Before I transitioned to freelancing, I used to love end-of-the-year strategy sessions. Sure, most people in a typical workplace may be bored by the icebreaker; I, however, found clarity in assessing the past year and encouragement in planning for the future.
When I began my freelancing career, I held solo planning meetings and found they set the tone for my whole year. Since not everyone makes spreadsheets and worksheets for fun, I began inviting my freelancer friends to my annual sessions, which is now known as the "Annual General Meeting of Freelancers (AGM)" and is proudly in its third year.
Here are some lessons I learned from these AGMs that journalists can benefit from, regardless of their position:
(1) Put on your management hat
One of the crucial lessons you tend to learn as a freelancer is that, unlike in a typical corporate role, you are in charge of everything. That means that you get to do all the wonderful work on the ground, but also carry the responsibility to strategize and manage.
One of the tricks is not just recognizing that you are both the worker and the manager, but finding appropriate times to take on each role to function effectively. For instance, deciding in the middle of a busy, tiring workday whether you should pivot your entire work skillset or diversify your income mix is not particularly fruitful.
Year-end strategies are a chance for the worker in you to sit back and put on the management hat. That means dreaming big and tapping into what you want to do next. But, it also means being honest and strategic about your weaknesses and things that hold you back. So, take this seriously.
Personally, I like to do my AGM on a quiet afternoon at a coffee shop, away from any deadlines, to make myself focus on it fully.
(2) Face the feedback facts
The kind of strategy you use to review your year doesn’t matter, as long as you do it honestly and vulnerably. Very often we try to build what we should do next based on deep but slightly vague feelings, like, "another job would make everything better" or, "I don’t make enough money as a freelancer."
Though it can be painful, it’s necessary to take time to genuinely work through what happened in the last year. Perhaps make a monthly breakdown or a list of stories or clients. Try to consider what kind of work you did, both in medium and content. If you have a variable income, it can be helpful to use your finances as a tracker to give some idea of how the year flowed.
I also recommend looking at your work environment as a key area to review. Did you like how much you worked, where you worked and in what rhythm? How are your networks and support structures? Are changes possible? All of this can come together to give you a much better understanding of what actually happened during the year.
(3) It’s okay to be intimidated by your dreams
I remember looking around the table after my first group AGM. Once everyone was done strategizing alone, there was a sense of heaviness and anxiety. Eventually, someone admitted, “Now that I know what my goals are, I feel like I have something to lose.” Everyone agreed, even though their dreams were quite different.
I happen to think that the fear of failing can mean that you’ve touched on the exact nerve of where you should be heading. One of the strategies I have found to work well in this regard is a three-step exercise inspired by freelance reporter Rebecca L Weber.
First, focus on just your desires, needs and wants. Sit with them before jumping ahead. Do you need to make more money so that you can afford to support your family? Do you deeply crave more creative or artistic work? Or, is your big desire to leave a toxic workspace?
Once you’ve let yourself sit with these feelings for a moment, turn your desires into goals. Try to identify these goals as something you could recognize if they happen. For instance, if you are a freelancer who wants to do more of a specific type of work, the metric may look like onboarding a new client in that medium or having two projects of a certain type in a quarter.
Now that you’ve quantified it, make it practical. Think of actionable items, like asking someone for coffee who could guide you on your next step, putting a new system into place or enrolling in a training that could get you started towards that goal. Be as particular and detailed with your list as is helpful to you.
(4) Leave next year’s you with something
The secret to new-year planning is that it’s just half the story. Whenever I do this kind of facilitation for clients, I emphasize that having a great discussion is not enough. It’s the one or two-page summary of plans and action steps that follows that make a difference.
I personally like writing these down as a set of resolutions or standards, rather than prescriptive instructions. For instance, I once had the goal of cutting down on the kind of work that took a large amount of time, but that brought me neither much pleasure nor significant income. The best practice I decided on was to not accept any writing under a certain rate, trusting that better work would come along.
This came into play on a random, stress-filled Tuesday when I was low on self-esteem, and I had to stick to my guns and turn down work. Without that simple idea in my head, I would likely have been bogged down in a tedious and unfulfilling project. I didn’t regret my decision.
Whatever it looks like for you, leave yourself with something like this to start the year on. This also does wonders in terms of putting the previous year to rest, if you’re taking a holiday break.
(5) Say a hurray
Lastly, no matter what kind of year you’ve had, or what may come in the following one, I very seriously urge you to celebrate. Cheers to something that you’re proud of, whether it’s a story you loved, a risk you took, or that you held strong under pressure.
End your personal feedback by reminding yourself that you, as a worker and a strategist, are doing a very decent job and hopefully have a great year ahead.