I’m a freelance writing, homeschooling mom of 3 kids ages 8 and under (as of March 2018). A lot of people think I’m totally nuts trying to balance a near-full time job with homeschooling three kids. Yet others think I’m some kind of superwoman or supermom. But I’m not any of those things (OK, maybe I’m a little nuts).
I’m not some kind of superhero; I’ve just figured out a schedule that works for me, and I use tools to help me get things done. It also helps that this type of busy, several things on-the-go lifestyle is all I’ve ever known since I was old enough to work.
In high school, I worked 30 hours a week while going to school full time. When I went to university, I carried a double load (I did a dual degree) while holding down two jobs, one of which was being a naval reservist. This type of lifestyle arose out of necessity at the time, but it taught me discipline and time management skills that help me immensely today, in my entrepreneurial life.
Having a bunch of things on the go has always been my norm, and being extremely busy forces me to be organized and find the strategies and tools I need to stay focused.
Today I’m going to share with you what some of these tools are. I’ve written about apps to help keep you organized before; this post is an elaboration on that. Here are the tools I use to help keep my life in order.
A Day Book
One of the main tools I use that not only helps me to stay organized but also gives me a creative outlet is my Day Book. Some would call it a bullet journal, but I don’t call it that for several reasons.
One is that I don’t really use any of the strategies that Ryder Carroll set out when he first put forth the bullet journal idea, and the other is that my day book is really a mix of journal/diary/to do/creative outlet, and more. “Bullet Journal” doesn’t really cover it.
In my Day Book, I write stuff about my day, do stream-of-consciousness journalling, write down important appointments, write to-do lists, and more. I also write down, minute by minute, everything I have to do when it comes to being at places at certain times. My high distractability means that if I don’t write everything down, things don’t get done. And there’s something soothing and calming about writing things down by hand.
But while I’m still a fan of putting literal pen to paper, I’m also not opposed to excellent digital solutions. Which is why I also use several apps and websites to keep myself organized and focused. Here are some of them.
The Pomodoro Technique promotes the idea of working in small blocks and taking frequent breaks. The most common way is to work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. You do 4 cycles of this and then take a longer break, say, half an hour. While these are the traditional time recommendations, you can choose the time blocks that work best for you.
If you decide to give the Pomodoro Technique a try, you’ll need a way to keep track of your time blocks. I use the website tomato-timer.com to do this. I like that you can choose a 5 or 10-minute break after a 25-minute work block, and I like that you have the option to choose the sound. Recently, they’ve also added the ability to personalize the time blocks even more, in the settings.
It’s important to note that I don’t always follow the working times blocks to a T. If I get on a roll writing something, I don’t interrupt my flow to stick to the 25-minute block. On the other hand, if I find myself getting distracted, I look at how many minutes I have left and keep on working ’till the timer goes off. This prevents me from getting into the YouTube or Facebook rabbit holes that are so easy to get into when you’re working for yourself without supervision or oversight.
Another way I keep track of my time and evaluate my productivity is by using time tracking software. I have been using Time Panther for a while, and it works very well for keeping track of my time.
It seems to have been somewhat abandoned by its creators (last blog post was in 2015), but it works well for what it is, and it’s free. And yes, I’ve contacted them about writing blog posts. Several times. No response so far. But that’s beyond the point; the software works well and that’s all that matters.
Time Panther allows me to keep track of time spent on individual projects for individual clients, the amount I’m charging, and more. Unfortunately, there’s no place for “task due date” or anything of the sort, which is why I use Hector App.
In my search for a simple project management solution, I got pretty frustrated: everything’s built for people working in large teams. All I wanted was a simple solution so that I could have an at-a-glance look at all the projects I’m working on simultaneously (e.g. every freelancer’s life). I found Hector, and it works fairly well.
With this app, I can add individual projects and notes about them, create tasks related to each project, and create due dates to go along with each task. I can also add attachments if needed, and even add collaborators (if the collaborators have a Hector account). It also has a place for “to dos.”
I create a “project” for each client; in other words, each client is a project in Hector. I’d love it if there were more ways to categorize things (for example, I’d like to be able to have client folders to put the projects under).
