“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” - Abraham LincolnOne of the first mistakes I made as a freelancer was assuming that all I needed by way of tools was a well organized to-do list and a strong commitment to not work from the couch all day. After all, other than providing a desk, a computer, and an endless array of snacks, how different would working from home instead of working from an office really be?
As it turned out, very different. Without coworkers around, it was easy to give in to the gravitational pull of my sofa more often than not; it was even easier to lose track of time without anyone around to remind me that it was lunchtime, break time, or time to stop wandering around the kitchen staring aimlessly into the fridge just to avoid work.
Photo by Alessandro Valli/Flickr
But falling into the world of productivity apps and freelancing tools wasn’t the easy fix I imagined it would be. With so many highly customizable options for time tracking, project management, calendars, email applications, budgeting and so on, I was suddenly spending a good chunk of my work day researching and reviewing a slew of freelancer friendly apps and tools; so much so that at one point I found myself downloading an app just to keep track of all of my other productivity apps. In an effort to stop the lunacy, I ultimately started setting aside specific calendar time to play with the many freelancer tools out there until I found the right fit.
Finding the right mix of tools that let you do your job without turning to-do list making into a second career isn’t an easy process, but once you do find that balance, the wonders it can do for your productivity is incalculable. Here are some of my favorites.
Once I became my own boss, a pen and paper to do list just weren’t going to cut it anymore. When you don’t have a supervisor assigning tasks to you, finding a way to be able to track long-term and short-term projects in as seamless a way as possible is critical. The more clutter you have just to see what needs to be done, the less likely you are to shuffle through all of it and move through as productively as possible.
Wunderlist or To-Do’ist
Apps like Wunderlist and To-Doist can be used as simply as a to-do list app across multiple platforms - the web, Android, iOS - but you can also use them for project management and collaboration. Wunderlist lets users share tasks with each other and assign collaborators to each task, while To-Doist lets you organize your tasks into separate work, personal, and project-specific lists. One of the best parts of Wunderlist and To-Doist, as well as similar products like Any.do, is how many other programs they integrate with. Aside from being able to email tasks directly to your lists, they come with integrations to a variety of services that are also great tools for freelancers, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Slack, and Evernote.
I approach work from a project basis, which is why Trello is perfect for me. Trello operates like a digital note card system, meaning that projects can be broken up into sub-tasks, but without clogging up a linear to-do list. Trello is highly customizable: you can color code cards, assign collaborators, move note cards easily between project lists, and add notes, links, and files to cards. It’s a great tool to use on teams, but it’s just as powerful for a souped-up to-do list - especially when your personal and professional tasks can often blur together. Best of all, Trello is free to use (with paid premium plans as a more advanced option), and they don’t skimp on functionality and integrations, even for free accounts.
One of the reasons the journal-meets-to-do-list Bullet Journal has become so insanely popular in the last few months isn’t just because of its hyper-organizational capabilities. The mental health benefits of putting pen to paper are plenty - the act of writing things down alone makes you more likely to remember them - but even just maintaining a Bullet Journal can be soothing for mindfulness and mental health. As Slate reporter June Thomas explains, “imposing order on mundane tasks is a way of infusing them with meaning.” And when you have to be your own boss and find motivation in the day-to-day, having a to-do list system that feels actionable and is calming to update can be the simple nudge you need.
Organization / Notes
Whether you use Evernote or Microsoft Outlook’s competitor, OneNote, a digital notebook application is critical to staying organized, and being able to get work done on the go. As an Evernote user, I like being able to email notes to myself; anytime an idea pops into my head, if I don’t feel like launching Evernote’s app on my phone, I can at least jot myself a quick email, and there it is in my inbox. Evernote’s web clipper is one of my favorite parts of the software; when I’m researching a story, I can highlight just the relevant section of an article and Evernote will save just that portion of the article and a link to the remainder. While regular users may want to consider springing for a premium membership in order to have access to unlimited notebooks and file storage, Evernote and OneNote are excellent tools to do basic writing in the same place where you can save notes, files, and other assorted documents.
When I used Google Drive in an office, my folders were always impeccably organized. My personal Google Drive account on the other hand? Not so much. But as a freelancer, I realized that even the simple act of keeping all of my articles in Google Drive - and organized by publication or client - was a good way to minimize my search time for when I needed to find a document quickly. Collaboration is of course a breeze thanks to the shareability of documents within Google Drive, and storage space is always expanding, which makes the online drive perfect for the freelancer on the go.
This may sound counter-intuitive to the streamlined application message I’d been preaching earlier, but I prefer to use Dropbox in addition to Google Drive, rather than one or the other. Is it a doubling of efforts? Maybe. But I use Google Drive for articles that I’m currently writing and filing, while my Dropbox is a storage drive for everything not related to work: photos, older documents, my mom’s coffee cake recipe. For once, keeping your personal files separate from your work files may not be a waste of productivity.
Budgets / Receipts
Keeping track of your finances is one of the least scintillating, yet most critical aspects of freelancing. It’s also the easiest one to fall behind on, and trust me, once you fall behind, climbing a mountain of receipts can quickly feel insurmountable.
If you’re working with a regular number of clients and have a solid chunk of business transactions (especially outgoing payments to vendors, and not just expenses), budgeting software like Quickbooks can be invaluable to keeping track of finances. Quickbooks also uses a freemium model of payment, with free plans in addition to more robust business accounting programs. It can also generate invoices, tax reports, and all sorts of business projection analyses, which makes it a powerful tool to grow with you as your business grows, instead of a tool that you’ll grow out of fairly quickly.
If your business invoicing is largely just invoicing clientele and you don’t feel you’re at the level of requiring Quickbooks to manage your business finances, services like Wave are excellent invoice generators and trackers. Wave is free to use and with just a few taps, users can submit customized invoices. Wave takes all the legwork out of chasing down payment as well; at intervals set by the user (normally 30 days), Wave will automatically nudge non-payers to submit checks or direct deposits. And with more integrations set to come, such as with Bill.com, Wave is emerging as the best tool for freelancers to start building out a business.
I’ll admit it, I track my receipts and expenses for about a week at a time, and then somehow ignore them for the next twelve weeks or so, until that receipt mountain is about to topple off my desk. A big reason for this used to be because I had to scan my receipts in on my printer, then log them in a separate Excel document, and then group them by months. Of course, the odds of that process happening even once a month, much less on a routine weekly basis, were slim to none. Enter TurboScan, an app that takes photos of your receipts, and then sends them to Dropbox or Google Drive, in a folder that users can pre-sort. Not only does TurboScan improve photo clarity of poorly printed receipts, users can easily update file names and store it in exactly the right folder, all right from the app. Which means no more bouncing around from a scanner, to an Excel document, to a trash can - and no more excuses to not have my taxes done much earlier than the day before April 16th.
A different combination of tools will mean success for different people, so it’s important to set aside time to try out various options and see what works best for you. There are always new tools and programs popping up as well, so always be on the lookout for new options, especially if you find that you’re lacking resources in one particular area.
Best of all, these are tools that can be used by everyone and anyone, not just freelancers. Whether at work (be that your kitchen table or a traditional office setting) or in our personal lives, we should all take advantage of some of the great tools out there that can make our lives a little bit easier.