6 Free and Useful Digital Tools for Freelancers and Everyone Else
We live in an incredible time for technology. However, finding the right tools to increase productivity and connectedness, while remaining present and undistracted, has never been harder. As a freelancer, it is important to really explore this balance and use all the tools available to increase productivity without falling into some of the trappings technology provides. I don’t believe that technology is in-and-of-itself the problem, but I do believe that people (myself as Case Study #1) may choose to pay attention to the wrong things. For me, this means using digital tools to increase efficiency: things that make it easier for me to do my work in a shorter amount of time and in fewer steps while also helping me to stay focused.
In figuring out which tools work best for me, I’ve tried a lot of systems, apps, and programs over the last few years. So I’d like to share with you the six digital tools that are most helpful for me at this moment in time. Maybe you will find a program that works for you, or at least give you some information to encourage you to try something new.
If you use Gmail than Google Drive should be a no-brainer. Drive is a suite of free Google tools that can virtually replace Microsoft Office or their Mac equivalent. The essential package of Docs (word processor), Sheets (spreadsheet manipulator), Slides (slideshow presentations), and Forms (form and survey builder) are powerful and offer a variety of competitive services that make them hard to turn down. Google also offers several dozen native and third-party apps (free and paid) that connect with Drive such as Google Photos, Google Drawings, Floorplanner, Pixlr Photo Editor, and LucidChart to name a few.
Some of my favorite features of the Google Drive products are the myriad compatible file formats to which each document type can download. Docs is compatible with and will download to .docx, .odt, .rtf, .epub, and .pdf, while Sheets is compatible with .xlsx, .otf, and .csv. Drive also offers really powerful sharing and collaboration tools, allowing teams to work on documents simultaneously while still controlling viewing and editing permissions integrated into each app. Last but certainly not least, all of your files are stored, backed up, and organized within the cloud meaning they can be accessed anywhere there is WiFi. So convenient!
If you are a business owner, you should consider G-Suite which contains all of the features of Drive but combines it with your website’s domain.
One day I was trying to hurriedly print out a contract so that I could sign it, scan it, and return it when my color inkjet printer ran out of ink. Frustrated, I cast the forlorn inkjet aside and plugged in my old printer praying that I had an ink cartridge for it (I didn’t). There had to be a better way. I remember when signing my mortgage documents that some of the forms my realtor required me to sign used a program online and I wondered what existed for private citizens. Enter DocHub.
DocHub is an online PDF viewer and document signing platform, and is one of my favorite Chrome extensions. There are several good apps that do this same thing but DocHub is preferred by me because of its easy-to-read dashboard and intuitive layout. It interfaces with Gmail, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box accounts. DocHub allows PDF editing including text entry, stamps, and erasing which means you can fill out the form and then sign it. You can even store several signatures (which you can make with your finger or stylus on a smartphone) and initial sets allowing you and those close to you to painlessly sign PDFs without the terrible print/sign/scan cycle. This app was a real game changer for me.
This is a phone app that saves everyone the hassle of emailing photos of documents. Using your Android smartphone camera, TinyScanner turns photos into PDFs (Tiny Scan is the iPhone version). You can organize multi-page documents into folders very easily, rename the files, and scan in color, black and white, and grey scale to adjust the color contrast to make them easier to read. The app also allows you to save the file to any page size, making printing a breeze if you need to do so (ever tried to print a .jpg photo of a document that someone sent from their phone? I hope you set the page size to 8.5” x 11”!).
TinyScanner’s free version allows you to export your files to a shortlist of programs, but the pro version integrates with pretty much everything including Dropbox, email, Google Drive, Evernote, OneDrive, Box, Slack, and Freelancer. The pro version is only $5 and well worth the investment if you are a freelancer and have to deal professionally with documents between you and your clients or other vendors.
I began noticing a few of my friends start to put out really good looking content on Instagram and Facebook. I knew that these friends were creative, but I hadn’t known them to be particularly savvy when it came to graphic design so I inquired how they were producing their content. They all answered Canva.
Canva is so good that it shouldn’t be free, but it is. Canva is a graphic-design tool website and app that uses a drag-and-drop format and provides access to over a million photographs, graphics, and fonts. I’ve never used an app that is as easy to use on your phone as it is on a desktop/laptop, but I really believe that Canva was designed so that people like me with no graphic design ability could make good looking stuff. They offer templates for Instagram posts, Facebook banners, Facebook mobile posts, event postings, LinkedIn covers, flyers, posters, business cards, and a ton of other relevant and useful templates. The app makes it really easy and fun to change colors, designs, fonts, and other aspects of the templates, and with thousands of templates to choose from (even in the free version) it is a very powerful tool.
As with all things, there is a paid upgrade version for graphic design professionals and businesses, but I personally haven’t had a need to upgrade just yet (however I did pay a few dollars to use a design I particularly liked for a Facebook banner.
Though they don’t say it to my face, my close friends know that I can get very distracted very easily. This, paired with an addictive personality, can make things like Facebook and Instagram really damaging to my relationships and productivity. I have to go through periodic “fasts” in which I uninstall one or both of these apps from my phone (as of today they are both off my phone).
One day, while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed for the n-th time, I noticed a friend’s post about a Chrome extension called Newsfeed Eradicator that promised to erase the newsfeed from her homepage - making mindless scrolling impossible. I immediately downloaded the extension on my laptop Chrome, reloaded the browser, and logged onto Facebook to find this inspiring quote where my newsfeed used to be:
“Inaction will cause a man to sink into the slough of despond and vanish without a trace.”
~ Farley Mowat
Newsfeed Eradicator, when enabled under your Chrome Extensions tab, removes your entire newsfeed from view on Facebook and delivers instead a rotating stock of inspiring quotes (you can even submit your own). Now, if I log onto Facebook, I have to intentionally navigate to that friend’s profile to see what they are up to, or intentionally search for fun stuff happening in town this weekend. I find myself using the navigation tab on the left considerably more - exploring my favorite pages and groups and not missing the rest of the noise I used to consume mindlessly. After I’m done checking out what acts are playing this Friday night at my favorite spot and seeing if there is anything new on my professional networking group page, I get off Facebook. It is a beautiful thing, and has been the most successful behavior modification tool I’ve found for myself.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work on your phone unless you use Facebook within your phone’s Chrome internet browser (most people just download the app), which led me to seek out the following and final of my favorite digital tools.
While I haven’t found any useful tools for my mobile devices that completely subverts my ability to waste my time, I have found a few that help when I have specific tasks I need to complete and, over time, help to modify my behavior. My favorite that I’ve found so far is Forest.
Forest is an Chrome extension and app for both Android and iPhone that helps you stay focused in a pleasant way. When I want to focus at work, at home, or on any specific task, I open Forest, set a timer to my desired length of focus, and plant a virtual tree that will mature when the timer expires. If I try to open any other apps on my phone, Forest threatens to cut down my tree! The app allows you to “whitelist” other apps you may need when you are in the zone, I imagine the same goes for websites on the Chrome extension. Forest has a social responsibility facet that I like, as well: when your tree matures, you get some coins as a reward which you can spend to plant AN ACTUAL TREE. Be productive, plant a tree. I use the free version, which contains advertisements that are a little dissonant within a focus application, but it hasn’t distracted me enough to pony up the few dollars for the paid version.
These digital tools have been extremely helpful to me as I’ve sought to increase productivity and decrease the time I spend distracted on my devices. Hopefully these tools are applicable and useful to you, too! Do you use other tools, programs, or apps to help you stay productive or bring you closer to the people around you? I’d love to hear your ideas!