When we look at life over the past century, it’s hard to believe how much technology has changed. My great-grandfather was born in the 1880s, and I often marvel at how he saw modes of transportation develop over his lifetime, making it possible to travel farther faster.
First he would have given up his horse-drawn carriage for a motor vehicle. Then he might have kicked himself realizing that if he had just waited a few decades, he could have emigrated from England to Canada in an airplane instead of a ship. And then he would have seen men walking on the moon after the invention of spacecraft.
In the same way, we’ve seen business technology advance by leaps and bounds during our lifetime. If you’ve been working as a freelancer or virtual professional for a while, you might even chuckle at some of the inefficiencies of early technology.
I remember when I used to fax important documents to my clients. Except I didn’t actually own a fax machine, so I would phone them, let them know when I’d be sending the fax, and then rush to a local copy center. If clients needed to send me a fax, they’d phone me, and I’d rush to that same copy center and wait for the fax to arrive. The staff would print it out for me, and I’d rush home again.
If you think about the amount of time I spent doing that, it’s clear I wasn’t working faster, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t working smarter. Thankfully, technology now allows us to communicate, collaborate, and share documents easily without having to leave our home office.
Even with more advanced tools, we can still encounter inefficiencies that slow us down as in our online business activities. And sometimes productivity is reduced because we have too many tools at our disposal instead of too few. Kind of like having to change cars every few blocks instead of driving the same one all the way.
So with that in mind, here are 10 tools and apps that can help you work smarter and faster in your virtual business:
I have a million stories about losing files, sending the wrong file, confusing clients with files, you name it. Once I gave up my penchant for faxes, I embraced email attachments. But working as a writer or editor often involves many revisions. So I got creative with renaming documents.
Clients would email me a file named “article.docx,” and I’d rename it “edited-article.docx.” Then the client would ask for revisions, I’d fix it again, and rename it “revised-edited-article.docx.” You can probably see where this is going. Every time I renamed a file and emailed it back, the margin of error increased. And sometimes changes could be lost if I forgot to click “save.”
Google Drive helps solve these problems by allowing you to store documents in the cloud. You can either create files on your computer and then upload them to Google Drive, or create them in Drive from scratch. For example, I used Google Docs to type this blog post draft instead of Microsoft Word. The Doc was saved automatically as I added content, and once finished, I could share it with clients and allow them to comment or make edits right on it.
You can access 15 GB of online storage free with a Google account. Paid plans start at $2.79 CAD per month for 100 GB of storage.
If you work on many different types of projects, you know how confusing it can be to stay on top of due dates and communication. As emails fly back and forth, it’s easy to miss instructions from a client. You might also have projects scribbled on Post-it Notes around your office and would love a central online location to keep them organized.
Trello helps you prioritize and organize projects easily by creating cards you can share with others and add comments, attachments, due dates, and more. A client can create a card, add a description of the project, and you can comment back and forth if you have any questions.
Mobile and desktop apps will notify you when new projects are added and comments are made. Email notifications are also available to ensure you don’t miss anything.
You can sign up for the free Trello plan or for paid plans beginning at $9.99 per user/month.
Once upon a time, I used to look at my watch when I started a project, work for awhile, look at my watch again, and scribble the time down on a piece of scrap paper. Then when I was finished the project, I’d have to decipher my bad handwriting and add up all the times before invoicing my client.
At some point, I advanced to using an oven timer, but the process was still cumbersome. Then along came handy online timers like Toggl. This time tracking technology not only helps you keep track of projects through your browser or mobile apps, but it also helps you manage your time.
It includes a Pomodoro timer that lets you set up notifications to alert you when it’s time to take a break. You can set work intervals for whatever length you’d like. Knowing that you’ll get a break after a certain amount of focussed work can help increase your productivity as you anticipate that hard-earned cup of coffee.
Basic time tracking is available for free, and paid plans start at $9 per user/month. Toggl can also be integrated with other tools like Trello, Google Drive, and many more.
Until recently I used to create invoices on a simple Word document and type in my project rates manually. Each month I’d have to edit the date, the name of the project, and the cost. Then I was introduced to FreshBooks, an all-in-one accounting software that saves me time and stress.
