Take a second to remember all the terrible things about office life that you left behind when you went freelance. Those flickering florescent lights? Gone. Your desk mate’s smelly lunch? Not your problem. Grimacing into burnt coffee as you listen to your boss drone on about his weekend in the Berkshires? Never again.
Alas, you’re a freelancer now. A traveling creative minstrel with the wind at your back, weighed down only by the tools you can fit in your bindle. The question is, what are those tools?
It’s not just you who’s wondering: Working on the go presents a number of organizational challenges—particularly for freelancers who’ve recently made the switch from conference rooms to cafes, but also for the swelling masses of “digital nomads” and gig workers looking to untether from lonely home offices and overpriced co-working spaces. But regardless of whether you’re a veteran freelancer or new to the scene, you need the right equipment and the right mindset to keep your operation running smoothly.
Thankfully, there are tons of handy tools that allow you to take the internet with you, mobile applications that keep clients and projects within reach of a few thumb taps, and strategies to keep your sanity along the way. We’ve compiled our favorites for you below.
Oh, and remember—most of these purchases are tax-deductible work expenses, so keep your receipts.
Tech essentials for the mobile freelancer
Whether you’re on a train, in a cafe, or seated at a local park bench enjoying the sunshine, you probably need to access the internet—and often on multiple devices. And until trees begin sprouting ethernet cables, you’re likely to rely on your phone for a connection.
Your mobile hotspot is useful to connect a few devices (usually between five and 10) in a password-protected network, but you run into a few downsides when running it all through your phone—burning through data, burning through your battery, and fighting for bandwidth against phone applications.
Our recommendation? Check out the marketplace for third-party mobile hotspots—nifty little devices that can fit in your pocket and, depending on your budget, usually support anywhere from five to 20 devices on a single network.
Although you may not be trapped in an office with colleagues, you probably need to sync with clients and editors on conference calls. If you’re working in a noisy area, you could always keep yourself on mute, but that can suggest to folks in an office that you’re not actually invested in the conversation. One solution is a noise-canceling microphone headset, which filters out the background noise on your end.
To excuse yourself from the inevitable scramble for a power outlet wherever you’re working, consider investing in a couple tools. You might choose a power bank or a portable charger, or if you’re interested in making friends with fellow remote workers, consider carrying around a sleek surge protector. When writers at the local cafe ask to snag an outlet, you can say, “Sure, but only if you give me your favorite editor’s contact information so I can pitch them.” (Kidding. Sort of.)
Life-simplifying apps for freelancers
Months ago, we would have recommended you buy Grammarly, but it turns out the app plays it fast and loose with your privacy and stores everything you’ve ever written. Give their user guidelines a read before you invest, and consider using spell-check instead.
As for other apps, Sighted is a free online tool for invoicing and Toggl works for time-tracking (and their design is extremely cute and quirky). If you use Chrome, Marinara is a nifty, free extension that will help you practice the Pomodoro work technique, and Pocket lets you save longform stories to read later when you’re offline. It goes without saying that you should store the bulk of your work in the cloud so you can access it anywhere, via Dropbox, Google Drive, or otherwise.
If you find yourself working out of a particular cafe often, check to see if they have a loyalty app. Many cafes will still use punch cards, but some might use Square, or in Starbucks’ case, their own app to track purchases and reward big spenders.
Habits to keep your sanity as a mobile freelancer
Sometimes you have freelance needs that technology just can’t solve. That’s when setting and maintaining healthy boundaries becomes important. Above all, regulate your hours, whether that means working a typical 9-5, or a 7am to 3pm if you’re a morning person. Protect your evenings and weekends and never expect clients to do that for you.
Don’t feel pressure to respond to emails or G-chats immediately, and if you do find yourself inundated with pings, consider using Google’s canned responses for email (sometimes clients and editors just need a confirmation of receipt to stay calm) or try time-boxing your communications (blocking off an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon, for example, to reply to emails).
Once you’ve outlined your schedule, take charge of your budget. Scaling up your arsenal of mobile-friendly tools can be intimidating from a cost perspective. And without a steady paycheck, it’s easy to convince yourself that a $100 mobile hotspot isn’t worth the money right now. We say scrap that thinking and get in the habit of allocating a portion of your monthly or annual work expenses toward equipment and tech to improve your productivity. Money-management apps like Goodbudget and Mint (or Quickbooks or Wave for more-complicated operations) can help you maintain a sense of financial control while you upgrade.
When it comes to choosing tools as a freelancer, the name brands in your software stack aren’t as important as the functions they serve. A program that satisfies the needs of one freelancer might not work for another, so give yourself permission to experiment. Ultimately, you’re in good shape as long as you’re keeping track of project details, filing your receipts somewhere accessible, and using technology to streamline (rather than complicate) your career.
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