal without a plan is just a wish’? That to me sums up why goals are vital when you’re self-employed. Drive and ambition are qualities for a successful freelance life. Goals give you a sense of direction and something to aim for. Setting goals can be as simple as achieving a list of tasks on your to-do list, while long-term goals may need breaking down into manageable tasks. When you hear someone describe the vision for their business, that’s basically a long-term goal. It keeps them focused, motivated and heading in the right direction.”

She adds: “I’m naturally very driven and it’s easy for my goals to become obsessions. For example, I set myself the target of getting 100 five-star reviews for Survival Skills for Freelancers within a month of launch. It was a crazy challenge by anyone’s standards, and it took up a LOT of head space, but it was worth the effort!”

There’s also something to be said for letting go of a goal. Some might be ones we strive to achieve across a lifetime – something financial for our freelance life, working with that big client we reached out to on LinkedIn, or even travelling as a freelancer. Having the goal of working from the beach in Thailand might be one you have floating in your mind, but you might find it’s not realised until another decade has passed. Does that make it less of a goal? I’d argue it does not. It’s about that shaping concept again; Short-term vs long-term goals.

I think we hold our true goals in our hearts, and carry them around like little nuggets of gold, ready for us to pan for them when the time is right. I’ve learned through trial and error that some goals take a lot more effort than we might first expect, and others come more easily.

And finally, what about the lure of other people’s goals? You know, the ones you see them planning or achieving on social media and then comparing with your own? It’s easy to be distracted by them, but I would sign off with a word of warning not to let them muddy your own goal waters. Sue Belton advises: “It’s that thing of always thinking someone else has the answer of magic solutions. In terms of goals, it also helps that you take action. You’re breaking things down into small, manageable steps, which stops them from overwhelming you.”