Productivity tools

Project management

There are many of these available with a variety of features on offer, but they all offer the same key benefit: see what projects you are working on, when they are due, and what stage you are at in them.

As many business owners have found, keeping an archive of handwritten notes is impractical. Single-PC diaries (Outlook, Thunderbird etc.) rarely allow for teamwork or checking your workload on a mobile device.

An example of two that do allow you to do this are Trello and Basecamp. Both are from very reputable software companies (Fog Creek Software and 37 Signals, respectively). Trello is currently free, and will always have a free plan according to its creators, while Basecamp is a subscription-based service starting at $20/month.

Basecamp is the more user-friendly of the two, guiding you through the project processes with minimum clutter. Clients and colleagues can be invited on a per project basis to give feedback, share files and create the central repository for your on-going work.

Trello lets you create ‘boards’ (as in ‘whiteboards’) and place ‘cards’ on these boards in columns. These cards can have various things assigned to them: dates, people, files, checklists etc. and it works as a fluid whiteboard that is always accessible to you and whomever else you invite to view and edit the board. You can get creative with Trello and create your own workflows in columns of your choosing – mine looks like this, for example:


Keeping track of conversations, agreements, deals and tasks can be done in a Customer Relationship Manager such as HighriseHQ. The free plan of this app, again by 37 signals, allows you to track up to 250 clients and build a file on your interactions with them over time. This is a great tool to use when calling a range of prospects and keen to record the interested parties.

Alternatives are Salesforce, FatFreeCRM, Microsoft Dynamics, Zoho CRM and many more. Even an Excel spreadsheet can get you started, but a nice interface and interconnectivity between deals, projects and contacts is extremely useful.

Time management

In the past I have found myself wondering just how many hours a week I was losing to news reading and social media. I heard about RescueTime, signed up for the free package ($9/month otherwise), and let it start to track my time spent online.

There turned out to be patterns, with key times I would go from work to the web of news and information, often for extended periods. It helped me to recognise the patterns and break them, freeing me to be much more productive in subsequent years. Seeing graphs of your working behaviour is a very intuitive way to understand where improvements can be made. It beats a blanket rule on ‘no social media or news reading during work hours’ because it allows you to start using them more productively, sometimes perfectly in line with a marketing strategy.


Note taking

I keep unimportant and temporary notes in a simple Windows Notepad file, saving it often (Ctrl+S). I press the F5-key whenever I enter a new note. This inserts the date and time automatically, and the whole file can then be searched for keywords at a later date. It is a simple solution, yet a vast improvement on my old pile of paper, despite my enjoyment of handwriting and physically putting pen to paper.

Text editing

If you use Windows and work with XML, HTML or any other kind of tagged or coded file, grab a free copy of Notepad++ and benefit from its advanced search, save, colour-coding and text encoding features. I once used it to edit a line-break on every other line from an AutoCAD DXF file (for engineering drawings) automatically, using the macro function to record my keystrokes and save me from over 25,000 repetitive movements of pressing down-down-delete. Another useful benefit of a tool like Notepad++ are in its ability to search using Regular Expressions, or regex, allowing complex search queries to segment and join the text in new ways.

Solid Mac alternatives to Notepad++ are TextMate or TextWrangler, offering similar functionality.

Your website

An extremely efficient way to make sales is by hanging your virtual shingle out on the internet 24/7. There are many ways to make sure your sign gets seen, and then you have the task of converting viewers to buyers. This is covered in depth in the next section as it is such a key aspect of a modern marketing strategy.

Suffice it to say that having a website of your own can be a productivity tool in itself, in that it automates the sales, trust and information process to a large degree.

Your computer

This can affect where you work, or are able to work and how you work. A subjective area for many, but for me the Lenovo netbook I have been using for 3 years is perfection (my review). It is powerful enough to load up massive TMs and many tabs in the browser, with capacity to play a video and listen to music if required, in a small form factor.

Modern netbooks are affordable, with full-size keyboards (sometimes splash or waterproof – as I have accidentally tested), fast processors and a large RAM capacity in a lightweight, long-battery-life package.

Obviously tablets (‘surfaces and pads’) don’t yet let us install our full range of tools and offer little in the way of typing efficiency or processing power, but in time we should start to be able to consider these as an option. Especially when they allow us to install CAT tools.

