Aside from actually drumming up business, a lot of the stress of freelance life involves staying organized and on task. Fortunately, technology is there to help us, but it’s not always clear what’s actually worth the cost or the time spent figuring it out. Here are some programs, apps, and tricks that successful freelancers swear by:
Chicago author and editor Wendy McClure turned me on to Evernote, which helped me out greatly when I was working on a story that referenced several articles and emails, which is what Wendy uses it for, too. When she has all her saved references in on space on the Evernote desktop or phone app, she says, “I can free up my web browser for other tasks, or just close it up if I want to stay offline to focus on my draft.” McClure also adds that the app is helpful for scanning receipts for tax purposes.
“Scrivener is writing software that has seriously changed my life,” says Chicago health writer Cindy Kuzma. “I write a lot of medical articles that involve sourcing from research studies; Scrivener helps me stay organized by housing everything in one file and then by showing two files in split screen, so I can have the source material on one side and my draft on the other. I know I only use a small portion of its functionality; I think it’s worth at least double the $45 price tag.”
The internet is a distracting place. For those freelancers who can’t rely on good, old-fashioned willpower to stay focused, many swear by Freedom, a program that locks your computer off the Internet for as long as you command it. “It’s awesome for forcing oneself to actually write versus ‘write,’” says marketer Brooke O’Neill. Crucially, it talks to your phone as well, so you can’t cheat.
Some research says there’s a science to how long you should work uninterrupted. “Twenty-five minutes is a pomodoro—how long you can really work on something before you need a teeny break,” says writer Courtney Rubin. For those, she says, “I am as low-rent as it gets. I use a timer on my phone. I set it for 25 minutes, and I generally don’t check my email during that time.” When she has to source emails for a story, “I cut and paste it all into a Word document so I’m not tempted to cheat.” She will also switch the phone to airplane mode during this time so she won’t be distracted by notifications.
Pomodoros (named for the Italian word for tomato by a study-abroad student who coined the method using a tomato-shaped kitchen timer) can be set by your computer, too. “Every day I use TomatoTimer.com. It’s much faster and less unwieldy than setting the timer on your phone,” says editor and writer Lindsay Robertson. “There are also browser extensions that let you work in 25-minute increments and take a five-minute break and block social media sites, but I’ve found that sometimes I actually need to look at a social media site for work, and it’s annoying when it’s blocked.”
If you want to be hardcore, though: “In times of great desperation, I sometimes resort to Write or Die,” says Chicago writer Anne Ford. It’s a program that can be set to start deleting your text if you stop writing for too long.
When I first started out, pop culture writer Nathan Rabin referred me to Aynax, which he described as “perfectly adequate” when it comes to tracking invoices. Sometimes “perfectly adequate” is all you need. I then use an app called TinyScanner for sending off contracts. Robertson, meanwhile, recommends Harvest for invoices: “It is so incredibly easy that I don’t dread invoicing.”
HelloSign, says business writer Ann Logue, is a Gmail add-on that “lets me sign contracts without the horrible steps of printing, signing, scanning, then emailing. You click on the form, fill it out, and send it back. It saves a ton of time and energy.”
“I use Freshbooks for invoicing, time tracking, and expenses,” says Kuzma. “I really like that I can use it to take photos of my receipts for expenses, then I don’t have to hoard paper copies. The invoices themselves look professional, and I can either send them as pdfs or send an email directly through the program to my client.” Plus, her accountant can simply log into her account when he needs to do her taxes.
For phone interviews I use an iPhone app called TapeACall (the pro version). It takes a few steps, but if I can figure it out, anyone can. It saves your recordings, and then you can export them to DropBox or anyplace you like for transcribing.
For taping Skype interviews, Ford says, “There’s a great add-on called Call Recorder. It pops up when you open Skype, and you just click a button to start recording a call. Super-easy, and it’s never failed me.”
Kuzma points out that Scrievener is also helpful for transcribing. “You can have a soundfile on one side and the transcript on the other, then use quick keys to pause and restart. Plus, there’s a feature that will automatically rewind a few seconds each time you restart, so you can get anything you might have missed.
I live in fear of forgetting an assignment or an appointment. My husband, producer Steve Delahoyde, was the one who told me about Wunderlist. “I like that it works across devices, so I have my to-do list everywhere and it’s always in sync. I also like the Pavlovian ‘ding!’ that sounds when you check something off,” he says. I also like that we now have a shared grocery list on it, so he has no excuse not to get what we need at the store when he’s there.
Speaking of mixing work and groceries, author and columnist Jolie Kerr likes AnyList. “I find really helpful for juggling household responsibilities with work, which can be really tricky when you work at home and can get easily distracted by the fact that you just ran out of olive oil.” She uses it to jot down shopping lists and errands. She also recommends the Chrome extension called Dayboard. “It lets you create a five-point to-do list that shows up any time you open a new tab. It’s super helpful for noting things like deadlines or reminders to send and check up on invoices.”