How to plan your first year as a freelancer

How To Plan Your First Year As A Freelancer

So you’ve decided to make the leap into the world of freelancing. That’s great news! However, in order to fully free yourself from the 9-5 without jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, you need a strategy. That’s why in this post I’m going to be talking about how to plan your first year as a freelancer, and why you absolutely need to make this plan your top priority.

How to plan your first year as a freelancer

I’m going to assume that some of you who might be reading this are already a few years down the freelancer’s path, just like me. That’s ok though, it’s never too late to go back to the drawing board and make a plan for progress! A lot of the planning skills I’m going to be discussing in this post are from the last few years of experience running my own business.

Of course, I’m not the sole trader’s oracle, and there’ll be lots of other freelancers out there with better tips and advice than me. However, I’ve been running my art shop since 2015, worked as a freelance writer since the end of 2017 and have set up and folded a limited company in between. So I’ve learned a few things about planning and forecasting for growth along the way….as well as knowing when to call things quits.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far since I left the world of mainstream employment is this; you need a roadmap. Even someone like me, who loves to fly by the seat of their pants, needs a roadmap. Without one, your progress grinds to a standstill. I learned this throughout 2018 when I decided to go it alone without a plan for the year, and as a result, my income plummeted as I made barely any sales of my prints.

So in a nutshell, the roadmap is crucial. Not purely for success, but for growth and progress.

How to plan your first year as a freelancer

Creating a freelancer’s roadmap for year one

There are various online tools you can look into that’ll claim to help you map all this out, but I honestly think your best bet, to begin with, is some old-fashioned pens and paper. Grab yourself some large flipchart paper and some coloured pens, or maybe a landscape sketchpad or large journal. Whatever works for you, just start with something tangible.

It might be tempting to go for an online notetaking app or even a spreadsheet on your computer, but there’s something to be said for creating physical, tangible maps for your work. Committing the plan to paper does something to my mind’s ability to see tasks through.

It’s far too easy to forget about something I’ve jotted down digitally. A large paper chart or drawing pinned up on my home office wall really does work for me, because I can’t forget it’s there!

How to start mapping your first year as a freelancer

So you’ve got your materials, but what do you actually need to put into this plan? The first thing to do is define your goals. Decide upon three or four large goals that you really want to get out of your first year in freelance work.

Remember to keep them realistic, but don’t be afraid to think big!

For example, if you want to have established yourself firmly on social media with a large following by the end of year one, then make that one of your large goals. Or perhaps you want to have established a client base of at least 5 regular customers. Some ideas for large goals for your first year could be:

  • Be earning a regular monthly income of at least half my former salary (being realistic about things)
  • Have established at least ten regular clients
  • Social media presence defined with at least x amount of followers
  • Have worked enough to create a strong basic freelance portfolio

These are just a few ideas, and your goals will be defined based on your particular freelance skills. However, working out how to plan your first year as a freelancer all starts with this initial goal-setting exercise. From there, you can start to break down how you’re going to make these things happen over the next twelve months.

How to plan your first year as a freelancer

Plan with your calendar

The next thing to do is to split your twelve-month overview into four three-month blocks. I like to work in quarterly chunks because it makes hitting the mini-targets you’re going to extract from your large goals a lot more manageable.

Always be thinking three months ahead of yourself when you’re doing this. If you get too bogged down in the here and now, you’ll never work out what needs to happen next in order to reach your overarching aim.

With your calendar, look at where you are now in your year and then section it into blocks of three months. Then, with your larger goals running across the top of your plan, break each one of those goals into smaller strands. Consider them mini-tasks, and then assign them to your three-monthly blocks.

For example, if your large goal is to establish your social media presence and have 5,000 followers on a particular platform by the end of your first year, you can break this down in really simple terms as follows:

January – March

Target: 1000 followers

April – June

Target: 1000 followers


Target: 1500 followers


Target: 1500 followers

It may be that towards the end of your first year, you’re in a position to push harder on your target, but by planning this out on paper, you can then decide how to achieve each mini-target in each three-month block. This is where you can start to define your marketing activities to make these smaller goals happen.