For now, the netbook wins for me in terms of freedom and power. I’d assign a large percentage of my overall productivity score to the computer I use, and the freedom to use it in many places.

When making upgrades to your computer, an SSD (solid state drive) as a replacement for a spinning disk is very worthwhile. It can boost loading times for TMs, software and processing or exporting documents by between 5 to 10 times, at the fraction of a cost of a full upgrade.

The SSD, plus additional RAM, also helps with virtualisation, which involves running a different operating system within your current one. So, Mac users can use Parallels to run Windows or Linux within their Mac environment, and Windows users can run Mac or Linux systems while still within Windows. This is great for running incompatible or untrusted software while still being able to work in your normal environment. Windows users can look to VMWare and VirtualBox for free solutions.

Typing speed

Not to be overlooked in productivity discussions is the speed at which you can physically output your thoughts into the computer. Keyboard shortcuts can help you to jump between words and sentences much quicker, some of the most useful of these:

-         CTRL+L/R arrow, Home, End and PageUp/Down

-         CTRL+SHIFT+L/R arrow to highlight text

-         Highlight and F3 for UPPER, lower, Sentence and Title Cases

Try to learn the shortcuts in your most frequently used applications to enjoy a quick productivity increase.

As for pure typing speed, you can test yours at Ten Fast Fingers.  You don’t need to sign up to this site, it offers the test in some 40 languages and is built well enough to ensure testing consistency.

Mine is stable at around 80/90 wpm. The average on this site, over millions of tests, is around 40wpm. The fastest typist I know clocks in at around 100-120 wpm (not even in his first language) depending on the test. For a sustainable speed, including the work of translation and research, tipping past 40wpm for 30 minutes in each hour will still give you over 1000 words per hour, well above the typical translation speed. Any gains in speed you can muster in this area will let you finish the translation stages of a project in a much shorter time. Depending on how you work, you may like to spend the saved time with a print-out and a proofread to finalise the project.

If you’d rather not use your fingers, feel free to try voice recognition, now packaged as standard from Windows 7, or for a truly smart voice engine try Dragon Naturally Speaking for PC or Mac. With voice recognition a constant ‘typing’ speed of 100 wpm is not out of the question.

Another tool you can use to type faster is AutoHotkey. It offers the ability to automate anything you are able to do with your PC. Your imagination is the limit, and there are many examples to be found online to inspire you. As a starting point you can consider this script for predictive typing and the autocorrection of some 4700+ common misspellings. More of a tool for the brave and productivity die-hards, but certainly capable of boosting output, as detailed in one of the  translator interviews below.

Then I would suggest this one, which is more of a health tool: F.Lux changes your screen colour-tone as the day goes on, based on your location, to ensure that your eyes remain unstrained. It also helps you to sleep better when working late by removing the blue light from the screen, which studies have shown keeps you awake for longer by resetting your natural (‘circadian’) rhythms. A new version is available for 2014.

Accounts and administration

Further savings in time can be made in areas of administration. To freelance translators this mainly amounts to invoicing, keeping records and chasing payments. The tool I use for this is called Freeagent, it is subscription based with various levels for different business structures. It handles multiple currencies, exchange rate gains and losses, invoicing, overdue bills, expenses and shows all relevant tax information automatically. See my review here.

Compared to my old method of constantly editing an Excel invoice template, manually scanning for outstanding payments and trying to add up all income, costs and expenses by hand or in a spreadsheet, I estimate savings of at least 5 hours a month. For the sake of argument, that could represent some £3000 a year in earning potential, if I priced my time at £50/hour. Couple this with the use of all of the above tools, including the increased quality of service I offer to clients and you can see how it’s not only the earning potential that increases, but total earnings themselves as more repeat orders roll in.

These tools form a solid infrastructure on which to grow. It doesn’t ever spiral out of control as the systems manage the complexity while I feed it work and orders. I then produce a reliable record for myself, the government and clients, while given more time to concentrate on the work itself. I highly recommend investing in this area where possible.

Thanks for reading. I do translation from French and Swedish to English, so if that's useful to you, feel free to connect and message me on LinkedIn or Twitter.