Five Steps to a Clearer Career Focus

Georgina Laidlaw

One of the freelancer’s major challenges — if not the major challenge — is to be able to direct ourselves in our work. Focus is the key to self-direction. In most workplaces, employees have external pressures, like bosses, colleagues, project timelines that others have set, that automatically provide focus. But when you’re freelancing, there may be weeks or months in which the only pressure you feel is the pressure you place on yourself.

Without external impetus, you may well find yourself waking up each morning lacking motivation and direction. No one needs an output from you today — you could do anything. No one will notice if you’re not working, or if you’re not at your desk. Yes there are bills to pay, but will one day make any real difference?

These are the day-to-day challenges of maintaining focus while we’re freelancing. Alyssa provided tips to combat them in her post, Five Powerful Ways to Improve Your Focus. But how can the freelancer clarify their freelance career focus at a broader level? I use these five basic steps to manage my freelance focus.

Step 1. Take full responsibility.

The first thing a solo worker needs is a sense of their responsibility. It’s true that often, you may feel as if your only responsibility is to yourself, and sometimes that can seem like an easy responsibility to shirk.

When I feel this way, I usually run through the reasons why I’m freelancing, and remind myself about the way I want to live. Though it sounds innocuous, this helps me get focused even in the absence of external pressures. After all, the only person who can achieve the lifestyle I want is me. The responsibility is all mine, so I’d better get to my computer and work out what I need to do today.

microscopeStep 2. Set boundaries.

When you work for yourself, or from home, it’s easy for boundaries to slide. I’ve known quite a few freelancers who have started out well enough, but have soon found themselves working all hours, as the mood takes them; working in bed or on the couch; working in their PJs; stopping work to watch Oprah or the midday movie — the list goes on.

While freelancing is a great opportunity to find your ideal work style and pace, I’ve found that it’s important to monitor my activities and get an idea of what works for me — what helps me to feel motivated, responsible, and in control of my future.

If, for example, after you’ve worked in your PJs for a few weeks, you find that you feel less switched on, or less eager to get out, explore your field, meet people and seek new projects, then it might be a good idea to set a few boundaries around work location and attire, and see if this makes a difference to your work patterns.

Trying new ways to work and live is a great idea, but it’s most valuable if you monitor and adjust your approach intelligently as time passes, and gauge the results of those trials on your ability to achieve.

Step 3. Set goals.

Setting goals — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely goals — is an excellent way to keep yourself focused. They don’t even need to be big goals: I might decide that, on an operational level, I’m going to spend the first half hour of my day reviewing email and setting my task list. From there, I’ll go about achieving the items on that list — more mini-goals. Like savings in the bank, the achievement of small goals which, in the hurly-burly of our lives, can seem unimportant, adds up over time.

No matter what your large goals entail — lifestyle, career, and so on — they’ll only be achieved on a day-by-day basis. So setting and achieving those little goals is important in the long term. Best of all, though, is that achieving your daily goals helps you stay in control and on top of your freelance career. Goals provide the sense of pressure that can really benefit those of us without colleagues or external deadlines.

Step 4. Stay in touch.

Self-directed work can be lonely. If you’re not working with the usual constraints, benefits, and pressures that teamwork entails, you can find yourself feeling isolated, drifting, and as if you’re not contributing. Over time, these feelings can culminate, as you begin to question your capabilities, direction, and purpose.

Staying in touch with others is a solid way to combat this grim possibility. Yes, your friends and family are important, but maintaining close contact with others in your profession or field may be more valuable in helping you feel relevant, providing insight into solutions to problems you face, alerting you to new developments in your area of expertise, and so on.

Whenever I spend time discussing my work with professional peers, it reinforces my sense of place — how I fit into the professional sphere. Even though I may not be working directly with these associates right now, the experience of having intelligent, professional exchanges with them expands my mind, and reinforces my sense of my own capabilities and interests.

Step 5. Celebrate your achievements.

The corollary of having to motivate yourself to work is that there’s no one to celebrate with when you achieve your goals. That doesn’t negate the value of your achievements, or mean you shouldn’t celebrate them, though — in fact, it makes recognition of your achievements even more important!

When you achieve a goal, big or small, be sure to mark the occasion. So you spent the first half hour of your day going through your email and setting your schedule as planned? Great! Take a five-minute break to make a coffee before you knuckle down to complete those tasks. You won a contract you wanted? Excellent — tell your contacts through social network tools, or call a close, supportive friend or family member and let them know. You’re launching a new product or service? Invite those who are important to you to the launch, and solicit their feedback on your work.

Whether it’s a mid-morning coffee or a full-blown party, celebrating your achievements is an important — and easy — way to help keep yourself on track, and focused on whatever comes next.

These are the tactics I use to stay clear about why I freelance, and where my freelance career is headed. What tips can you share from your experience?