Recommended: best apps and tools

June 11, 2021

I’ve had lots of conversations recently about ways to help freelancers and small business owners run our businesses in the best way possible. Personally, I use various apps for freelancers and ethically-minded businesses to be more productive and make sustainable choices. Recently, I’ve chatted about this ith several other freelancers and recommended my best app for productivity, carbon offsetting, bookkeeping and more. I’ve realised there are a few apps, tools and tricks I recommend regularly. So, I wanted to share my favourites with you.

Heads up, there are a few affiliate links in this blog. But, rest assured, I’m only recommending products I use and love in my daily life. All affiliate links are clearly highlighted below.

I hope you find them useful. Do let me know your recommendations too – I’m always looking to improve my processes!

Work life

My best app for scheduling meetings: Calendly

You know that feeling when you’re trying to set up a call with someone and it seems to take about 7 emails just to agree on a time? “Can you do next week?” “Sure, when is good for you?” “How about Tuesday?” “Oh no, I can’t do Tuesday. Thursday is better?” “OK great. 3pm UK time?” “Umm, no, I’ll be picking up the kids from school. Can we say 2pm?” “Perfect, I’ll send you a calendar invite.” Yawn – it’s frustrating just thinking about it!

So, I was over the moon when I found out there is a better way!  With Calendly, I can send contacts a link to check my availability (it’s synced to my calendar so there’s no chance of accidentally double booking) and adding a meeting directly into my calendar at a time that suits us both. So, the above conversation now sounds something like: “It would be great chat through this – feel free to book in a call at a time that suits you” “Brilliant. I’ve scheduled 3pm on Monday. Chat then!). It also gives me the option of setting the times offered (Monday meetings? No thanks!) and capping the number of calls in one day (to prevent Zoom burnout after seven back-to-back calls. Once your max number of calls are booked in, Calendly won’t offer up any more slots that day, even if you have availability).

Safe to say, I’m a Calendly convert. If you’re asking yourself “what’s the best app to manage my calendar?” I’d definitely recommend checking it out. 

www.calendly.com

My best app for organising my to do list: Todoist

As a freelancer, there’s always so much on my to do list: getting work done for various clients, finding work, chasing invoices and juggling all the other admin associated with running a business. So, finding ways to manage my time and get things done more efficiently is key. For a long time, I was strictly a paper to do list person. My MD used to laugh as I thudded my page-per-day to do list on the table. But the system worked for me. Not to mention the satisfaction of crossing out a completed task. But, it was so frustrating if I had to scrub out incomplete tasks and rewrite them for the next day. Once, I had an unexpected work from home day and had left my to do list in the office. Having to try and remember everything I’d written down was a total pain. 

I decided to try Todoist and never looked back. I love that you can tag, organise and view your tasks by project, by deadline date or by priority. The colour coding is great as it helps me visually differentiate projects. I can pop into the app (on phone or desktop; they’re synced) and look at all tasks for that day or focus on a particular project or client. If I don’t get through everything, it’s easy to change the date by clicking on the calendar. I can even write ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘next week’ or ‘next month’ and it will automatically tag it to the right day.

Managing your to do list is very personal: if you know you prefer paper, Evernote or another system, great! But if you’re wondering “what’s the best app to help me manage my to do list?” I’d recommend giving Todoist a try. I love it – you might too.

https://todoist.com/r/melissa_nquhba
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Todoist Premium using this referral, you’ll gift me two months of Premium too (aww thanks!).

My best app for time tracking: Toggl

As I work for various clients at any one time, having an easy, manageable time tracking tool is key. I’m a big fan of Toggl which lets me track what I’m working on using a simple timer browser extension. I can easily attribute work to different projects and clients or switch between them. It’s also possible to duplicate calendar items (such as meetings) to log them as a time entry. I also love the reporting features. It’s easy to check what you’ve been working on each day, week or month and which clients are taking up the biggest proportion of your time. Even if, like me, you don’t bill hourly, it’s a handy way of keeping track of your hours (billable and unbillable) on desktop or the app.   

https://toggl.com/

My best app for transcribing interviews: Otter.ai

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating when I say I don’t think I could live without the Otter transcription app as a freelance writer (OK, I’d be exaggerating but everything would take me a LOT longer!). In fact, I’m using it as we speak to dictate this blog post while having a little stroll around giving myself a break from the screen. Magic!

