Whether you’ve been in the game for years, or are slowly but surely working up the courage to quit your 9-5 after a few Upwork projects, one thing is consistent about freelancing.
It can be incredibly difficult and stressful at times.
Am I right or am I right?
One of the main reasons for this in my experience is due to the different demands and workflow requirements that different clients have. Especially when you’re at the beginning of your freelancing journey and have fewer set processes in place yourself.
This leads to mismatched expectations, long and drawn out email chains, lots of frustration, and ultimately less money flowing into your bank account as a result.
Despite this challenge, there is a bright shining light at the end of the tunnel that makes the craziness of freelancing a bit easier.
Project management tools (also known as project management software, or project management applications).
These little gems have the power to completely transform the way that you keep track of your work, interact with clients, get paid, and most importantly, keep your sanity.
So what exactly is a project management tool?
A project management tool is an application designed to help you keep track of task completion for a given project, analyze overall progress of your business, get insights into where you are spending your time, and collaborate with others who are involved in the successful completion of a project as well.
The main benefit of these types of tools is to remove the reliance on your memory, random spreadsheets, physical notes on your desk, and outdated methods of communication like client email changes.
It takes all of the manual and efficient bits of project, task, and client management, and puts them into one easy to use and easy to understand place.
Why a good PM tool is so valuable
At the start of your freelancing journey it can be difficult and even scary to choose which software and resources to put your hard earned time, energy, and money into.
That being said, a good project management tool, especially those designed with freelancers in mind, should help you make more money in the long run.
Here are the main ways that these tools benefit your business.
One of my favorite things about good project management software is you can set up automations and dependencies that actually improve how quickly you can deliver your work.
For example, let’s say that you’re onboarding a new client, and some of your first steps include typing up an email, sending out an invoice, and setting up reminders about deadlines and tasks to complete.
Rather than have to do all of that each time you sign a client (which if you’re doing 5-10 per month can get out of hand), your project management tool can do all of that for you as soon as you create a new project for them.
It’s all possible with automation that most of these tools come with and once it’s set up the first time, you never have to do it again.
Huge time saver.
Keeping profits high
When you don’t have a boss or a manager keeping track of your time, and if you care a lot about doing great work, it can be hard to know where you’re spending the most time.
This is problematic when you’re spending a lot of time on tasks that aren’t of high importance or focusing your efforts disproportionately across clients who are paying you the least.
One way that PM tools help solve this is by giving you the ability to see at a glance which client projects you indicate as a priority or have the size of the client indicated directly in your dashboard.
You can also utilize built in time tracking to see how much time you’ve spent on a task versus the max amount of time that you’ve pre determined that task to take.
These features allow you to keep yourself honest and not cut corners, but also remind yourself that you’re running a business and profits matter.
Better client communication
For simple communications, email is just fine.
When it comes to managing deliverables, getting approval, sharing files, and just about every other project management function, it falls painfully short.
This frustration is actually one of the main reasons why these software were created and collaboration is at the forefront.
These software give you the opportunity to link directly to what the client needs to approve or leave feedback on, a place to leave the feedback, and then can even directly update the status of these requests in the tool.
On top of that, rather than bug you every 24 hours about the status of the project, they can view the status with your notes live anytime they’d like.
It makes the experience less frustrating to you, allows you to spend more time on doing great work, and gives your client confidence that you’re steadily getting the job done that they are paying you to do.
Making sure all deliverables get done on time
In a perfect world, you would be able to juggle 11 client projects all at the same time, with a seamless workflow, and complete every single task for all of them in the correct order without missing a thing.
…but we all know that’s nowhere near how humans work in reality.
In realty life happens. You have a family emergency, you close up your laptop early to get some sleep and forget where you left off the next day, or a new big demanding client comes in and throws your existing projects into chaos.
It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when.
So you’ve got to preemptively design systems to prevent those situations from happening as much as possible.
At the core of every freelance project management app is the ability to create and prioritize tasks for yourself. These can be done loosely, organized as projects, set to a recurring schedule, or even organized by client.
How you organize the tasks will come down to what’s most important for you to remember and what works best for your workflow.
However, the key to excellent organization and project management is to assign each task the following at minimum:
- Start date
- Due date
- Subtasks with deadlines before the due date
- Estimated time needed to complete each task
- Identify which client the tasks or projects are for
Since you’ve given each task these attributes, you’ll be able to view your dashboard whenever you’d like (i’d suggest weekly) to see which projects are on track, which have started to get away from you, and then be able to make smart decisions and prioritize your time.
But the one thing that won’t happen, is you forgetting to do a task and it completely leaves your mind. Even if it’s behind, once it’s in the PM tool, you’ll always have visibility into the issue.
See where you’re spending your time
After you’ve used the project management software for awhile and completed a good amount of tasks, you’ll start to see patterns emerge in your work.
If you’re utilizing time tracking and have start / due dates set up, that’s especially helpful because you can assess which tasks are taking up the majority of your time, which tasks are most profitable, and even which types of projects are best for your business overall.
All of this data and information is key for you to scale and make the operational side of your freelancing better over time.
What freelancers should look for in a project management software
There are many project management software out there and all of them have some claim to fame. Each wants to position themselves and their particular set of features in the best light so you’ll become a customer.
With that in mind, there are certain features that are must haves and some that are simply nice to haves. These are the non negotiable features that will make or break your project management.
Free or Freemium Pricing
Any company making a project management software for freelancers specifically should know that at the beginning stages of freelancing there aren’t a lot of dollars coming in.
