Recently a reader responded to my weekly newsletter to tell me she needed to find an "aggressively organised" way of managing her freelance work due to memory lapses caused by medication.
First, I want everyone reading to send this reader (let's call her L.) lots of good thoughts and wishes of wellness 🙌
Second, I'd say forgetfulness is something we all get frustrated with from time to time – even without the added complication of meds. And memory farts are especially likely to strike at the worst possible times, like when life gets busy, or stressful, or you have other things on your mind (which turns out to be quite often).
There was a time when people used to tie a bit of string around their index finger to help them remember something (do people still do this?). Thankfully, things have moved on a bit since then because I definitely don't have enough index fingers to remember all the things I need to do in a day.
Peak productivity is the holy grail for freelance journalists – and let's face it, almost everyone – and there are a zillion apps and tools out there promising to help you attain it.
But what works and what doesn't tends to boil down to individual preference. When I asked on Twitter what tools other freelancers were using to stay organised, the responses were split 50/50 between those who preferred something like a hardcopy day-planner or calendar, and those who over something digital, for example.
To anyone who knows me, it won't come as a surprise that I'm in Camp Digital. I use pen and paper only for my very immediate to-do list, i.e. the stuff I'm going to get done TODAY.
My longer-term to-do list, my schedule, and everything else is kept inside my phone, because a) I never lose my phone like I do a piece of paper b) even if I did, everything is backed up to iCloud c) I always have my phone on me.
Below are some of my favourite tools and apps for time management and staying organised as a freelance journalist – and believe me, I've tried many (I used to test them in my last "real" job).
And the best thing? They're all free!*
I'd be lost without Trello for keeping track pitches and deadlines. It's a project management tool which also has a mobile app (iOS and Android), so you can keep track of your schedule wherever you are. I wrote about how I use Trello in this piece on Journalism.co.uk.
I've created separate calendars for personal, professional, and career development (training courses, conferences, scholarship deadlines etc.), as well as my editorial calendar. Everything is colour-coded and feeds into the Calendar app on my iPhone, natch.
Available for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android, Wunderlist is the best task manager / to-do list I've found. I use it for everything from planning work trips and putting together my upcoming training course, to the shared grocery list I have with my partner.
Dropbox and Google Drive
I used both of these interchangeably for cloud storage – Google Drive for projects I'm working on currently, like pitches and story drafts, and Dropbox for archiving things like photos, contracts, and audio files from interviews. I've never found a use for Evernote, but I like Rhodri's suggestion above.
Top time management
How can you improve your time management if you don't know exactly what you're spending time on? I find I tend to underestimate how long it will take me to do something, more often than not, so Toggl helps me to be more realistic with planning, as well as setting more accurate fees.
Download this Mac app and block access to distracting websites and social media for anything up to 24 hours. I use this A LOT for those days when I just need to get in the zone and fire some pitches out. An alternative for PC is Cold Turkey, although I haven't tried it so can't vouch for it.
An egg timer
This is an eggs-ellent (sorry) tip I picked up from Lauren Marie-Fleming at LA BinderCon. Get an egg timer and use it for each task on your to-do list for the day so you have no more than 60 minutes to try and complete it. Even if I don't always complete tasks within the hour, I find that I'm faster and much more focused with the timer ticking away. Bonus tip: it's also great for when cooking eggs.
Often when I'm researching a story or pitch I'll come across a link to something online that I'm absolutely desperate to read. And sometimes it's worthy of reading, but other times it's my procrastination pixie coming out to play. To avoid unnecessary distractions, I save anything that catches my eye to Pocket, safe in the knowledge that if I really want to read it, I'll go back and pick it up later.
Mine sits on the shelf above my desk, but if you don't have a basket a drawer or any kind of box will do. Simply take your phone. turn it off, and place it in the basket out of sight. Ta-da! One of your biggest time-sucks is now gone. You're welcome 😎
* A few of the above are affiliate links. Because, you know, money. But I want to be clear I'm not on commission for any of these companies, and I'd still be recommending them even without any perks.