I have now been working as an independent consultant for over 5 years. These are the tools I use to run my business and work with clients. I’m a one-person business, so I need tools that let me manage the business side of things efficiently. This list is constantly evolving, and I have a list of solutions I need as well.
Collaboration and Communication
- Zoom: Zoom is my preferred platform for video conferencing. I have used all the other major tools (WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.), but Zoom works with the fewest technical challenges. It also includes the option for calling in on a phone rather than just VOIP, so you can get better quality audio. For $150/year, I can host unlimited high quality group video calls with up to 50 people.
- Google Voice: I use Google Voice for my business phone number. This is a free service I can forward to my mobile and landline phones. I schedule my Google Voice number to go directly to voicemail outside of business hours .
- Dropbox and Google Drive: I use both Dropbox and Google Drive to share files with clients, depending on the clients’ preference.
- Graphic Stock: Graphic Stock is the source for many images for my blog posts and presentations. I use it sometimes for courses, depending on the content. It’s $99/year for unlimited downloads. I love it for backgrounds and basic images where I don’t have terribly specific needs.
- Can Stock Photo: When I need more specific images for courses (e.g., a non-white male teacher talking to a female elementary student), I mostly use Can Stock Photo. Credits are fairly reasonably priced, and subscriptions are also an option.
- Google Sheets: I use Google Spreadsheets to track my time, collect review feedback, and do light project management.
- Remember The Milk: I manage my daily to-do list with Remember The Milk.
- WordPress: This blog is on a free WordPress.com site; my business website and portfolio were built with WordPress and hosted by Dreamhost.
- Amazon: I use Amazon Affiliate links for my book reviews. I don’t make much income this way, but $250 a year is better than nothing.
- HelloSign: I used to digitally sign contracts with Adobe Acrobat Pro (and sometimes still do if a client sends it), but mostly I use HelloSign for digital signatures. If you don’t sign documents often, you can do 3 signatures per month for free.
What I Need
I have a few needs for software currently. If you have found a great solution for these, let me know in the comments.
- Basic Accounting: I have been using QuickBooks Self-Employed for tracking expenses. I like how it automatically syncs with my accounts and makes it easy to categorize transactions. Unfortunately, the program repeatedly and spontaneously insists on adding my personal accounts as well. They also recently broke their mobile app so I can no longer categorize transactions on my phone. I’ve had enough glitches in the last few months that I don’t quite trust it anymore.
Wave is the first one on my list to evaluate because it’s free. If I can do what I need with that, I don’t need to pay for something else. Several people have recommended Freshbooks, but it’s more expensive and I don’t think I’d use many of the features. Xero and FreeAgent have also been recommended. If you have experience with any of these, I’d love to hear about it.
- Project Management: I currently manage projects in Google Sheets. It’s fast and simple to set up, and it shares perfectly with clients. This works OK for basic projects and small teams. It’s hard to visualize what’s happening though, and I’m starting to hit the limits of what I can really do. I’m starting to investigate other options now. I used Easy Projects with a past client, and that might work. I’ve heard positive reviews for MavenLink. There are some other free and low-cost options as well.
What are your must-have tools? Any suggestions for accounting or project management?
As mentioned above, I use affiliate links on my blog. Several of the links above are affiliate or referral links. If you make a purchase after clicking these links, I get a small payment. Some of these links (including the Graphic Stock and Dreamhost links) also give you a discount.
Most of the time, I have multiple projects in various states of completion. Right now, I started two projects last week, I’ll start another this week, and I have three courses in various states of revision. My to-do list is my central location for keep track of all the moving pieces.
I use a tool called Remember the Milk for my to-do list. Here’s what I love about it. (No, this isn’t a paid post. I just really like this tool, and someone recently asked why I chose this over other options.)
Every to-do list tool lets you set due dates, but I have too many tasks on my list to be able to just have an undifferentiated list for each day. With RTM, I can set each task as Priority 1, 2, or 3. I try to limit myself to only 1 or 2 Priority 1 tasks a day. Those are usually the tasks with a firm deadline or projects with little or no slack. Priority 1 tasks are orange and stand out clearly against the blue.