As a writer, I find Otter useful for doing interviews, recording meeting minutes and writing blog posts or articles. This app will record your dictations, meetings or calls (make sure you get permission from the person/people you’re speaking to before recording) and transcribe them as you’re going along. So, if you need to write up notes from a call or interview and are thinking “how am I going to transcribe this without spending hours writing it all up?”, Otter might be the answer.

For me, it’s a real time-saver. If I’m having an interesting chat to a marine biologist for an article, I can focus on our conversation rather than typing desperately to keep up with what they’re saying. Sure, I’m fast at typing (thanks to mum for forcing me to learn to touch type when I was 13). But no-one’s fast enough to keep up with a passionate researcher carried away with their favourite topic. You do need to listen back and correct typos – particularly if your interviewee has a strong accent – but it’s still much quicker than typing up notes from scratch. So, if you need an app to help you record and transcribe your meeting notes, give it a try.

https://otter.ai/referrals/GMNPILLN
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Otter using this referral, you’ll gift me one month of Pro lite (wow – thank you!).

My best app for DIY design: Canva

Running a one-person business means there are lots of different things you have to deal with that, at a company, would be looked after by another team member. This means that, sometimes, you’re responsible for things that aren’t your specific strength – particularly if you aren’t at a stage that you can invest in contractors to support you. For example, I’m currently doing design work myself – such as social media assets and mocking up my resources – with thanks to Mark from Onda Creative who pulled together some templates to get me started. I don’t have access to design suites such as Adobe so Canva has been a lifesaver for me. It makes it easy to make slick designs for my social media channels, website and more while I’m not yet able to hire a designer. If you’re in the same position, give it a try!

https://www.canva.com/join/vyz-ksc-tfl
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Canva using this referral, we both get a Canva Credit to get a premium element for free.

Going Green

Best app for carbon offsetting: Treeapp AND Ecologi

Treeapp is a new discovery for me (thanks to the wonderful Priya Chotai) but a week in and I’m already totally sold. Through the app, you can plant one tree a day for free – and it only takes a minute. It does this by helping organisations spread the word about their sustainable products and services. Each day, you watch a short advert or answer a question from a sustainable business to be able to plant your tree. There are tree-planting projects all over the world and a new country is unlocked as you plant more trees – safe to say, I’m looking forward to being able to plant in Mozambique. With so many different carbon offsetting options out there, it’s also reassuring to know the company has partnered with global experts in tropical forestry to choose the best reforestation partners.  

At the moment, I’m using the free plan for individuals but there are also business sponsorship options too. Take a look – I highly recommend it.

https://www.thetreeapp.org/

I’ve also recently joined the Ecologi Climate Committee and, as such, have created a profile where I can plant trees and directly impact atmospheric CO2 levels. The team is doing lots of work to ensure you are funding quality climate projects and having a tangible impact.

https://ecologi.com/melissahobson?r=60f69fef3aaab818f1c636ef

This is an affiliate link. If you click the link and sign up, we both receive 30 trees in our forests…nice!

My best app for improving my business’ ethical processes: B Corp impact assessment

As a freelancer working specifically with sustainable and for-purpose businesses, it’s important that my own business is as sustainable and ethical as possible. But, when starting out, you might be thinking “Where do I start in making my business more sustainable?”. I know I did!

