Let’s get it started…

Hello, all, and welcome to Freelancer Hacks, the online home of a panel on freelancer productivity hacks I and colleagues Christopher Mims, John Pavlus, and Amber Dance, will be presenting at ScienceWriters 2010. Over the next few months, we’ll be posting some of our favorite hacks here, and invite you to continue the discussion, both in the comment section of this blog and in November in New Haven.

To get the ball rolling, I thought I’d compile my version of the freelancers’ essential cyber-toolbelt. Care to join in the discussion? Think I’ve missed something essential? Let us know below!

Productivity suite: Microsoft Office

Yes, it’s huge. Yes, it’s a bit kludgy. But also: Yes, everyone uses it. I know, you can use Google Documents or OpenOffice, or even just a plain text editor, but why mess with success? The most important thing for me is that my documents be readable by my editors. I don’t want to have to fret over compatibility. And for me, that means Office.

Billing: Microsoft Office

You can purchase applications dedicated to keeping the books in your small business, like QuickBooks or MacFreelance. But for me, nothing is quite as simple as Word and Excel (and of course, I’ve already got them).

I set up a simple document template for invoices in Word, and an Excel spreadsheet with macros to track my invoices — when they were paid, how overdue they are, and when/if I paid taxes on them. The spreadsheet also does some rudimentary number crunching to keep track of how much I’m billing each month, and how much I’ve invoiced and am owed by each client. (More on this spreadsheet in a later post.)

E-mail/Calendar/Contacts: GMail, GCal, Google Contacts

For me, it’s all about simplicity, and it doesn’t get any simpler than the Google suite. I run these apps in the Chrome browser, not in a dedicated email/calendar client (though I do sometimes use Mozilla’s Thunderbird as a backup, eg when GMail decides to be flaky or if I have to be offline). (Even if you don’t use GMail as your primary email address, or if you have multiple accounts, you can have your mail forwarded to GMail as a single email aggregator.)

Some may glance askance as GMail’s use of “tags” over folders, but once you get used to the idea, tags are brilliant. After all, you can tag a message with multiple tags (such as “Client A” and “Waiting_for_Response”), but can only file it in one folder at a time. Plus, Google’s got a great mobile site for your smartphone, and with Google Sync, I can automagically sync my calendar and contacts without plugging the phone in.

Twitter client: Tweetie

It’s almost impossible to be a freelancer and not use Twitter. I use Tweetie, but not for any particular reason. I suppose I just like the interface.

To-do list manager: Todo.txt, Gina Trapani’s plain-text to-do list manager.

If you’re at all comfortable at the command line, this is the to-do list for you. Other managers, like Remember the Milk, have more polish, but I prefer this one because (a) it’s super-lightweight and powerful; (b) easily searchable (eg, using the command grep); and (c) can be displayed on my desktop background using GeekTool (meaning my list is always just a keystroke away).

Research: Evernote

Evernote’s tag line is “Remember Everything,” and with Evernote, you can do just that. A cloud-based application with desktop, web, and smartphone incarnations, Evernote lets you corral all the little bits and bobs of your research in one place. Stumble across an article you think might be relevant to some upcoming project? Just click the Evernote button in your browser (you’ll need to install a plug-in), add a relevant tag (eg, “stem cells”)  and voila!  Now you can view it on your desktop at home, in a browser at work, and on your smartphone.

You can also use your phone’s camera to record that brilliant mock-up you doodled on a cocktail napkin, save a voice memo with your phone’s microphone, or — my favorite trick — add notes via email. For instance, when making travel arrangements, just forward confirmation messages to your dedicated Evernote address and they’ll be imported into your library directly.

Backup: Crashplan

In this age of cheap hard drives and ubiquitous bandwidth, there’s no excuse not to have a backup. So of course, I have an external hard drive. But I also back up my data off-site using Crashplan. A cloud-based service that works in the background, Crashplan can copy files either to an external drive or a friend’s computer, or (for a small charge) to the company’s off-site servers. Because it’s cloud-based, it keeps backing up even if you’re off-site, say at a meeting, or at the in-laws. I figure that peace-of-mind is totally worth $4.50 a month.

