I love project management. It is a huge part of my freelance business. In fact, it’s probably more important than any other thing I do for my clients and projects (and sanity).

At any given point, I usually have at least two client projects I’m working on. Combine that with my “personal” projects and just running a business, there seem to be a million details I need to keep track of every day. While I’m a naturally organized person (with a freakish passion for to-do lists), strategic project management is the only way I’ve found to ensure that everything gets done on time and to the best of my ability.

I think that at least 50% of effective project management is tied to the person, and their internal ability to organize, collaborate and communicate. Some folks just inherently make great project managers, and some don’t. But that other half of project management, depends on tools. During my almost–two–years of being self-employed, I’ve found some great ones that I simply could not live without to manage the projects in my life.

Basecamp

I use Basecamp for all of my client projects, as well as for running my business. The standard features of messages, to-do lists, calendar and files are great. My clients appreciate having the big picture view of a project, while I couldn’t live without the small picture view Basecamp provides.

But what I really love about Basecamp are templates for to-do lists and projects. Each client project has many of the same tasks and milestones as other projects. Rather than creating a project from scratch each time, I have a handful of project templates that I use to get started. One, for example, is setup with milestones, messages and to-dos relevant to an ExpressionEngine build.

When I start a new EE project, I use that project template and in less than a minute, I have all of the core to-dos and milestones in place. The project template also includes the introductory messages I send to the client. It only takes about 10-15 additional minutes to add to-dos and milestones that are unique to the project.

For repetitive tasks that involve several steps to complete, I rely on to-do list templates. For example, when I ran Webquerque, every month we had an event. There was a ton of work involved to bring an event to life, but it was always the same tasks every time: pre-event promotion, venue coordination, A/V equipment prep, etc., etc. So each time I began work on a new event, I would use to do list templates to get my lists for that event ready … in about five minutes.

Aside from all the time I save, these templates are invaluable for me to keep track of details and nuances. Whenever I realize I’m missing a step in a process, or even if I find areas I can trim, I update the templates and they are ready for my next project. I don’t have to think. I know the templates represent my current process with all of the detail necessary.

FreshBooks

For time tracking, billing and expense management, I use FreshBooks. It’s not too much different than some of the other online billing management tools like FreeAgent and Harvest. But it has just the right features for me.

The dashboard is solid, giving me high-level views of paid/unpaid invoices, expenses and hours. The time tracking is simple, and I love that my clients can see hours logged on their project whenever they want. FreshBooks also handles invoices in a way that allows me to selectively charge Gross Receipts Tax for my in-state clients (thank you New Mexico Taxation & Revenue), but not my out–of–state clients.

In addition to managing my time and money, FreshBooks has been invaluable in helping me assess my project budgets for hours, which has led to much more accurate estimating.

And my last favorite thing about FreshBooks is the ability to set up recurring expenses, such as rent, internet and the monthly fees for services like Basecamp and FreshBooks.

Shoeboxed

I use Shoeboxed for expenses that have paper receipts. It is a unique service: You mail in receipts, Shoeboxed scans them, enters the amount and payee, and even categorizes the receipt using tax categories. Prior to Shoeboxed, I did all of this manually and it took forever. Just scanning my receipts so that I could keep digital copies is hours upon hours of work. But I also had a (bad) habit of leaving my receipts and expenses until the end of the year, so getting my tax information ready took me days. It was miserable.

Now, I’ve totally got my expense management under control. I mail my paper receipts in to Shoeboxed each month. Once they are posted, I review and make sure everything is correct. Then I export the expenses for the month from Shoeboxed, and import them into FreshBooks which gives me the big picture view of my expenses in relation to income.

That’s it. Takes about 30 minutes a month, probably less. And I’m 100% ready come tax time.

Gmail

The last service I couldn’t live without is Gmail. It is my one and only email client, and I manage all of my various email addresses and inboxes with it. One of my favorite features of Gmail is labels. Every email that hits my inbox is automatically assigned a label (via filters), so I never have to worry whether a communication has been properly labeled for my organization purposes.

I also use fairly detailed labels, as well as nesting, to keep communications organized for easy retrieval and reference. For example, I have a label for “Freelance,” and nested within that are labels for each prospect or client I engage with. Similarly, I have a label for “Writing,” with nested labels for each publication I write for.

The other Gmail feature I love and, frankly, owe much of my productivity to is the Priority Inbox. This setting divides my inbox view into three sections: Important, Starred and Everything Else. With just a few hours of use, Gmail starts "learning" which of my communications are important to me, and those land in the Important section.

For me, Gmail is trained to treat all milestone notifications from Basecamp as priority, as well as event reminders from my calendar. These are the emails that are time sensitive and, this way, I never miss them.

The Starred section, meanwhile, is used for emails of purchase receipts, such as from Amazon. So, when I do my once–a–month expense management, I check the Starred section of my inbox for any business expenses that should be entered into FreshBooks. And when I balance my personal checkbook each week, I also refer to this section of my inbox for any personal expenses that need to be tracked.

Then, when I’ve processed all of the email receipts in the Starred section, they each get a label (Personal/Finance/Receipts) and archived in case I need to reference them in the future.

After that, all that is left is Everything Else. I reference this portion of my inbox for personal communications and emails that don’t need to be addressed immediately.