If you’d like a tool that includes both time tracking and invoicing, you’ll enjoy using FreshBooks. It has its own time-tracking function that lets you build timesheets which can be used to generate invoices for your clients. It also helps you manage expenses and receipts, as well as allowing you to accept credit cards as payment.
Invoices can be customized with your logo and a personalized email. You can also activate automated reminders to be sent at certain intervals so you don’t have to chase after late payments.
A free 30-day trial is available, and paid plans start at $15/month for 5 clients.
If you manage more than one social media account for yourself or your clients, you may have felt the pain of having to log in to multiple accounts and add posts to each separately. Buffer is a great tool that allows you to manage all your accounts on one dashboard, schedule posts, and track interactions and engagement with your content.
A browser extension and mobile apps help you quickly and easily add posts to your queue. Buffer also includes Pablo Image Creator so you can enhance your content with graphics.
A free plan is available for 3 social accounts and 10 scheduled posts per social account. Paid plans begin at $15/month.
Have you ever been researching for a project and saved useful links to the bookmarks in your browser? I’ve been doing that for years. It works, but recently I’ve found that it’s getting harder and harder to find the links I saved. I also look back and realize I have a huge collection of bookmarks that become irrelevant as time goes by.
Pocket is one of my new favorite tools because it includes a browser extension I can simply click to save articles, videos, and other online resources. You can add tags to the links, and they show up in your Pocket account as a kind of “Pinterest-style” bulletin board that can be accessed on all your devices. You can also save links via email and a variety of apps like Twitter and Pulse.
Pocket is available for free or as a Premium Plan starting at $4.99/month.
Even with a project management tool like Trello, you might find that your email inbox is still out of control. Sortd is rated as the “#1 app for Gmail.” You can drag and drop emails to prioritize them and make sure that important communications don’t get buried. You can create lists and reply to emails right from within those lists.
Sorting emails this way can help clear your inbox so you can reduce clutter and avoid getting overwhelmed. It also includes follow-ups and reminders for items you need to keep track of so you won’t drop the ball on important communication threads.
Sortd offers mobile apps for iOS and Android and is also built right inside Gmail’s mobile app. The basic plan is free, and paid plans start at $6 per month/user.
Now, this is a tool I’m almost afraid to try because of what I might see. RescueTime runs in the background on your computer and tracks the time you spend on websites and applications. This helps give you a picture of how you might be wasting time.
The free RescueTime Lite plan allows you to set goals and see how you’re spending your time. For $9/month, the paid Premium plan goes one step further and tracks your time away from the computer in meetings or phone calls. It can also block distracting websites and send you alerts when you reach your daily goals or when you’ve spent too much time on something.
In our virtual businesses, we all have tasks that get repetitive and time-consuming. IFTTT (literally “if this, then that”) is a free tool that allows you to set up commands between your apps and devices to automate certain routines.
For example, as in the image above, you can create a command to “Save new email attachments from Gmail to Google Drive.” You can also set up commands for your social media accounts, like “Tweet your Instagrams as native Twitter photos.”
It might be a small thing, but saving those few extra minutes each day can help free your mind and boost your productivity. IFTTT is available both in your browser and as a mobile app for iOS and Android.
I couldn’t end this post without including a bit of fun. Music can help us work smarter and faster too. And gone are the days when you’d need to spend hours creating the perfect mix tape.
Spotify is a digital music service that includes playlists you can choose from depending on your mood and activity. Its “Focus” category includes playlists like “Peaceful Piano,” “Music for Concentration,” “Nature Sounds,” and “A Soft Backdrop.”
There are also spoken word playlists and millions of other songs you can listen to during your breaks so you feel rested, rejuvenated, and ready to go when you start working again.
Spotify is available as either a Free plan or a paid Premium plan for $9.99 CAD per month. You can access it on your browser or mobile apps and authorize it to play on other devices like your speakers or TV. I find the Free plan is sufficient, but if you’d like to listen to music offline and ad-free, the Premium plan is the way to go.
So there you have it – 10 tools for working smarter and faster in your virtual business!
Do you have any stories from your early days as a freelancer that make you look back and laugh? We’d love to hear them because we’ve all been there! Please also share your recommendations for online tools that have helped you work smarter and faster.