Essential Virtual Office Tool: Dropbox

Dropbox is one of those apps that, once you have it, you wonder how you ever lived without it. Like it’s name suggests, Dropbox is, well, a dropbox: Whatever you put into a special folder on your computer is automatically sync’d to a password-protected account on the company’s servers (the basic (free) service includes 2 GB of space). So, it acts like a quickie off-site storage solution (and, like Crashplan, keeps you backed up even if you’re off-site).

But it can be so much more. You can use a shared folder as a way to transfer large files to a client that you cannot send by email. Or, you can use it to sync directories between your home and office computers.

I use Dropbox as a way to take my office with me. Basically, I have all the projects I’m currently working on in a specific folder that I mirror into my Dropbox. That means I can quickly access them on my smartphone (via the Dropbox app) or on, say, a friend’s computer (via the web interface).

In short, with Dropbox, my office is wherever I happen to be!

Token Analog Tool: Moleskine notebook

As much as I live my life online, for some things I find a pen and paper work best. I keep a Moleskine notebook to track all my articles. Each assignment gets a page, where I log the article specs (length, due date, etc), sources I’ve reached out to, sources I’ve interviewed, fact-checking status, and so on. It’s low-tech, and it isn’t searchable, but for me, it works.

The question is, what works for you?

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About jeffreyperkel

I'm a freelance science writer who focuses on laboratory methods and technologies -- the "how of science."
This entry was posted in ScienceWriters 2010 meta, The Portable Office. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Let’s get it started…

  1. Me says:

    Geektool! holy cow, I thought I was the only person outside of an engineering dept to actually ever use that…

    I gave up on it eventually though because, even with Quicksilver actions, the text files it displayed were too cumbersome to manipulate/refresh. (I’m not “comfortable on the command line,” sadly.)

    Oh … that reminds me … Quicksilver. Curse the day the devs stopped updating it. It is E-f*cking-ssential.

    I guess I’ll be writing my own toolkit post soon enough. 🙂

  2. GeekTool is definitely a labor of love. The new version (3) is easier to use than past incarnations, but still awkward. I’ve set mine up to update my to-do list every minute — it’s not parsing a text file, just executing a command: “.todo.sh list”. It updates that command every minute, meaning the list I see is always up-to-date, and if I need to view it, I just view the desktop. FYI, also displayed on the screen: current local weather + 2-day forecast; calendar; hard disk usage; and computer uptime.

    After glowing reviews on Lifehacker among other places, I tried to get into Quicksilver, but I could make neither heads nor tails of it. I use Google Quick Search Bar instead, which is like QS’s poor cousin, but works well enough. (My favorite use: type define word-to-define, and up pops the dictionary definition)

  3. Maryn says:

    OK, I’ll play.
    (Mac user, as will become evident)

    – Office suite: MS office (resentfully, because they are the Deathstar) on iMac and MacBook Pro, OpenOffice on Hackintosh (built out of a Dell 10v). Hoping soon to have a romance with Scrivener.
    – Billing: ditto. (Excel + Word)
    – Email/Calendar/etc.: AppleMail + iCal + MailTags (essential).
    – To-do: ditto. I’ve struggled with Daylite, but it doesn’t seem to integrate into iCal; and Bento, but I find it clunky.
    – Twitter: Tweetdeck; Tweetie on the Hackintosh because the screen is too small for all the Tweetdeck columns.
    – Back-up: Time Machine + Apple Backup + DropBox + SuperDuper. Yes, I’m paranoid.
    – Research: DevonThink.

    I also use DropBox to sync stuff between my desktop and laptops.
    OmniOutliner for brainstorming.
    ReQall to remind myself of stuff that I think about when I’m away from my desk.
    EndNote for footnoting/citing.
    And I carry a Moleskine reporter’s notebook everywhere and save them when they are full.

    • Maryn says:

      Sorry about the lack of clarity. When I said “ditto,” I meant: “Repeating myself from the line above,” not (necessarily) “Agreeing with what Perkel said.”

  4. Pingback: Do-it-yourself billing with MS Office | Freelancer Hacks

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