In an ideal world, a full-on project management solution for freelancers would be a cross between Time Panther and Hector. (March 2020 update: I found something like this with ClickUp, which I have been using for a while. It’s excellent and definitely worth checking out).
I use software and apps to keep all of my life organized—not just my freelance work. AnyList is one of the things I use to remember things in the home side of my life. You can use AnyList for just that—any list, but I use it mostly for groceries.
The neat part about this app is that I can enter my grocery list, and if my hubby has the app installed, all he has to do is sync his phone and it automatically updates his list with what I’ve entered. I can also simply text my husband my grocery list with one click inside the app.
Being a full-time homeschooling mom to three kids while working on the side means that often times, something’s gotta give. But one of the things I try not to compromise on is my family’s nutrition.
Cooking healthy meals requires not just time but planning ahead. Meal planning is the one thing that I absolutely must do in order to keep my family eating a healthy diet. When I skip the meal planning or don’t follow the meal plan I’ve settled on for the week, we end up eating junk/not eating great food.
I use Pinterest to collect recipes and to create boards for different meal plans. Then I cycle through the Weekly Meal Plan boards I’ve created, and make sure to remove any recipes that weren’t a success/weren’t well received.
(March 2020 update: the company that created this app seems to have gone out of business, and the app is no longer available. I haven’t yet found a chore app that I like as much as I liked this one).
I believe in kids doing chores, and no, I don’t pay my kids for doing them. My husband once mentioned giving the kids an allowance for chores, and I said, “sure, when am I getting mine?” That put things in perspective.
Personally, I believe that if you live in a home, it’s your job to make sure it runs smoothly. I believe age-appropriate chores (unpaid) are important for teaching responsibility, delayed gratification, internal rewards, and more. But that doesn’t mean that chores have to feel like a chore!
Chore Monster is a really neat app that helps kids get their chores done faster and with more enthusiasm. As kids complete chores, they get tickets with which they can “buy” little monsters in the app. They can also earn a pre-determined (by you) number of points per chore. They can use their points to “buy” little videos, and you can also add your own rewards.
My kids love this app and look forward to doing their chores each day. Yes, it’s basically an external reward, but for my family, it works better than giving them cash, which quite frankly, I’d rather my kids earn by doing things they’re not already required to do because they simply live here.
I will, however, pay my kids for extra chores that are not normally in their “to do lists.” Basically, if I’d be willing to pay someone else to do it, I’ll pay my kids. And of course, it’s age appropriate, and they have to finish their regular chores before they can do a paid-for one.
(March 2020 update: I switched from an iPhone to a Samsung a while ago, and the only thing I miss about the iPhone is this app. Unfortunately, it’s no available for Android).
I have a tonne of chores of my own to do each day, and if I don’t have something to remind me to do them, I often forget. Enter Home Routines. What I love about this app is that it’s highly customizable, and you don’t need Internet access to use it.
I purchased this app for a very reasonable price and I think it was worth every penny. I also love the little gold stars.
But I still need to give my accountant reasonable records so she can do her job. That’s why I use EverNote to keep things tidy. Come tax season, all I have to do is gather those documents from Evernote and send them straight to my accountant’s email.
Every time I receive an electronic receipt, I send it via email to my previously created TaxesYear (this year, Taxes2018) notebook with the hashtag #taxesYear (this year, #taxes2018). If I get a paper receipt, I scan it into Evernote (in the same notebook, with the same hashtag), using my handy-dandy Fujitsu ScanSnap.
Once I’m ready to send my documents to the accountant, all I have to do is go into that notebook and get the documents. I can also search for that hashtag to make sure I did find all the tax receipts for that year.
Emailing straight into Evernote is a paid feature, but the amount I pay each year is totally worth it for all the headaches it saves.
YNAB (You Need a Budget)
One ultra-important aspect of any entrepreneur’s life is a healthy budget. Healthy bookkeeping doesn’t hurt, either. Whereas YNAB (You Need a Budget) is a budgeting software, it also works just fine as an accounting one for solo entrepreneurs.
It’s a great way for me to ensure I keep my expenses under control and that I can plan out things with calm and know where my money is going.
I’ve set up my business YNAB budget with tax lines in mind, so come end-year, it’s ultra easy to see where my expenses went.
