In my experience, the biggest challenge that freelancers face — more than winning clients or setting prices — is project management; take on too much work, and you’ll start missing deadlines, take on too little, and you’ll start missing your rent.
Some people are naturally organized; they rock up at their desk at 08:59, fully confident in what they will spend the next 8–12 hours working on. Let’s be kind and say that I am not one of them, and leave it at that. The only way I have managed to survive the industry is by self-consciously micro-managing my schedule on a daily basis.
When I worked in an agency, I knew what I would be working on days in advance. Now, I know 90% of what I’ll be working on, weeks in advance.
That level of organization requires very, very, very careful planning. I hold team meetings at the end of the day, yes, “team” meetings of one person. To do that I use a number of tools that suit me.
How to Choose a Project Management App
The most important aspect of any project is the end. That’s when the client will assess your work, and that’s when you get paid. So when you choose a project management solution, make sure it gives you a clear path to the project conclusion.
I know one freelancer who sets himself a hard stop at 7 pm every day. At 7 pm, he downs tools switches off, and walks away. I once heard him end a client call at 7 pm because he’d reached his cut-off point. It made me wince — I would have stayed on until the call concluded — but it hasn’t affected his business.
I know another successful freelancer who works on a budget. When she has earned the money she needs for that day, she stops. She bills by the hour to make this work, so when she sits down in the morning, she knows exactly what time she’ll finish.
Personally, I prefer a task-based approach. I know what I have to get done; if I can get ahead, then great, but my main focus is ensuring I don’t fall behind. I believe that if you hit your deadlines, everything else will take care of itself. Admittedly, there have been a few late-nights (and all-nights) over the years, but thankfully they’re less common these days.
No one style of project management suits everyone. And it doesn’t matter what approach you take, provided you take an approach.
8 Best Project Management Apps for Freelancers
As a freelancer, the most important thing characteristic you can have is reliability. Cultivate a reputation for delivering on your promises, and you’ll become invaluable to your clients. The best project management app is the one that helps you keep your promises.
There are some excellent tools on the market that facilitate project management, but most are aimed at SMEs, or project managers running a team of freelancers.
The tools here are listed from least, to most useful for the average freelancer. I’ve avoided too many time-tracking apps because I find these tend to encourage billing by the hour, which is potentially damaging to your business long term. If you do need pure time-tracking, check out Harvest. I’ve also avoided solutions that are too large-scale to benefit freelancers. If you’re looking for a project management tool for teams, then Basecamp, Jira, Project.co, and Redbooth are all worth considering.
Sadly none of these apps are perfect, and there’s a good chance you’ll need to use two or three to manage your projects.
Todoist is hands down the best to-do app on the market. The downside is that its feature set is minimal.
Todoist really excels at lists. You can break down tasks into sub-tasks, and sub-sub-tasks. The downside is there’s no real scheduling or comparison of multiple projects in a single view.
The mobile apps are great, and Todoist recently introduced boards, a form of kanban board that gives you a good overview of everything. If it introduces a gantt chart, I can see myself relying on it more.
Todoist has a free forever plan that is fine for most freelancers, and the paid plans start at just $3 per month.
Bonsai is an excellent service for freelancers that grew from a simple invoicing app to include proposals, contracts, time-tracking, and more.
I used Bonsai for invoicing for a couple of years, and it does everything it claims to do. However, there are a couple of significant areas where it falls down. Firstly, its invoicing is super-aggressive and cannot be customized — make sure you’re on friendly terms with any client you send a Bonsai invoice to. Secondly, while it does a good job of tracking what you have done, it doesn’t help you plan what needs to be done beyond a formal proposal.
If you’re running a few simple projects, then it’s possible Bonsai is right for you. Pricing starts at $19 per month.
Monday is one of the biggest players in the project management market. It offers a dizzying array of options, and if this list were aimed at project management for agencies, Monday would be further along our countdown. Monday may suit freelancers, particularly those who have migrated from agency work, but for most, it’s more than we need.
There is a free-forever plan that covers almost everything you could want. However, if you need to view your projects as a gantt chart — and I strongly suggest you do — then you’ll need to update to the standard plan, which starts at $8 per user per month, with a minimum of three seats, meaning at least $24 per month when billed annually.
AND.CO stands out as a slick, easy-to-use option for managing a freelance business. Like Bonsai, it allows you to manage proposals, invoicing, time-tracking, expenses, and more.
AND.CO also has extremely well-liked customer support. An underestimated consideration when you don’t have your own accounts team to resolve problems.
As with other solutions of this type, the task-management is lacking. It does include a simple to-do list, but in my opinion, it’s not sufficient, and you’ll need to supplement it with something that supports gantt charts.
There’s a free forever plan, but it’s barely more than a free trial. Pricing for full-featured access starts at $18 per month when billed annually.
ClickUp is a SaaS that aims to replace just about everything else you could need. Unlike some options on this list, it includes a CRM, which is a bonus because there’s nothing worse than relying on the search function in your email to track down someone’s contact details.
ClickUp also offers a genuinely free-forever account with enough features to make it usable. If you choose to upgrade to a paid plan, it’s just $5 per user per month, which is excellent value.
If anything, there’s just too much in here. If you’re someone who considers themselves a power-user who enjoys digging into every nuance of a UI, then ClickUp could be for you. But, if, like me, you favor a simple tool that does what it’s told and gets out of the way, then there are better options.
Asana is probably the best-known project management tool on the market. It offers a tremendous number of options and is flexible enough for any style of project management.
There’s a free forever plan that is ideal for getting started and offers you most — you may be sensing a theme here — of the features you’ll need. But Asana’s best feature is its excellent timeline implementation of the gantt chart, for which you’ll need to upgrade to a premium plan costing $10.99 per user per month, with a minimum number of 2 seats that translates to a rather expensive $21.98 per month.
Trello is famous for its kanban boards, and many people prefer them to gantt charts, which has helped the app grow rapidly in the last few years.
If you’re prepared to pay $10 per user per month, Trello actually offers gantt charts as well, in the form of its timeline feature.
Trello is mainly designed for teams, not freelancers. However, if you do have the budget for a premium plan, Trello gives you an enviable ability to switch project management styles on a whim.
Toggl is perhaps the perfect balance of time-tracking and gantt chart that is ideal for freelance projects.
As with most tools, Toggl is designed for teams, with billing starting at $8 per user per month. However, it offers a solo plan, designed for freelancers, that is free forever.
The main thing you miss out on with Toggl’s Solo plan is team timelines, which you won’t need unless you’re outsourcing work. One other obvious omission is unlimited planning boards, which you may find yourself paying for sooner or later.
But for a mixture of simplicity and powerful features available for $0, Toggl is hard to beat.
Featured image via Pexels