Managing an SEO campaign boils down to measuring and managing key performance indicators. Rather than focusing on one keyword for example, optimize an entire array of related keywords.
Rather than looking for links obsessively, focus on capping the link flow and internal linking within your own site to seal up any hemorrhages your website may have. By doing this, your pages become less dependent on external links (granted they have authority).
Naturally the next question is what is authority, to put it simply, an authority website has a great foundation of useful content. By the merit of the content it attracts a steady base of readers or new visitors.
Website popularity toggles authority and trust, so without igniting the proper metrics, you can have solid internal links and great content, but without traffic to endorse your site or a few backlinks from the right places, the time it take to gain authority and trust will take longer.