As well as using the knowledge I’ve built up over the years – by working with cause-driven organisations and through my own interest and passion in responsible business practices – I wanted to make sure I’d done thorough research. A great (free) tool I’ve found is the B Corp impact assessment. This lets you assess your business’ impact on its workers, community, environment and customers. It takes a couple of hours to go through the assessment but you can pause and revisit later. I’ve found it a useful way of measuring how I was doing and implementing process to make my business better. As I’m still in my first year of freelancing full-time, I’m not yet in a position to apply for B Corp status (hopefully one day!). But, it’s been a great tool to make sure I’m setting up my business in the best way possible.  

https://bimpactassessment.net/BCORPORATION

Finances

My best app for bookkeeping: Freeagent

When I told my friends I was going freelance full-time, their response was usually: “Woah! So you’re going to have to do all your taxes and business finances yourself? I couldn’t do that!” It’s true that keeping on top of your accounts as a sole-trader or Limited Company Director can be intimidating. That’s why I signed up to FreeAgent to manage my accounts. It’s really reduced my bookkeeping-related stress. When it comes to the time I do a tax return, too, I can easily share my profile with my accountant for them to review and check it’s all in order.

There are heaps are features but the ones I find most useful are: 1) it’s easy to sync with my business account. Freeagent notifies me money of going in and out and helps me log the activity type as I go along. 2) being able to create and send invoices from within the app (or mark them as sent if you’re sending over with your work). The app then keeps track of which invoices are due/overdue and you can even set it to automate reminder or overdue notices for unpaid invoices. 3) The mobile app so I can check on the go. 4) Adding expenses or upcoming bills and payments makes it easier to manage my cash flow. 5) I haven’t got to it yet but you can complete and file your HMRC self-assessment from within the app.

I was initially a bit worried whether it would be worth the fee (cash flow is tight when you’re starting out) but I’ve definitely found it worth the investment.

http://fre.ag/4cq2crf0

This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Freeagent using this referral, we both get a 10% subscription discount for as long as we’re both FreeAgent customers. Awesome!

My best app for self-employed pensions: Penfold

Being freelance, I have to sort out all my finances myself – including my pension. I’ve recently set up a Penfold pension after several recommendations from other sole traders and Limited Company Directors. One of the things that clinched it for me was the option to choose a sustainable fund (BlackRock ESG fund, details here) and they have a standard and Sharia plans too, depending on your preference.

So far, it’s been great: it was simple and easy to transfer my old pensions in, manage my money and see my account activity. Plus, the customer services team has been quick to respond to all my questions and are unbelievably helpful. If you’re wondering which pensions are particularly good for freelancers, I’ve found it to be exactly what I need so far.

https://getpenfold.com/refer/melissahobson
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Penfold using this referral, we both get a £25 bonus when you make your first payment. Cool!

My best app for sustainable investments: Nutmeg

This won’t be right for everyone but if you’re looking to make the most of your investments, I’ve been pleased with Nutmeg. Managing your finances is an important part of being a freelancer. A particular concern for me is trying to invest my savings in a responsible portfolio wherever possible. That’s why I have some of my savings in a Nutmeg ISA. It’s easy to use (on desktop or through the app) and you can choose a responsible investment plan. So far, I’ve been impressed with the returns too.

Big caveat: I’m not a financial professional or expert. Please get proper financial advice and make sure you fully understand any risks before investing. This is my personal recommendation but does not constitute financial advice.

https://nutmeg.mention-me.com/m/ol/ja7xg-melissa-louise-hobson
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Nutmeg using this referral, we both get a £100 voucher (if you invest £500+ in an ISA, pension or general investment account) or a £50 voucher (for investing £500+ in a Lifetime ISA or Junior ISA).

Work life balance and habits

My best app for a change of scene: Trusted Housesitters

Having come back to the UK during the pandemic without having my own place, I’ve been looking into options to help me travel domestically. Not to mention the opportunity to cuddle with some furry friends. I’d heard about Trusted Housesitters over the years and decided to give it a go. At first, it’s a bit like setting up a dating app (“Do I look OK in this pic?” “Will they like me?”). But, I needn’t have worried. Within a week of signing up, I found a last-minute housesit just down the road from me. I popped over to look after four dogs for the weekend while the family was visiting their elderly parents.

