Making time for reflection: Self-appraisals for freelancers
As a freelancer, what tools do you use to help you reflect on how things are going?
When I managed a team of people within a creative organisation, I was big advocate for meaningful annual appraisals - as a way for us all to recognise success, have open conversations about how things are going, and identify goals for the future. Now self-employed, I'm finding it really useful to hold myself to account in the same way.
Here, I'm sharing the process I talk myself through each quarter, on the basis that it might be useful to others:
First up, gather some facts. I'm a huge believer in looking directly at an issue, especially if it's a worrying one, and working from data in figuring out what's going on. For me, therefore, the self-appraisal captures really simple stats - how much I've worked (the Clockify app is useful for tracking hours), how much I've been paid, and how much effort I've put into finding that work. You might chose to split things out differently - by type of work, or number of projects, or by new work secured - whatever matters most to you. But do capture the hard facts somewhere.
Then, take a look back. When I carried out appraisals for other people, I was always struck by how hard people found it to write down some really clear, unapologetically proud statements about what's gone well. This is such a shame - there are always, always things that have gone well, and appraisals are a really good time to capture them. Force yourself to find them, and to sing your praises loud and proud!
Inevitably, too, there'll be things that have been disappointing. This is a chance to recognise them, to mourn them, to acknowledge the times things haven't gone to plan. There's no point beating yourself up over them, but do take time to capture anything that - looking back - you might have done differently. Harness that sense of disappointment and capture the things you can do to avoid feeling that again.
Next up, a comparison against your values. I took part in the FST's Mentor Match scheme in 2019, and one of the most useful exercises I did with my mentor was to think about what a successful freelance working life would look like for me. You can see the three words I came up with in my appraisal: I'm looking to create a balance of work that's interesting, worthwhile, and varied. You'll have your own goals, but it's worth being very clear about what you want your work life to look like, to give you some words and values to judge it against. It's never going to be a perfect match - obviously I sometimes do work that is boring, tick-boxy and monotonous. But if you know what values you're aiming for, at least you can judge how close you're getting.
Then, look ahead. What would make next quarter (or month, or whatever time period works for you), be better than this one? What do you want your work life to contain more of, and less of? For me, it's really vital to then identify really practical, tangible steps toward achieving this - things that can be realistically completed within the time period. It's okay if these are embarrassingly basic - far better (I think), to take one small step in the right direction, than to be paralysed by the fear of a massive goal and end up doing nothing. Here are some examples:
[I'd like to do more] Speaking at events to raise my profile. [Tangible goal] Identify three relevant events and approach the organisers with ideas of how my knowledge could be useful to their audience.
[I'd like to do less] travel / working away from home. [Tangible goal] Join local business / creative / community networks to find out more about opportunities close to home.
[I'd like to do less] panicking about my HMRC self-assessment. [Tangible goal] Sign up to a Business Gateway course to understand what I need to submit.
And finally - what else matters? If there are other things that you know are important to you, then it's worth finding a way to measure and capture them. I find this especially effective if you know you're likely to put off something important, or if you need an excuse to prioritise time for something. So - for me, I make a note of people I'd like to strengthen my connection with - giving me a reason to prioritise reaching out to them in the coming months.
Here's a link to my appraisal template on GDocs - feel free to take it, use it, and edit it to suit you. Don't worry about it being perfect - the process of reflection is far more important than the precise structure of the form. You can always add or adapt questions as you go.
Other freelancers - what questions do you regularly ask yourself to check you're on track? What do you find effective to help you check-in on your progress? Do let me know via Twitter.