If there is something in the world I hate more than anything else, it’s bananas. But to blog about that on here would just be insane (I’m more than happy to discuss it with you, though, if you find that kind of thing interesting). In my writing life the thing I hate most is paperwork.
I hate it.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that I have never found a good system. Another part is that I don’t have much space near where I write. And I don’t really have the time or energy to set up a filing cabinet and folders and create excel macros for billing time and making invoices. I’d rather write.
Along with this problem was a very easy solution. First, before I get into the solution (I need to build suspense after all), I am a firm believer that it is often a good idea to pay others to do the things you don’t have the time, energy or desire to do if you can use the time you now don’t have to spend on said undesirable task*. As a freelancer I realized early on that despite my love of Google Drive (docs, sheets, blah blah blah) I couldn’t come up with a good system for billing, timing, invoices, et cetera, that didn’t waste time. Also, I didn’t like the less than professional-looking output.
To start, I made a list of what I wanted… something that could be used via my browser, app or combination of the two so that no matter where I was and on what type of device, I would have access. An affordable price was also a high priority. I wanted it to time track AND invoice. Other than that I didn’t know what I wanted. After creating that list I took a bunch of free test drives. I ended up going with 17Hats.com and could not be happier. That said, I’m not going to say anything bad about the other systems. I think it’s important to try this stuff out and just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t for you. But I can’t see how 17Hats wouldn’t work for everyone.
Prior to considering software I used Chrome. In it I always had a stopwatch open in one tab, Google docs in another, Google sheets in a third, PayPal in a fourth, gmail in a fifth, Pandora in a sixth, Twitter in a seventh, and then several tabs of research. Depending on where I was and connectivity and also the device, this was never less than cumbersome. And it was often slow. And I had a few crashes. And more than once I accidentally closed things I needed open.
While I can focus, lots of tabs allows for distraction. An interesting email results in an equally interesting response. That link you sent me to the cool Buzzfeed list contains links to other cool Buzzfeed lists. It’s a death spiral of distraction. And it’s a time suck – clicking between things, starting and stopping the stopwatch and praying I don’t forget. Hearing an awesome new song and then opening spotify to listen to more by the artist (and then opening iTunes to buy the album thus leading me to go through my songs and find a playlist that seems to hit the spot better than my current Pandora station (which is impossible because my Pandora station for writing is absolutely perfect))… as you can see, I can be led down the path of distraction easily.
After my list-making exercise I spent some time researching on the internet. I went through a variety of app descriptions but also blog posts about systems various freelancers use. Knowing that I am not one for systems** I crossed that option off the list after a few posts and instead started signing up for free trials of various programs that sounded like they might meet my needs. The one I have ended up with is 17Hats and I could not be happier. I’m only a few weeks into using it after my free trial, but here’s what I love so far:
- Working Across Platforms: I sometimes use my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard to write. Sometimes. I use it for WordPress because I like the way it works but I avoid it for writing actual articles in my freelancing life because there are some issues with Google docs including issues when linking text. Sometimes I write on my old iphone (which I now use as an ipod since going old school). Sometimes I write on my desktop and sometimes on my work laptop when I have it at home. A program/website/app that would work on all of these seemlessly (I’m lookin’ at you, Lumosity!) was one of the biggest things I was looking for. I have never had a problem using 17Hats on all of my devices and others I’ve checked into it on.
- Multitasking Like A Boss (Without All Those Clunky Tabs!): Praise Buddha – do you know how many tabs I have open right now? Three. This blog post, twitter, and 17 hats. Now when I write I only have 17Hats, my doc and my research open. I’ve forgone Pandora (for now) for my vinyl collection (of which you should be jealous). My devices are happier and I feel much more efficient. That’s because now with 17Hats I have easy access to my contacts, emails, time tracking, invoicing, note taking and more. There’s actually plenty I haven’t done yet with 17Hats – I’m learning as I go and while still working my 9-5 (haha, I wish it were only 9-5) I don’t want to spend time exploring.
- A Clean Interface: I’ve seen a few complaints, likely from designers, about the font used throughout parts of the site. It’s a scripty handwriting-ish font that I actually find to be very soft on my eyes and friendly. It’s never used in a place that would be distracting and it makes the website pleasing on the eye. Everything else is very minimalist from the design of the simple timer (up top), project descriptions, menus and invoices.
- The Price Is Right: After my free week I started paying the monthly fee. I have a feeling I will upgrade quickly because the more time you purchase the cheaper it is. Current rates are $29/month for the monthly program (well worth it) but discounts are given for committing for more. Other options are annual for one payment of $179 (translates to $15/month and a $169 savings) and the two year plan for one payment of $269 (translates to $12/month and a $427 savings). I did a one month plan just in case I found I didn’t like it but I’ll be upgrading prior to this month ending.
- Help Is Available: Forget sifting through FAQs or waiting forever for responses. Click on “Help and Contact” at the top, enter your issue and the response is almost immediate. I couldn’t figure out how to add a new project (my one gripe is that it’s in a weird place although I now understand why) and someone from the site appeared right in my page to check things out. Um, awesome customer service? Yes, please!
- Everything Can Be Saved As A Template: Contracts, emails, questionnaires… everything you do can be saved as a template and easily modified for future use with other clients/projects.
Here’s what my typical interaction with the site looks like for a particular job:
- Create a project. I click on a contact (client) and then “add new”. A small pop up allows me to add any important details for the project and then it can be found either through the contacts page or the projects page. It allows for a start and due date, notes and tags. Simple but very helpful.
- Develop To Do List. I love the site’s to do lists that can be assigned to projects themselves – that way when I am working on something I know exactly what I have to do… from the start to the end. I’m still new to this so it helps to be methodical. My to do lists for new clients are more descriptive than for my regular clients.
- Develop and Send Contract. I’m sure some people would love it if 17Hats included contract templates although they are all so different that it would probably be impossible. I write contracts for a living (for a few more weeks, anyway) so I have this skill set.
- Develop and Send Questionnaire. I love this feature most when I’m working on an editing project. Writers are looking for very different things from editors and a simple questionnaire allows me to know if I’m ignoring grammar or nitpicking it to death. Am I only focused on organization? Or should I be fact-checking? 17Hats Questionnaire mode allows me to build exactly the questionnaire I want. I love it.
- Start Time Tracking. With a simple click I can start tracking time for a project and be as specific or general as I want in my notes. I have a client I write three articles a week for – I track that as one project with notations for which time was spent on what articles. Time tracking also allows you to set a variety of rates of pay for ease of use. I charge half of my hourly rate for editing and revision – and with a simple drop down menu I can switch between my research/writing rate and that lesser one. You can have as many rates as you want so if you have clients who pay you different amounts it’s simple to select when working.
- Create an Invoice. When a project is completed you can easily bill all the time either in one lump sum or broken down by task. 17Hats allows for applying a discount and keeps track of everything for you. Once the invoice is finalized (it takes less than a minute) you can send it right through the site which then tracks it and lets you know when things are overdue.
This is a simple look at my usage. There are so many more things the program allows: note taking within projects, tracking your finances, creating an automated workflow. The list goes on and on. Once I am writing full time I intend to learn more about the many things 17Hats can do and will continue to update this review for those of you looking for something you can use to help assist you in your work and, more importantly, paperwork. Think the price is high? An annual plan, if you really think about it, would cost you less in a month than paying an assistant per hour and the time that you get back from such a highly efficient, user-friendly program is invaluable.
What programs have you tried out to help expedite your paperwork and keep organized?
*Sadly Kris refuses to let me hire someone to do our laundry but I’m still working on that.
**Note to self: post about that Google doc nightmare!