Working freelance offers the ultimate control over your career and workday, but making the most of your time is tricky without a little help. Productivity apps help you to work smarter instead of harder, shaving time off your daily routine and saving your mental energy for the tasks ahead. As a freelance writer and art director, I’ve found the following apps exceptionally helpful—and they’re all free or have a free option.
I am a Trello evangelist. It uses boards and cards to make your to-do lists visual and break them down into steps; you can then add power-ups, like integration with your accounting software.
Trello’s free tier is very generous: you get one power-up per board and can be a member of up to 10 team boards. You can customise board backgrounds using stock images from Unsplash, which makes them very aesthetically pleasing. If photos aren’t your bag, choose from nine solid colours, including mustard and aquamarine. Upgrade to business class and you can upload custom backgrounds.
There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to Trello, but if you’re familiar with Pinterest, you’ll pick it up very quickly. There are scores of example boards to help you find your zone. Once you find a board you like, you can copy the entire thing over to your own account and personalise it.
Trello is available on web, on desktop for Mac and Windows and as an app for iPhone and Android. Get it here.
Clockify is an absolute staple for freelancers who charge by the hour. There are scores of time tracking apps out there, all with their own strengths, but Clockify is absolutely free and packed to the rafters with functionality. Set the timer going and it’ll keep track of your session to the second; the web-based app shows the time elapsed in your tab title, so you don’t need to keep swapping tabs. If you forget to start a session, you can add time manually.
Your recorded sessions can be assigned to projects, which can be assigned to specific clients, and you can mark the time as billable or non-billable. If you assign an hourly rate, Clockify will calculate the amount billable for you. Visual learners will love the reports tab, which offers at-a-glance breakdowns of your tracked time, amounts billable and which projects you’ve spent the most time on.
Another perk for those of us of the slash generation: you can set up multiple workspaces, so your billing for different skills is neatly divided into different pages and datasets.
Clockify is available in-browser, on desktop for Mac and Windows and as an app for iPhone and Android. Try it here.
Forest helps you to put down your phone and focus on work, rest and friends. Decide how long you want to focus, plant a tree, and then leave it alone! If you use your phone while the timer is set, your tree will die. If you stay on track, you’ll build a forest and earn credits that plant real trees and combat deforestation. Good for you, good for the planet.
If your distractions are on desktop, you can download Forest’s browser extension for Safari, Chrome or Firefox. The extension connects with your mobile account to build on the same forest. Rather than avoiding screen use completely, you build a website blacklist.
Forest is available as an app for iPhone and Android or as a browser extension for Safari, Chrome and Firefox. Try it here.
ilys (short for I love your story) was initially designed for NaNoWriMo participants struggling with writer’s block. The premise is simple: you spend entirely too much time editing and overanalysing your work with most word processors and post editors, so ilys hides what you’ve written. It literally shows you just the last letter you’ve typed—no paragraphs, no words, no squiggly red spellcheck lines. It combats analysis paralysis so you can just type away until your idea is down. With one click you can see what you’ve already typed, although you won’t be able to make edits until you reach your word count goal.
The revamped version of ilys costs $9 per month, with a 3,000-word trial. If you don’t mind throwing it back a little, the classic site is free and works just as nicely.
If the thought of your inbox makes you recoil, why not get a little help wrangling it? Sortd is ideal for those who have lots of enquiries and tasks to follow up on as it lets you drag and drop emails into different categories. That means that you can easily divide emails up by client, project, status or whatever best works for you. It’s super simple to break projects down into tasks, contacts, progress and notes, and collaboration is absolutely effortless.
Sortd does offer paid tiers, but the free version is enough to cover most freelancers’ needs.
Sortd slides right into Gmail; you can download its mobile companion for iPhone and Android. Get it here.
If email derails your focus, tuck irrelevant messages out of sight. Unroll.Me can collate all of your subscription emails into one daily digest, and it’s simple to add, remove or unsubscribe from specific senders.
Unroll.Me securely logs into your email account and takes moments to configure. The app then hides mass-mailers to keep your inbox clean and your attention on messages that need action. It also means that you whittle dozens of notifications down to just one, sent at a time of day that suits you. That means you can work the whole day uninterrupted by Urban Outfitters, Glossier or that one relative who keeps adding you to their mailing list.
Hate silent workspaces, but find music too distracting? Put on some ambient noise.
Rainy Mood‘s storm sounds are a classic, but Noisli offers much more in the way of customisation. You can pick and choose from a wealth of sounds including rain, café sounds, a crackling fireplace, white noise and birdsong, using sliders to bring elements to the front or back. Once you find a combination you love, you can save it and share it with friends.
Noisli recently introduced a time tracker and text editor, so if you’re a writer who prefers an all-in-one experience you’re covered.
Noisli is available on web, as an app for iPhone and Android and as an extension for Google Chrome. Get it here.
Distilled isn’t billed as a productivity app, but I’ve found that it really helps to combat attention fatigue during the research stage of writing. It’s a sleek, unintrusive adblocker for Safari on iPad and iPhone that can also hide comment sections; web pages load faster, are easier to read and won’t suck you into a debate. It’s simple to whitelist websites that you want to support.