Admittedly, I’m just starting to use HootSuite again after a very long absence, so I’m still learning the ropes. But it’s a great tool to “be online” even when you aren’t. You can schedule posts on your Twitter, Facebook, and more. The free version allows you up to three accounts for posting on, which is plenty for most people starting out.
Being able to schedule posts is an excellent way to take charge of your time and do things the way that they work best for you. Which is why I also love Boomerang for Gmail.
Boomerang for Gmail
Boomerang is every committed freelance writer’s dream. You can use it for several things, but the features I use most frequently are the “send later” and “boomerang/return conversation to inbox.”
If you do a lot of follow ups (and you should), you can “return the conversation to your inbox” in a number of days if you don’t receive a response. You can then follow up with your potential clients. If you’re following Bamidele’s 3-7-7 formula, you’d simply click the boomerang icon at the bottom of the screen and choose a date 3 days from now. Once you’ve received that message back to your inbox, you’d send a follow up, and then “boomerang it” for a week from that day, and then do it again if there’s no answer to that one.
You can also simply keep on boomeranging that baby ’till you get a response. Sometimes, perseverance pays off.
ClearBit Connect for Gmail
The next time a new writer asks me for an editor’s email address, I think I’m gonna scream. Or maybe I’ll just refer them to ClearBit Connect for Gmail. Or this. Or this. Or this. You get the point. You’re a writer. But you’re not just a writer. A HUGE part of being a writer is knowing when, how, and where to do research to get the information you need.
Email addresses are not an exception. Stop asking people for email addresses and do the legwork required to find them. There is a plethora of tools out there to help you find email addresses, but I use ClearBit Connect the most often. It’s worked well for me so far, and when it doesn’t, I “guess” my way to the email addresses by doing a bit of research. It’s worked every time so far.
Although I’m technically an online entrepreneur, I still enjoy face to face interactions with people, and believe it or not, I still get clients by doing the old fashioned handshake and chatting at business mixers. Which means I end up with way too many business cards, and quite frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that. Or space for that.
So I use CamCard to take a photo of the business cards and to have access to this valuable information easily and quickly. But then you’ve gotta remember to actually use that information well and follow up.
Early morning wake up
Yep. 4:30 a.m., you guys. I know it seems unfathomable for most people, but I’m a morning person. I know that I do my best work in the morning, and that from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m., I’m the least likely to be interrupted while I work—I now have two children who sleep past 6:00 a.m. There is great hope for the future!
Waking up this early guarantees two things:
1. I’ll get at least one (hopefully two) uninterrupted work hours every single day (except Sundays, ‘cuz hey, I’m human).
2. No matter what happens during the rest of each day/week, I’ll get at least 12 hours of work in every week. And that’s key. Consistency in getting work done is the only thing that’s gonna get you paid (yes, even if you’re into passive income).
Flexible Schedule/Flexibility in General
Dudes and Dudettes, I’ve got three kids ages eight and under. I homeschool. I own a house. I like to have a social life (I’m an extrovert, y’all). It’s a busy, awesome life. And it requires constant adaptation.
OK, OK, I do experience all of those things on occasion (I have an autoimmune condition that mess with my emotional states, make me lose my hair, and other “lovely” things), but I’m not a mess all of the time. And that’s because (in addition to taking the appropriate medications), I’ve learned to be flexible.
There isn’t any other way to do it when there’s little people around, I promise you. Kids really put things in perspective when you’ve had a highly structured life before having them. Forget structure; someone will pee their pants (or worse) when you’re trying to get out the door on time. And other things will happen, whether or not you have kids.
People get sick. Emergencies come up. Fun stuff comes up. You want to have one evening where you actually spend a significant amount of time with your spouse. And so on.
Yes, I have a schedule for work, but it’s flexible. Yes, I work from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. every day, but hey, if three of my kids have been up vomiting three times last night, you bet I’m gonna ditch work that morning and snuggle and comfort them instead.
Flexibility and freedom of time and location were the main reasons I signed up for this lifestyle in the first place. I live this entrepreneurial life for one thing: my family. They’ll always be my priority. So if I have to re-schedule a phone call and potentially lose a client to ensure my children are taken care of? You bet I’ll do it. That’s the life I’ve chosen.
How do you balance work and family life? What tools do you use to help you do so? Let me know in the comments.