The Ultimate Productivity Toolbox for Creative People

Personal Productivity Toolbox

Let’s face it: in the online arena, distractions are imminent and inevitable. There are just too many online properties that beg for your attention — and before you know it, hours have passed and you didn’t finish that project you meant to complete.

This is especially more challenging for the Marlas in the house, as creativity requires being ahead of the curve. Marla is consistently kept busy, and that’s probably because she’s kept abreast of those technological innovations. But that could be a time sink too, unless she has the right tools to manage her emails, projects, and time.

Those who are like Lou, though, don’t know that it’s possible to do everything one can do in the corporate world at home for a fraction of the cost (and even better returns). Without being armed with that know-how, how does a guy like Lou actually take the initiative to do what he can — at home (as he soon may have to)?

In the creative world, you don’t have to confine yourself to costly enterprise-level applications. Free (or really affordable) opportunities are available. In this article, I discuss my favorite tools to manage my clients and time online, and I invite you to share your favorite tools of the trade too.


The first step to communicating with local clients and overseas prospects is to make sure you have a good email system in place. My recommended tool? Gmail (armed with Better Gmail 2 for Firefox). The primary reason for choosing Gmail over all other web app solutions is because it has colored labels. I note my client projects with a gray label called “Clients” and use the yellow “todo” label (or a star) for any actionable items that need my attention. Gmail also scores big points for having the capacity to handle large files, and with over 7.2GB of storage at the present, I don’t have to download my messages locally and can access my entire inbox from my cell phone and the many computers I use.

Many people use Gmail as a business tool and don’t mind having a “professional” email address with the domain (I actually use my email account straight-away for some tasks). But fortunately, you can get all benefits of Gmail on your desired domain name by utilizing Google Apps for Business. The free option is more than sufficient for the creative professional.


When I need to collaborate, Google Documents is fascinating. Have you ever tried to work with someone else on the same document at once?  (If not, give it a try.)

Offline, I actually am still using Microsoft Word, but I’m a proponent of the free Open Office suite, which is a full-featured office application with a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool.

I often find myself working in a simple notepad replacement known as Notepad2 (Windows only) for note-taking, writing drafts to blog posts (like this one), and if I want to copy/paste text to save for later. Big applications such as Microsoft Word and OpenOffice don’t come to play very often unless I need to work on a professional presentation.

Photo Editing

Most of us creative types like Adobe Photoshop or GIMP for photo editing. I’m more of a creative writer and not a graphic designer, so Irfanview (Windows only) is great for small image editing tasks, such as resizing and cropping, which is often necessary for blogging. I hear great things about Pixelmator for the Mac.


Is it a surprise that I like Google Calendar? Again, it’s collaborative, and that’s a plus.

One-on-One Communication

The bottom line: when you’re in a creative discipline, you need to be able to talk to your peers online (and quickly) — whether to bounce ideas off of them or whether to ask them for immediate feedback about a new design or whatnot. While many individuals think instant messages are a productivity waster (and that’s true if you get carried away), it helps to be accessible. Personally, I’m always online, but I’m barely chatting. And for communication, my preferred tool is Pidgin, which integrates Google Talk, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, and others.

For overseas conversations, Skype is a great option and the free option may work for you, though there are paid subscriptions depending on who you need to call.

Collaborative Communication

With the web becoming increasingly social, the next step would be to find a way to bounce idea off of the collective or to get inspiration. I prefer two tools for this, Twitter and FriendFeed.

Twitter is a microblogging tool that lets you tell the world in 140 characters or less about what you’re doing and your thoughts. In the past several months, Twitter has gained momentum and now is a great broadcast medium if you want a lot of people to give you immediate feedback about an idea. It’s also a great place to network with like-minded professionals. There are a lot of creative folks using Twitter, that’s for sure!

On the other hand, FriendFeed is a tool that lets you share your “lifestreams,” such as your Tweets, the RSS feeds of your websites, the social sites you’re using, and more (including your Amazon wish list!). While FriendFeed has a much smaller audience than Twitter, it has a lot more in-depth conversation and is very powerful tool for sharing tips, pictures, and more. I find FriendFeed as a great source of inspiration, and active participants will find that it really does have a powerful and very engaged community.