So the model for the audience is to offer a great entry product for free and allow more robust features for a fee so that the freelancer can grow with your product as they generate more earnings.
Certain project management tools that charge a high fee right off the bat for basic features that other tools offer for free is a good sign that they are hunting after more midmarket or enterprise level customers.
Nothing wrong with that, but be wise about what you’re spending your hard earned money on at the beginning of your journey.
Easy to get started
Every truly great project is one that is unbelievably simple to start using, and one that provides some value as soon as you start using it.
With your PM tool, you should be able to login and start creating tasks, organizing your clients, and setting up useful functions right away.
If you have to read pages of documentation and spend an hour on the phone with support before being able to access the main features, it’s not the right tool for you.
And speaking of support…
Helpful support and a knowledge base
Inevitably you are going to have questions about using more advanced or new features of any product as time goes on.
This is where having access to chat support, phone support, email support, and a simple to navigate knowledge base comes in.
You’ll want to find a product where the company employs specialists who are subject matter experts and enjoy helping freelancers like you find actual solutions to your problems. The knowledge base should be a tool to support their efforts so you can self select what type of help you need.
It’s a major red flag if every time you want help from support they reference you to a knowledge base article or if you can’t find any information about how to contact them.
Ability to invite clients or other freelance partners to collaborate
A great way to impress clients and put their minds at ease while staying sane, is to set up your projects in such a way that they can give feedback to your work and assess progress without needing to bug you.
The same goes for any potential partners you choose to work directly with or subcontract work out to.
Your tool of choice should have the ability to not only invite collaborators to each task or project, but also to give visibility for clients into the work you are doing in a clear and digestible way.
I know, I know…
Time tracking can feel restrictive and distract you from getting into a deep work state as you’re going about your day.
That being said, for most freelancers, atleast at the beginning, this will be a requirement for some of the projects you work on.
But time tracking isn’t just useful for the “the man” to keep tabs on you and use those hours for payment. It’s much more than that when you are the business owner.
See the more you know about how much time you’re spending on each deliverable or business function, the easier it will be to assign a dollar value to those tasks and determine which activities in your business produce the most income or profit.
If you know that after 3 months, one of your services is both the fastest to complete, most profitable, and a client favorite, yet you only spend %5 of your time on it, guess what you need to do from here on out?
You guessed it, spend more time on it.
So if you look at it that way, giving your tasks an expected time limit and then measuring your efforts over time can give you insights to boost your profitability and make you more effective as you grow.
Dashboard view to understand progress
If project management tools only allowed you to create tasks and assign due dates, it would be useful but still wouldn’t solve the problem of prioritization and grasping the bigger picture.
My personal favorite feature of any project management tool is the fact that I can see all of my open projects, stalled projects, not started projects, and assignments at a glance.
Visually understanding the state of my business is key to wrapping my mind around everything and knowing quickly what needs to be done.
The two main views you should encounter are:
- Kanban. In Japanese, Kanban translates to “signboard”. It is a system designed to help knowledge workers easily and visually see progress of their tasks and remove bottlenecks.
- Calendar. Since you assign your tasks a due date when you create them, a good tool will instantly add these to a calendar view for you so you can see which tasks you have upcoming and prioritize them by time needed to complete each.
Kanban views are especially helpful due to their flexibility and instantly recognizable framework.
Author’s attempt at a simple Kanban board
Best Freemium Project Management Tools For Freelancers
Alright, you’ve been preparing your whole life for this one moment.
Or…atleast the time it took to read through this guide and learn about what goes into choosing the perfect project management too.
Regardless, it’s time to walk through my picks for the best PM software for freelancers. Instead of the usual list with some descriptions and features where you have to go investigate further, I already put in the work of reviewing most of the tools I could find.
This is a list that’s curated for each situation you might find yourself in as a freelancer and will allow you to test it out without having to spend too much time further comparing options.
Let’s get into it.
GoodDay – Best overall project management tool for freelancers
Best For: GoodDay has put in the hard work to offer a truly awesome project management tool with freelancers in mind from the start. Not only can you collaborate on the free version, you get unlimited tasks and projects, which are almost always limited with other tools. If you’re not sure which tool to go with, they are the obvious choice for most.
TickTick – Best personal project management tool for freelancers
- Premium version advanced features are only $28/year
Best For: Despite not being able to have more than one collaborator on the free plan, Tick Tick has truly revolutionized personal project and task management. They are the clear victor when it comes to the amount of useful features they offer for creating tasks and staying on track.
Trello – best kanban style project management tool for freelancers
Best For: One of the OGs in the game. Trello is tried and true, loved by many, and helped popularize the Kanban style of project management for most people. Slick and intuitive user interface.
Notion – Best note taking hybrid project management tool for freelancers
Best For: Notion has a lot of feature overlap with the other more traditional project management tools, but where they excel is giving you the opportunity to take notes and create wiki style entries for later use in a way the other tools don’t do as seamlessly.
Frame – Best video workflow focused project management tool for freelancers
Best For: This is a no brainer if you’re a video marketer, video editor, or creator. The ability to easily have your clients give feedback and approval directly within the tool for the video is a gamechanger.
If it’s not clear by now, project management tools can be a huge time saver and boost in efficiency for your freelance business.
They help you avoid mistakes that will lead to giant headaches later on and reduce the amount of manual work you need to do on a day to day basis.
Who doesn’t want that?
Nobody, that’s who.
Now go forth, sign up, try out, and commit to the one that’s right for you.
Happy project management!