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7 Essential Freelancer Tools for Staying Organized

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You don’t have to look far online to find an entrepreneur telling you that hard work comes second only to more hard work if you want to make it on your own – but honestly, my experience starting my own business suggests there’s more to the story.

It’s not glamorous – and it certainly doesn’t make for good motivational Instagram posts – but being organized can separate you from the crowd when you’re freelancing or starting your own small business.

Firstly, I’ll expand on why organization can help your freelancing fly – then, I’ll share 7 of the best organization tips that are the secret weapons of hardworking freelancers the world over…

Striking a balance

I’m not doubting the mega-entrepreneurs when I reference their ‘hard works wins the day’ rhetoric – I’m simply saying you’ve got to have the right foundation for that hard work.

For instance:

If you spend 10 minutes a day looking for a phone number, a hex code, an email address – or so forth – you’re wasting 45 hours over the course of an average working year. So, you can work as hard as the next person, but if they’re organized, they’ve got a full working week more than you every year.

So yeah, working hard is important, but in the same way a supercar with no steering wheel would be useless, tons of hard work with no structure or direction is likely to be frustrating, demoralizing – and produce a very low effort to results yield.

Being organized AND hard working is a killer combination – and one that will put you head and shoulders above 95% of other freelancers out there. Here’s how to inspire that inner organized person who might be struggling to get out:

A diary

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A diary; Old school? Yes. Boring? Possibly – but a without one you’re playing fast and loose with deadlines and your life organisation as a whole.

I’m not necessarily suggesting you walk around with a leather-bound paper version; your iCal or Google Calendar will work perfectly well, it’s really just the habit that’s important.

A dairy doesn’t just stop you missing important dates and anniversaries, it enables you to schedule your work appropriately – which is absolutely crucial when it comes to offering clients turnaround times that you’re likely to meet without sitting up until 4am.

Schedule important dates, the jobs you need to complete and places you need to be – and you’ll take a huge amount of guesswork (and the associated anxiety) out of your life.

A project management tool

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A project management tool might sound like overkill for a freelancer working alone – but trust me, used well, it gives you something of a digital office space from which you can do you work.

If you’re not already familiar with it, take a look at Trello. There’s a lot of free functionality – and it allows you to create something similar to a digital whiteboard that’s divided up into columns. It’s fully customizable, so each of those columns becomes a client, a project, a task – or whatever you wish – and from there, you can create notes that go underneath.

These notes act like expandable ‘to-dos’ – open one up and you’ve got detailed notes, pictures, files, stickers and suchlike within. Back at your dashboard view, you can drag each to-do between sections (ideal if you want to track a workflow) or just tick them off.

If you’re forever losing notes, job specifics, phone numbers, etc – this kind of digital, organized workspace could be a perfect solution for you.

Of course, Trello isn’t the only option – and finding something that’s a perfect fit for you is important to make sure you keep going back to it. If occasionally missing details or forgetting parts of your process is an issue, giving yourself a structured way of managing your role can be really helpful.

A CRM system

Meeting image by rawpixel.com

When you think of a CRM (customer relationship management) system, you’re probably thinking of something in depth like SalesForce – but, as freelancers, we probably don’t need the huge amount of functionality it offers (or the monthly cost).

You could do a lot worse than firing up Google Sheets or Excel and creating three different tabs:

 

  • Current customers: Here you can list names, company details, contact info, the rates you charge, payment method preference – and other important info you might need at a glance.

 

  • Previous customers: After a while freelancing, you’re likely to have customers who come, used your service – then gone off radar for any number of reasons. These people are a great source of future business; they know you, they know you’ve delivered in the past – and you know what they’re looking for. Keep similar contact details to your current customers – and find a reason to keep in touch – you never know when they might need you again.

 

  • Future customers/prospects: Unless you’re blessed with a photographic memory, you’re unlikely to remember everyone you meet – yet to these people, you’re already somewhat familiar, which gives you an edge of millions of other freelancers. Meet someone you might be able to do some work for? Grab a business card, note their details, who they are and what they do – they’re always going to be a better bet than going up against an army of other freelancers when you’re looking for more business. Now you just need to find a reason to get in touch…

You’ll have to be conscious of data protection laws, but, having this information to hand can be the difference between performing like a slick operation – or performing like a disorganised freelancer with a desk full of scribbled notes.

