How are you spending your working hours? Which projects have you booked and need to work on? How do you get yourself into deep focus mode?
Tools on their own can’t make you productive, but they can definitely help. You only need a few to help you work efficiently on the right tasks and projects.
Here’s a list of best planning and productivity tools for freelance writers.
1. Time tracking: Toggl
Toggl is a simple, seamless, free time tracker I highly recommend for keeping tabs on how you spend your time.
Why track time? I don’t recommend hourly billing for freelance writers, so that clearly isn’t the answer.
As an independent worker, you don’t have bosses who set your goals, team mates who check in with you daily, or a larger structure to follow and rely on. Your day is yours alone—how you spend your time is a lot more fluid than in a typical workplace.
Time tracking helps you understand how much time you spend on each client and task (including admin and emails), days and times you’re most focused, and patterns over weeks and months.
The beauty of Toggl is its ease of use: you can start and stop your time tracking with one click. My approach is to list all of my agreed client projects in Toggl at the start of the month so I can easily select the one I’m working on from a dropdown list and click the play button.
Thanks to this, I can view a weekly/monthly report that looks like this:
Instead of doing this, you can also just type what you’re working on directly in the tracker without any predefined options—it will still work perfectly! I simply prefer adding projects in advance as it results in cleaner reports.
Here’s my Toggl workflow:
Add all projects before the month starts. I like planning my workload in monthly batches (more on that in a later section), so this is a great way to solidify it. I name projects with that month’s name and a number and attach a client name to it (adding clients is a native function in Toggl):
Track every work session on a specific project. Every time I sit down to research, write, edit a piece of content, I start the tracker. Most times, I also add context to my entry to specify what exactly I’m focusing on. This is useful data to reflect on later:
Review the past month and prepare the next one. When all projects for the month are completed, I review the report, archive the projects from the month, and add new ones for the upcoming month. It’s a nice way to wrap up, reflect on what worked and think about what I can improve, and set myself up for success for the next month.
It’s worth pointing out that I only track time when I sit down to work on a client blog post. But the thinking (and sometimes the sporadic research) sometimes happens when I’m far from my desk—while doing the dishes, running, driving, relaxing, or casually browsing the internet on my phone during downtime.
When this happens, I take notes on my phone, or bookmark an article, or scrabble a few words on a piece of paper and think about the idea as I move on with my day.
In other words: a lot more goes into an article than just sitting at my desk, but time tracking often doesn’t reflect that. It’s something I’m trying to keep in mind as I review my own reports so I can be realistic about the true mental load of my work.
I hope this encourages you to learn about your own time tracking quirks!
💰 Cost: free (paid plans available for teams, plus features like billable hours and integrations)
2. Project and task management: Todoist
If you’re struggling to keep track of your deadlines and projects in progress, you need a project management tool.
My tool of choice is Todoist. Todoist is a task manager that makes it easy to unload every task in your head, as well as in your email inbox, so you can sort them into projects and schedule them when it’s time to work on them.
I started using Todoist in mid-2021. Until then, I used Asana (more on that below), and the reason I switched isn’t that I don’t think Asana is great anymore—I just feel it no longer suits my needs as well as it did before. Over the years, it became bulkier and more oriented towards teams, and I craved a much simpler, stripped-down solution that would still be powerful and flexible.
That’s exactly what Todoist is. It allows me to structure projects and tasks into a hierarchy that makes sense for me (I use Tiago Forte’s PARA method for my organization) and it’s extremely fast and clean.
The screenshot above is how I organize my client projects. Current month is a project, each client gets a section, and under that section I list projects (articles, case studies) I’ve arranged for that month, along with due dates. Each step of these projects, like outlining and drafting, gets a subtask and a due date.
I use Todoist’s inbox on desktop and mobile to quickly add new tasks I think of on the go, and I forward emails that require specific action to a designated, unique email address that sends the task to my Todoist inbox.
💰 Cost: Free for up to five active projects, $5/month or $48/year for up to 300 projects
⚡ Check out these additional resources for your toolkit:
My alternative suggestion for a project management tool is Asana. It’s powerful and easy to tweak to your needs.
I’ve used Asana since late 2017 up until mid-2021. Here are my favorite benefits of Asana:
You can structure it in a way that works for your brain. If you have large projects for each client, then each client can get their own Asana project. If you take 10 smaller projects from various clients in a month, they can all fit in just one Asana project.
You can choose different views for your projects (and toggle between them). You can choose from list view, board view (think Trello boards, or kanban boards), calendar view, and timeline view (paid version only).
It is effortless to get started with and use daily. Drag-and-drop functions, help guides, keyboard shortcuts, custom views, task/project duplication, intuitive interface—they all make it easy to get the right things done.
You can bring all your projects together in the My Tasks view. Instead of jumping between projects to catch all due dates and tasks on your plate, My Tasks brings them all to the same page in list, board, or calendar view (I prefer the calendar view).
I used Asana for client projects, as well as personal tasks and errands, tasks for marketing my freelance writing business, all the Freelance Bold tasks, appointments, and anything else on my plate. It’s great for a realistic picture of true responsibilities for the day, week, and month.