Since then, I’ve looked after seven dogs and two cats and have a couple more sits lined up. Coming soon: three cats, two dogs, a tortoise, four chickens and some wild ducks. Not all at once, thankfully!. It’s a nice way to have a change of scene and get to know other areas of the UK. Not to mention being able to help people who don’t want to put their pets in kennels. There are responsibilities that come with the house sits, of course – you are looking after someone’s home and pets after all – but if you’re happy to do that, it’s great.  

https://www.trustedhousesitters.com/refer/RAF306322/?utm_medium=refer-a-friend&utm_campaign=refer-a-friend&utm_source=copy-link
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Trusted Housesitters using this referral, you get 25% off and I get two free months.

My best app for avoiding distractions: Forest

I don’t know about you but working in communications – especially at agencies and for busy press offices – has trained me to have my phone near me pretty much all the time…just in case an urgent call comes through from a journalist or client. Not to mention how difficult it is to avoid checking your phone with notifications coming through all the time. Developers aim to make apps as addictive as possible and I’m sure we’re all familiar with that little dopamine hit when you get a new like. It’s so hard not to get distracted… even when I know there’s no emergency call likely to come in. 

It might seem silly but sometimes I need a bit of a gimmick to keep me on track. That’s where Forest comes in. The app is simple: you set a timer (it could be for 10 minutes, it could be an hour and a half) and Forest will prevent you using your phone during that time. It plants a little cartoon tree which grows while you’re away from your phone. But, if you use your phone during your concentration time, your tree dies and you’ll have an ugly dead tree in your field. When I go to mindlessly check my phone, its a helpful reminder to put my device down. If you’re hoping to find an app to help you reduce your phone screen time, why not give Forest a go?

https://www.forestapp.cc/

My best app for drinking more water: Plant Nanny

As mentioned, sometime I need a gimmick to encourage me to develop better habits. One of my challenges is drinking enough water. Somehow, I always forget. So, I downloaded Plant Nanny, which lets you log every time you drink a glass of water. To motivate you, the app also waters a little (cartoon) plant in your digital garden. Make sure you drink enough because, if not, your plant will wilt and eventually die. It’s just a bit of fun but it has been a good way to remind me to keep myself (and my little plant) hydrated. Actually, while I think of it, it’s probably about time I go and top up my glass of water!

https://plantnanny.app/

My best app for mindfulness: Headspace

As a busy business-owner, I’ve found meditation and mindfulness really helpful in managing stress, becoming more focused and improving quality of sleep. It was founded by a guy called Andy Puddicombe who became a Buddhist monk and travelled around the world training in meditation. On returning to the UK, he wanted to teach mindfulness to as many people as possible by demystifying the mystical. Partnering with an advertising exec with Rich Pierson meant Andy’s meditation knowledge and Rich’s business expertise could combine. And so, Headspace was born.

But, really, all you need to know is that it’s a great app with guided meditations, helpful animations, bedtime stories and even exercise videos. You can check out a few of the free meditations before committing so why not give it a go?

https://www.headspace.com/

My best app for language learning: Duolingo

When I moved to Mozambique a few years ago, I was rather overwhelmed (OK, terrified) at the prospect of having to learn Portuguese. As well as getting a local tutor, I also downloaded the Duolingo app to try to get to grips with the basics. I’ve found it a good way of picking up new language skills in a bitesize format, perfect for a quick game/lesson while waiting for the kettle to boil. I’ll admit, my Portuguese still isn’t great having been away from Moz for two years now but it’s helped me keep up my knowledge of the conversational basics at least.

https://invite.duolingo.com/BDHTZTB5CWWKTCHJW572LPZ3EQ
This is an affiliate link. If you sign up to Duolingo using this referral, I’ll get a week’s access of Duolingo Plus.

What tools and apps do you use to keep your business (/life) running as effectively as possible? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

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