Client Communication

If email doesn’t do it for you, Basecamp is a very cool application that lets you communicate with the many clients you have. Basecamp is professional and lets you categorize your projects. It also allows you to share files, create to-do lists and milestones, track time, and more.

Web Surfing

Is it any surprise that I stand by Mozilla Firefox for my web surfing? With all the plugins it supports, I’m able to do a whole lot with a single application.


My favorite media player ever is VLC media player and that’s because it saves time and energy since it doesn’t require you to install codecs in order to run that AVI file your colleague just sent you.


By far, the best tool available for invoicing clients is Freshbooks. It gives freelancers the ability to create professional looking invoices for a fraction of the cost (free for up to 4 different clients!) Freshbooks also has time tracking software for the computer and for the iPhone.

Time Tracking

I mentioned Freshbooks in the previous category, but I find another tool useful to track where I’ve been online. That tool is called RescueTime and it lets you know what you’ve been doing and when. RescueTime lets you tag your activities and then graphs it out so that you can find out whether you were wasting time or actually doing productive work. It is one of my favorite tools ever.


While I do a lot of my work online, I also do a chunk of work offline. I need a tool to back up my most important files in case something happens. Carbonite is a powerful application that does that for you and it isn’t intrusive at all.

Other Favorites

I use a lot of shortcut applications on my Windows machine, including Everything, a powerful search tool that will scan files of your entire hard drive and find the filename you were looking for without the extensive search. I have it running on a computer with about 1.6TB of data. Once it profiles your hard drive, you’ll find the file you’re looking for instantaneously.

I also like Launchy (Windows) and Quicksilver (Mac) to launch applications without requiring me to use my mouse in order to navigate to my Start Menu, then Accessories, then Entertainment,and then Sound Recorder. Using Launchy, for example, I hit ALT+Spacebar, type “soun,” and Launchy discovers that I’m intersted in Sound Recorder and will launch it for me. It saves a whole lot of time, and once you get the hang of it, I assure you that you won’t go back to the mouse if you don’t need to.

I disperse my work among four different computers, so RealVNC lets me get remote access to the other machines located elsewhere. Additionally, I also play with a Linux server, and I usually remotely connect to it via Putty (Windows and Linux).

How About You?

To make this truly the “ultimate” productivity toolbox for creative people, we need your input. What applications and tools are in your creative arsenal?

Feel free to share tools or tips in the comments, and to bookmark this resource for future reference or to add tips.

About the Author: We’re pleased to announce that Tamar Weinberg has joined Lateral Action as Associate Editor. Tamar is a former contributor to Lifehacker, works with the lads over at Mashable, and displays her skills as a social media maven at her blog Techipedia.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Sociala Gerillan | December 21, 2008


  1. Well done! I’ll be forwarding this to my small business clients.

    I also like using and FreeMind for brainstorming.

    I tie everything together with David Allen’s GTD. I wrote about my setup here:

  2. at first the article seemed pretty generic ,but then I realized that Im probably part of a minority that has been lucky enough to find and utilize these tools. I really appreciate the level of detail in this article as well as the integration with LA characters.

    Good job on getting Tamar on this team. Lifehacker loses, Lateral Action wins.

  3. I write informative articles for the web part-time for extra cash. I never know when I’ll have a spare minute to work, so all the tools I need for writing are kept on a small memory stick.

    I have Portable Apps installed on the root of the stick, so it starts up as soon as it’s inserted into whatever PC I happen to be at. From there I can access my Articles/Documents, and write/edit them in Q10, the slickest word editor I’ve ever used.

    Several of the tools you mention are also available for PortableApps (Pidgin, Firefox)

  4. Gmails great but it still lacks the ability to add a feedburner buzzboost script to the signature line.

  5. Thanks for noting that, @amyt, and for the suggestions. I’m not a big PortableApps user (I think all my computers are armed with full-fledged versions of the software I need on a regular basis — and most is web-based anyhow), but I can imagine how helpful that is 🙂

  6. Very good list, reminds me of the one done by LifeHacker awhile back; I’ve just learned about some great software to use! Thanks Tamar!