For client work, you can use a single project named after the month and year you’re planning (July 2021, for example). Then, create a section for each client, and list all your projects for those clients for the month in the right section:
My approach was to enter all of my clients active in the recent months as sections—not just the ones I had a project with—as it gave me a great idea of what could potentially come up. Then, when the new month arrived, I’d simply duplicate this project with empty client sections and rename it as a new month, then enter confirmed projects.
This isn’t essential, and you can certainly have a simple running project you use all the time—this is just what I found works well for me.
I used tags to help me remember whether a deadline is a hard deadline set by the client, or a more flexible deadline that can be moved if needed.
My client tasks were named “Client 5 - blog post #1” instead of just “blog post #1” because when I opened this on a calendar, it made it easy to see which client is the due date for:
If you want to get an excellent foundation for Asana as a freelance writer (read: business owner!), I highly recommend Megan Minns’ videos about Asana, as well as Louise Henry’s course, Uplevel With Asana.
💰 Cost: Free (Asana offers Premium and Business plans for extra features like timelines, rules, custom fields and more, but you currently can’t purchase a single seat—there’s a two-seat minimum)
4. Project planning: Project planner for freelancers
Can you easily tell how much revenue you brought in last month or quarter? What about the current month, or the next month?
When a new lead comes your way, can you accurately tell when your next project opening is?
My answer to all of these questions was a resounding ‘no.’ My ongoing and potential client projects were split between sticky notes, notebooks, wall calendars, spreadsheets, and Asana projects.
I had no easy way to see the full picture of my workload and my income, and it was making me perpetually stressed. To cope with that, I built my own project planner.
The planner is a simple, but powerful spreadsheet. Your inputs are:
The clients you work with in a given calendar month
The number of projects for each client in that month
The revenue those projects will bring
Based on this, you’ll have immediate overview of:
Your revenue for the month
Your workload for the month
Your total for the year so far
A graphic overview of your revenue, month by month
A visual timeline of your revenue for the year, per client
Every week, I spend a couple of minutes checking in with my planner. I make sure all the project statuses (confirmed, completed, invoiced) are up to date and that all projects are in the right place as deadlines and plans sometimes change and move around.
Thanks to the planner, I can notice any patterns (peaks and drops in workload during the year), ideal times for a longer vacation, next open project slots for new clients, and the exact income I’m bringing in.
(The alternative before this was jumping into my emails, various spreadsheets, and notebooks just to get a basic sense of what’s on my plate and how my cash flow is doing. That’s too chaotic and stressful for my liking.)
Do you ever fall into rabbit holes of Twitter, Reddit, YouTube… When the only thing you should be doing is writing?
I sure do. Although I try my best to avoid it thanks to pure willpower, it doesn’t always work. That’s why I use Freedom, an app and website blocker that works on Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, and Chrome.
Use Freedom to block popular distractions like Amazon and social media, or even your Gmail, so you can focus on doing impactful work for clients and yourself (and scroll, watch, and browse the internet later).
💰 Cost: $39/year, with seven free sessions to try it out
6. Meeting booking: Calendly
If you book calls regularly, whether with (potential) clients or fellow industry/freelance peers, you need an efficient way to find times that work for everyone.
Calendly is my go-to tool for this. You can set up event types and define the length, days and times you’re available on, buffer time before and after the call, fields that need to be filled out when booking, and more.
I only made myself available two days per week so I don’t end up with meetings on every day of the week. This is a great way to set and protect your boundaries around working hours and deep work days.
💰 Cost: Free; paid plans start at $8/month and allow you to use automations and advanced features
7. Focus music: Brain.fm
If you prefer working alongside ambiental, lyric-free music rather than silence, you’ll love Brain.fm.
Brain.fm is music that helps you get in the zone and stay in it. You can customize it with different music genres, like lofi, atmospheric, piano, and cinematic, or add nature sounds like forest, beach, and rain.
You can also set a predefined timer of 30 minutes, one hour, or two hours, or set up your own. Once the time is up, the music stops, so it’s a signal that you’re due to take a break.
💰 Cost: $6.99/month, or $49.99/year; you can try it out for free before purchasing
8. Timer: Time cube
I love working in pomodoro sessions—bursts of intense focus on one task, then taking a break. The standard pomodoro rule is 25 minutes, although I sometimes make it 30 minutes or an hour, depending on what I’m working on and how I’m feeling that day.
To time these sessions, I use the time cube, a small gadget that sits on my desk so I can flip it to the right number of minutes when I want to kick off a new session.
Mine has 5, 15, 30, and 60 minutes timers on it, so I also use the shorter ones to limit the time I spend on emails or other admin tasks that tend to stretch out for too long.
💰 Cost: Up to $15
Bonus: Classes to make you a productive writer and business owner
Want to get more productive, but don’t want to spend days and weeks on a long course? Check out Skillshare classes, which take an hour or less and are practical and easy to implement.
Side note: these classes are premium classes, meaning you need a paid subscription to watch them. If you take any of these classes through the links below, you’ll also get one free month of Skillshare Premium (if you don’t already have a paid account) 👌 You can cancel your subscription any time.