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6 Free Tools to Streamline Your Workflow & Increase Productivity

Writing in a Planner

Photo by Cathryn Laverly,

So many of us dream of being our own boss, making our own schedule, choosing only the clients we want to work with…but somehow that dream always leaves out the million and one things a boss must manage every day. When I finally took the plunge into freelance design, I found myself needing to wear so many other hats besides “designer.” I am the CEO, Marketing Director, Head of Sales, Lead Designer, Office Manager, Social Media Intern, Secretary…I even run and fetch a pot of tea whenever I want it (and grumble about what a high maintenance boss I am the whole time)!


When you’re a one-person shop, or a small business with a team size you can count on one hand, those “other hats” can start to take over the day and eat away at your actual billable hours. And while there are tons (dare I say, a million and one?) programs out there to streamline your workflow, automate your workflow, most of them come with fees and membership plans attached. For startups and freelancers, it’s all about keeping costs DOWN. And by down, I mean ROCK BOTTOM. FREE. $0. Even as I take on my clients and can pay for some of the premium memberships…I just don’t want to. I’d rather use that extra $10 to take my daughter out for ice cream.


Luckily for me, I have amazing entrepreneurs for parents and I could watch them start and run their own business before heading down that road myself. I knew from day 1 that I would need a set of tools to help streamline all the ancillary tasks that come with running a business. Today, my tool bag consists of 6 great apps (juggling too many different apps can be just as time consuming as not using any) that are easy to use, work well for individuals and small teams, and, of course, free


  1. Google Calendar

  2. Trello

  3. Mailchimp

  4. Buffer

  5. Wave

  6. Dropbox

Let's get started...


When it comes to keeping track of events, appointments, deadlines, etc., it really doesn’t get any easier than Google Calendar. I created separate "calendars" for categories such as work appointments, home appointments, bills, and one for each of my projects. I also downloaded a couple calendars from google; US holidays and the Chicago Bears schedule for my husband. One of the features I use frequently is the ability to show or hide a calendar. When I’m working, I like to hide all the “home” related calendars so I don’t get distracted by other things I must do. Then when I’m managing the household, I can hide all my project calendars so it’s easier to view my bills and appointments.

Google Calendar is also perfect for teaming up with other people. You can invite clients to appointments or meetings, and they’ll get an email to accept, decline, or change the time, then you’ll get a confirmation back when they respond. You can also share entire calendars with other people. All my household calendars are shared with my husband and synced to our phones so that he can see what’s coming up too. He can also add events; I always know when he’s leaving his doctor’s appointments because a notification will pop up on my phone that he scheduled the next one! On the work side of things, I can share each project calendar with the respective client. Now everyone is in the loop when it comes to meetings, deadlines, and other scheduled tasks.


Trello is an organization and collaboration tool. Basically, you create a board for each project or category that you want to track. Then you use lists to separate out subcategories, tasks, etc. Each list then has a group of cards underneath that breaks it down further.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you wanted to write a book about homesteading (I might be in the middle of just such a book right now…). Your board would be called “All about Homesteading.” Ok, now create a list for each chapter; Gardening, Raising Chickens, Composting, Selling at Markets. Finally, break down each chapter into smaller tasks. Under Gardening you might put cards about soil health, when to start seeds, and benefits of raised planting beds, because these are topics you want to cover in the chapter.

There are two features of Trello that make it truly wonderful. The first is the cards themselves. Let’s say you write a card for “create infographic on ideal planting times.” Once you add the card, you can click on it, and do AMAZING things! You can add a due date for when you want to have this task done. Found an infographic you like online? You can paste the link right in the card and then go back to it for inspiration. Or, maybe you have a spreadsheet with all the information on plants and times that you’ll want to include in the infographic. You can attach the file to the card, and then view it right in Trello!

The second feature I love is that you can share with others. This is a great tool for coordinating with clients. When I worked on the TNI branding project (see my projects for more details on this one), I created a Trello board and shared it with the owner, Kim. We made lists for each major item in the project; website, business cards, marketing flyers... I used cards to map out the whole project, and then we worked off them throughout. In the website phase, I created cards for each webpage, and Kim attached word documents with her notes about content. There’s a comment thread that comes in really handy too.

Clients, and whoever else you invite to your boards, will have to create their own accounts before they can use Trello. Since it’s free, though, I’ve never had anyone complain. Some clients have even loved it so much they’ve started using it themselves!


When my parents first started their company, they would send hundreds of prospective emails. And by that, I mean type an email and then copy and paste it over 100 times. No. No, no no. Don’t do this to yourself. Mailchimp is a great platform for creating email campaigns. They have a ton of customizable templates to choose from or you can create your own. You can have professional looking emails, with eye-catching images, links back to your website, and social follow buttons so your recipients can share with all their friends, with relatively little effort.

Have you subscribed to a new blog recently, and then proceeded to get a series of Welcome emails? Or did you do some online shopping and get an email about items you left in your cart? Mailchimp’s automation features allow you to do all these and more. You can give subscribers and clients the feeling of personalized service without putting in all the work (though I am a HUGE proponent of actual personalized service!)

Mailchimp is also hugely popular, so it integrates well with a lot of website builders. This means you more than likely can have new subscribers’ emails imported directly into Mailchimp, rather than adding them manually. This is a HUGE timesaver, and it ensures no one gets left off your mailing list by accident (No more, “where did I put that napkin with Joe Shmoe’s email?”).


Oh Buffer, how I love thee. As someone who is not a fan of social media but accepts it as inevitable and necessary, Buffer makes it…tolerable. Buffer lets you connect all your social media accounts, and then post to them from one place. It also, and this is the key right here, let’s you SCHEDULE posts.

That’s right, folks. Now posting on social media doesn’t have to be something you do every day. You’ll probably still read your favorite blogs and newsletters, and there will be awesome content that you want to share. But instead of spending time signing in to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, you can pop over to Buffer and add it to your queue to be distributed across all your profiles. You can even share an image with it!

Lately I’ve been popping on Buffer once a week, loading up my queue with my newest posts and shareable content, and letting it run on automatic throughout the week. Not having the pressure of posting every single day is…well, priceless.


Wave is accounting software designed for freelancers and small businesses. The design is clean and simple, it connects directly to your bank accounts so there’s no manual entering, and it has built-in invoicing and receipt scanning. There are also reports to track your income and expenses throughout the year, as well as the tax forms you’ll need come February. If you want payroll services or credit card processing, those come with monthly fees, but the invoicing software, accounting software and receipt scanning are straight up free.


Dropbox is designed for sharing large files that are too big to fit in an email. Simple and straightforward; you create a folder, upload your documents into it, then share the folder with your client. The free version limits your storage, but that just means you must delete folders from past projects once in a while. Which is probably a good thing, honestly.

That's it in a nutshell. Now what are you waiting for? Go get productive! It won't even cost you a dime :)


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