2. Separate Lists for Work and Personal
I keep all my tasks on this list, including personal ones. You can create tabs for different lists. I mostly use this for different contexts (Work, Personal, House, Finances). You can view “All Tasks” to see the complete list, or switch tabs to just focus on one area.
3. Tags for Projects
Within my Work tab, I tag tasks based on specific projects. Within my main list, that lets me quickly see which project it relates to. I can also view just the tasks for a specific course or project as long as I tag them all.
4. Keyboard Shortcuts & Smart Add Shortcuts
This is a bit nerdy of a thing to love, but it saves me so much time. When I type to add my tasks, I can set all the variables just by typing with a few codes. RTM calls this “Smart Add.” Here’s an example:
Draft new module 2 activity tomorrow !2 #work #motivation
The task is “Draft new module 2 activity.” The due date is tomorrow, and it’s Priority 2. The code for lists and tags is the same, so this is on my overall Work list and tagged for a Motivation course. Repeating tasks are quickly added by typing *monthly or *weekly.
RTM also has a long list of keyboard shortcuts to improve your efficiency.
I don’t use these other features as much, but I can see how they’d be useful for others.
- I use the mobile app infrequently. I’m usually at my computer when I’m working, so the mobile app is primarily a backup if I think of something while I’m out.
- You can email tasks to yourself.
- You can share tasks and assign them to other people.
- You can set times and time estimates, not just dates.
- You can assign tasks for different locations. I work from home, so this isn’t as useful to me, but if I worked in an office I might use it more.
- RTM provides iCalendar support so you can sync with a calendar.
- I use the free version, but the Pro version for $25/year has more features (more syncing, phone reminders, etc.)
Do you love Remember The Milk too? Do you have a favorite tool for keeping track of your to do list? Let me know in the comments.
As an instructional designer, I often need to estimate the time it will take to complete a project. One tool I use for determining my estimates is records of how long past projects have taken. Having everything together in a spreadsheet also simplifies my invoicing to clients. In addition, I track non-billable time. That’s primarily for my own interest; I want to see how long I spend on administrative tasks like invoicing as well as networking and marketing tasks.
I use a Google spreadsheet for this. You can view and save a copy of the template yourself. You can also download the template for Excel.
- I use Ctrl+; to add the current date quickly.
- Ctrl+: adds the current time for Start Time and End Time.
- Time Spent will automatically calculate once you add your Start Time and End Time.
- Leave the Invoiced column blank until you have actually sent the invoice. This lets you filter for work you haven’t invoiced yet by filtering for “blank.”
- By default, the template is set up with ADDIE phases plus administrative, project management, and business development tasks. You can edit this list of Phases on the Named ranges tab. If you do change it, you may also need to adjust the data validation in the Phases column. (The numbers in front of the ADDIE phases make them sort properly in the pivot table.)
I use a pivot table to analyze how I spend my time. The template is set up to group data by quarter and month for invoicing purposes. (Quarter and Month are calculated in hidden columns B & C of the Tracking tab.)
You can adjust the pivot table to group by phases instead of quarter and month. This is especially useful when you’re estimating time for future projects. You can see how long each phase took for similar past projects and use that as the basis for your estimate.
You can also filter the pivot table by whether tasks or billable or not, client, phase, etc.
Feel free to use this template yourself. Edit it to make it compatible with your workflow and needs. If you have questions or suggestions for improvement, ask them below in the comments. Read more about how I determine my time estimates for designing and developing e-learning.
Where are you most productive? Is it really in a cube farm?
I know I feel the way Jason Fried of 37Signals describes it in his TEDxMidwest talk: that by going into the office to work I’m trading my work day “for a series of work moments.” Creative workers (including instructional designers) do best with uninterrupted time to work, something in short supply in the office.
I’m fortunate to work in an office where I have the option to work from home several days a week, with a project manager who understands that I’m more productive when I do.
What about you? Do you find yourself more productive when you work from home, or are you better off with the physical separation between work and personal life? Do you have any tips for being more productive when you are in the office and dealing with interruptions?