Developing and enhancing the roadmap

This strategy only covers one aspect of your plan for your first year. There’ll be other elements in play, such as establishing your customer base and reaching out to different brands and companies to pitch yourself for work. These are things that you can incorporate into your plan towards the end of your first year.

I would strongly suggest you focus the core of your activities and efforts in the first twelve months on establishing your online presence, building your brand as a freelancer and getting your portfolio ready. The reason for this is credibility. You’re going to have a much easier time trying to build relationships with potential clients if you have a strong body of work and an online following behind you already.

Don’t be disheartened by the idea of doing this; it’s important work you can do on the side while you’re still in mainstream employment if you like, and will stand you in good stead when you are ready to get started as a freelancer.

Plan your budget accordingly

You’ll need to adjust your expectations about your financial life as a freelancer and this is something you can add into your first year’s plan. Make sure you research which tools to use to make your first year easier; there are a lot of free resources out there to help freelancers get established, such as freelancer marketplaces like Fiverr, for example.

It’s also important to consider the different income streams you might need to look into. One of the downsides of your first year in freelancing is that work is never guaranteed and there’ll be peaks and troughs financially too.

You should into various ways you can supplement your income as well as how to save money on your spending, because this first year, that will really make a difference!

How to plan your first year as a freelancer

How to plan your first year as a freelancer – key points

The main thing to bear in mind when you make this plan is that it’s there to help you keep yourself on track. It’s not there to remind you of things you haven’t achieved! Don’t make your long-term goals too unrealistic in your first year and you should be fine. Start with this basic workflow.

  • Set your long-term goals for the first twelve months.
  • Break your calendar into four three-month blocks and then assign medium-term goals (derived from your long-term goals) into each one.
  • Define your mini-tasks for each three-month block to help you meet your medium-term target.
  • Drill these down into monthly or weekly activities if needed for crystal-clear planning.
  • Define what you can afford to spend in the first twelve months and assign your finances according to the plan.
  • Keep your plan large and somewhere visible! There’s no point having one if you’re not able to see it or annotate it as your year goes on.

Remember, the plan is not set in stone, but it is an important tool to help measure your progress in your first year of freelancing. Without this roadmap, it’s still more than possible to have a successful first year as a freelancer, but it does make a huge difference to your productivity and the potential for future growth.

Creating a freelancer’s plan for year one: FAQ

How do you plan for your first year as a freelancer?

Planning for your first year in the gig economy is essential for you to hit the ground running when starting out. Your plan needs to include your long-term goals, as well as a roadmap for how you’ll make each goal happen in twelve months.

What does a freelancer need to plan for?

Freelancers need to plan for the inevitable peaks and troughs in their income that will happen in their first year (and beyond). They also need to plan for progression and to define their target market so that they can start to attract actual clients.

Do I really need a business plan as a freelancer?

You don’t need to have one, but it definitely helps if you do! Freelancers need to plan for their budgets, their wellbeing, their own career progression and their admin and legal responsibilities. Having a plan of key dates and performance indicators can really make the difference between a successful year and a slow one!

How do you plan to find work as a freelancer?

The best way is to add it to your twelve-month overview, towards the final quarter of the first year. The first six months of your twelve-month freelancer’s plan should focus primarily on building your portfolio, establishing your online presence and building your brand.

2 thoughts on “How To Plan Your First Year As A Freelancer”

  1. It’s certainly good to plan and have a strategy. However, one of the downsides of freelance life is simply needing to meet deadlines, which can mean plans have to come second to doing work to bring income.

    1. You’re absolutely right Stuart, it’s so hard to keep that discipline as well when you’re working from home. All part of the freelance ride I suppose. Thanks for your comment 🙂

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