Again, there are dozens of options out there if you’re not a spreadsheet kind of person – and the chances are you’ll only need fairly basic functionality, which is often part of a CRM system’s most basic (and therefore free!) functionality.

Bookkeeping software

Image by TheAngryTeddy via Pixabay

Ah! Keeping track of finances – whoever thought freelancing could be so dull?!

It’s probably not why you got into working for yourself, but it’s a necessary evil – and again, handling your finances properly can make a huge amount of difference to the amount of time and stress money costs you – as well as how customers perceive you.

Cloud based systems like Freshbooks, Quickbooks, Xero and Zoho Books (my personal favorite, owing to a great combo of low cost and personalization) are super simple to run, link to your bank account for easy categorizing of transactions – and produce great looking invoices with a range of payment options.

If messy money spreadsheets (that you never update) are giving you headaches, give one of the above a go, they all have free trials and low cost monthly options – and they give you insights into your money you just don’t get by looking at bank statements.

Cloud storage

Cloud photo via Pexels

Not being able to put your hands on images, documents, spreadsheets and other important data is a real pain – and a colossal waste of time if it becomes a habit.

You might have adequate storage with your iCloud, OneDrive or Gmail email – but if you’re storing a lot of images online, that might not be the case.

You can likely pay to expand the amount of storage you’ve got with your email provider – if not, exploring options like DropBox, Amazon Drive – or less well-known options like the super-secure MEGA – will keep your files organized and quickly accessed.

Oh, and when you’re using a cloud storage system, try not to get into the habit of just dropping everything in there; logical file names and organized folders might seem like too much detail now – but further down the line, trawling through hundreds of default named files, you’ll wish took those additional 10 seconds…

A good backup system

Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash

For many of us, our computer is one of the most crucial parts of the jigsaw that lets us earn a living as a freelancer – so when things go wrong, it’s like having your income stream immediately pulled.

In fact, it’s worse than that – because, when something goes wrong seconds before you submit an import piece of work, you’re not only damaging your ability to get paid, you’re potentially damaging your on-going relationship with a client.

So; back up! It’s simple advice – but something that many of us overlook doing frequently.

If you’re a Mac user, you’ve got a Time Machine option you can use whenever you wish – and there are restore options for Windows based machines – and these options might be okay for you if you’re exclusively keeping your work in cloud based storage – but if you’re keeping important work locally, have a look for a solution that’s constantly checking and uploading the work you’re saving throughout the day.

Costs will range from a few dollars a month, to one-off payments of around $30-$40 – but it’s money well spent when you consider what’s on the line.

A Pomodoro timer

Image by Luca Mascaro via Flickr

The ‘Pomodoro’ (Italian for tomato) Method is the name given to a time management technique created by software, startup and freelancing consultant Francesco Cirillo to help people boost focus and productivity.

The slightly strange name relates to the fact that you’ll need a timer to make the practice work for you, Cirillo started by using a novelty kitchen timer, shaped like a tomato – hence pomodoro.

The Pomodoro Effect is fairly easily grasped – and it’s based on the idea that getting started on a task is usually the most daunting step – and therefore the one that people prone to procrastination will avoid.

You can go into more depth about the technique here – but essentially it breaks down like this:

  • Pick an important task from your to-do list
  • Set the timer to 20 or 25 minutes
  • Work on the task – and ONLY the task (phone on silent; Facebook, email, etc closed)
  • When time’s up, put a checkmark on your to-do list, take a couple of minutes break, and repeat

20 or 25 minutes is enough time to make some serious headway on a task, especially when you don’t have anything else taking your attention – but it doesn’t inspire the dread that staring down the barrel of a 3-hour task will bring.

You’ll find that you often end up working for longer than 25 minutes – and, even if you don’t, you’ll notch up a psychological win each time you chip away at a bigger task or your to-do list.

If you want to get organised, you can’t be dragging an ever-increasing to-do list from one day to the next. Attack it in a meaningful way – and when you see results, clicking that timer around to 25 minutes will start to become a habit that helps you keep your work schedule as clear as can be.

What’s right for you?

This list obviously doesn’t cover everything the most highly organised freelancer might have in place – but it does cover some generic basics that’ll span a lot of industries.

Finding systems and techniques that are right for you takes a little time – but I can assure you, when it comes to finding and keeping customers, being able to demonstrate that you’re organized and can get them job done with no excuses is a massive tick in the box that’ll see you retaining great clients, getting solid referrals and keeping your freelance stress levels to a minimum.

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