5 career development tips for freelance journalists

Career coach Penelope Jones in action (Credit: Annabel Staff)

Constantly hustling but not sure of your career’s direction? Struggling to set and stick to goals to make freelancing work for you? Or maybe imposter syndrome is rearing its ugly head?

For any freelance journalist wrestling with the above, the Society of Freelance Journalists is here for you. We asked expert career coach Penelope Jones to help us work through our career planning questions and work goal woes as freelance journalists.

Penny is the founder of My So-Called Career, an organisation designed to help women in their early and mid-careers navigate the obstacles holding them back at work. Fed up of seeing brilliant women, herself included, continually falling victim to crippling overwhelm, anxiety and burnout, she decided to do something about it and now provides support and tools for women to take ownership of their careers and build sustainable, positive relationships with work.

Our Q&A expert, Penny (Credit: Annabel Jones)

Before launching MSCC in 2018, Penny spent 17 years in international media. She ran the Guardian’s international business, launching Guardian Australia in 2013, and joined Conde Nast in 2016 as its global strategy director.

Here are five of our favourite pieces of advice shared by Penny during a live Q&A (you can read the full transcript if you’re a freelance journalist by joining the community here):

  1. Balance routines and rituals to help productivity

If you’re struggling to get motivated with work (especially right now), Penny recommends finding a balance of routines and rituals to get you through the day or week.

“When we struggle with productivity, our instinct is to go into mega-planning mode — time box this, alert for that, cripplingly long to-do list over there. But when it feels like the world is in freefall, routines can end up as a handy stick to beat ourselves with when we fall behind or fail,” she says.

“Rituals allow us to be more present, to connect with what’s going on around us and how we are feeling, so instead of trying to plan yourself up the wazoo, think about building in elements of ritual instead.”

A good starting point is thinking about what makes you feel at your best and then layer those things across your week. Usually, we strip them out in order to work harder, so try a different approach.

2. The difference between dreams and goals

When it comes to setting goals, Penny says it’s really important to understand the difference between dreams and goals: “A dream is something we’d love to happen; a goal is something we are committed to putting work into making happen.”

In short, dreams are passive while goals are active. Penny offered six steps for goal setting and maintenance — all of which are available in the Slack Q&A. Step one is to make sure your goals are “good” goals.

“You can only control your own behaviour, so any goal that relies on other people, or external factors is likely to lead to frustration instead of success,” she explains, adding that the SMART technique is a great way to test for good goals.

“You can’t guarantee that X publication will commission your story, but you can put in the work to make sure your pitching is on point for that publication’s needs, develop a relationship with the relevant editors, and submit regular and well-positioned pitches.”

Step two is to know your “why” because achieving your goals invariably means making trade-offs: “Our goals are our priorities, so if the thing you say you want to do is not really important to you, you will fall off the wagon, or be pushed out by the things that are.”

3. Watch out for goal competition

The thing stopping you from achieving your goal could, in fact, be another goal. This was Penny’s third step in setting and maintaining goals — finding a way to keep internal competition in check, inspired by James Clear.

“Your goals should motivate you, not spread you so thinly you fall over.”

“You only have a certain amount of time and energy to draw on, so each new goal you set pulls focus and resources away from something you are already doing,” says Penny.

“Your goals should motivate you, not spread you so thinly you fall over.”

4. Avoid the “permahustle” trap

The current climate is compounding the idea that freelancers must be always on and always hustling. But this default state of “permahustle” (thanks for the new word, Penny!) can build stress, overwhelm and make you feel like you are no longer in control of your career.

If you feel caught on the hamster wheel, Penny suggests taking a self-strategy day: “An opportunity to step back, to reflect on the last few months and use the insight to give you a more thoughtful and strategic approach to your work for the next quarter/half/year — whatever feels right.”

This doesn’t have to be a “huge analytical exercise”, it’s better to take baby steps than to leap off.

“Ask yourself what one thing you can change over the next month to bring you closer to your ideal.”

“It can be enough to simply think about what you want to be doing — your ideal work, pace, structure, learning/growth etc. — and look at how your reality stands up against that,” says Penny, who has lots of prompts on her website for this kind of planning.

“Then just ask yourself what one thing you can change over the next month to bring you closer to your ideal.”

5. Imposter syndrome can be managed

Penny’s Q&A was full of cut-out-and-keep moments and her explanation of imposter syndrome was no different: “It’s a response to circumstances, not a personality trait, so you can find a way through and even ways to make it work in your favour.”

Thanks to Penny we now have lots of tips for dealing with our imposter demons, starting with building an evidence file of positive comments, feedback and moments that remind us that, whatever they say, we’re doing just fine.

Penny also recommends acknowledging when mistakes happen (and accepting them as part of being human) and rewarding yourself for moments when you overcome your imposter syndrome and take yourself out of your comfort zone.

“Consider the fact that if everyone is feeling like this, no one has the spare brain capacity to worry about you and your performance; they are too concerned about themselves, so take the risk, do the thing,” she says.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to Penny for all her wise words and to our community for posing such great questions. If you’re a freelance journalist and want to read the Q&A in full, you’ll need to join the Society of Freelance Journalists’ Slack community.




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Freelance journalist, consultant and trainer. Former head of social and community, the Guardian. @lauraoliver

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