  7. Guess who wrote the other one, @genieyclo? 😉

  8. Dang, this is uber useful. Bookmarking for frequent reference. I use a bunch of these, but I definitely see some additional tools that are going to come in very handy . . .

  9. Google has a lot of useful tools.

    I like using Google Notes for online research. You can highlight web text and right click it and Google notes will automatically stick it in a note for you complete with working link.

    Google Reader is always a possibility for RSS feeds too.

  10. For invoicing, you should also look at Intuit Billing Manager. It lets you create and send as many invoices as you want with no commitment or risk. The service is free, it works on the iPhone and sign-up requires no credit card information. There’s also a premium service for $9.95/month which includes features for recurring billing and estimates.

  11. Also, for getting contracts signed, works very well and you can find some good templates at

  12. Great article!

    VLC blows all other media players out of the water. I cannot count the number of times I’ve had problems with QT, WMP or RealPlayer only to open it in VLC and have it work flawlessly.

  13. Sounds good. Also these commeents sound like there some more useful links.

  14. I don’t know how you keep up with it all, Tamar!

    BTW — FreshBooks is free for up to three clients, not four, but who’s counting? ; )

    Hope to catch up with you at PubCon!

  15. I have been using MuseWorx for close to a year now. It is very robust, and when I landed an account in Switzerland (I am from PA), it was a godsend!

    Clients can write on your proofs, leave notes, etc.
    I highly suggest checking it out at:


  16. Thanks’ for the list, I especially like the Launchy application and will make use of it. I use Google quite extensively and I find it is more helpful to stick with one group of productivity tools.

    There are just too many apps out there distracting you all the time, Browsers are coming of age and becoming more and more intuitive for desktop work. More blogging editors please!

  17. Awesome collection of tools, but I dropped Firefox in favor of Flock, the social browser. It incorporates many social media sites directly into the browser interface. It’s built on top of the Firefox engine and it supports all my favorite Firefox extensions. Go Flock yourself! 🙂

  18. Three more (all free) that I use every day…

    1. ClipX clipboard mgr stores 25 items, really speeds up cut & paste

    2. Fireshot add-on for Firefox for screen capture & editing

    3. Dial2do (my absolute favorite) voice to text service to record notes, tasks, ideas that come to me when I’m not at the computer. My email program is set to filter them to their own special mailbox

  19. I switched from Launchy to Executor a few months ago because of the custom keywords feature. Both programs are great.

    Another little program I couldn’t live without on my Windows machine is PureText. It converts any text you copy to plain text for easy pasting into things like GMail, Skype, etc.

  20. One of my most useful tools is a little program I originally wrote for myself. “Yellow sticky notes” for the Windows desktop. After positive feedback from friends I put it on my website as freeware.

    Sometimes the best tools are the most simple and those that are quick and easy to use, rather than those with all the bells and whistles.

  21. Another tool that looks worth checking out is Action Method Online by Behance Network:

  22. Anyone know about a good, free talking avatar for one’s site?

  23. I find Google’s Picasa ideal for organizing and editing photos. It can sync online to back up your photos. It also does a lot of basic edits and more–from cropping to black and white, sepia, sharpening, glow, red eye, and color, shadow, and light manipulation. I don’t do tons of photos, but for blogging I find it ideal.

  24. Many neat ideas here that I’ll be sharing with other people and organizations, along with some other ideas of my own. Thanks, Tamar!

  25. I was looking for something like Corbonite. Thanks for this very informative post. Digged.

  26. Hmm – perhaps I’m out on a limb here, but I prefer to use client-based tools and not web-based ones. I do have a shaky internet connection sometimes so its nice to know I can still get on with it without having to rely on a connection.

    I prefer Mozilla Thunderbird and Mozilla Sunbird for mail and calendar.

    Struggling with the ‘to do list’ manager, I have tried them all – Remember the Milk, GTD, etc – and nothing really was a good fit. So I’m still using trusty old EditPad and old fashioned pen and paper.

  27. Nice list. I have to use friendfeed more. I’m struck with twitter and rarely spend any time using other social networking sites. Though I can limit my time in twitter, I don’t have the habit of spending time anywhere else.

    Did anyone mention, FreeMind? A free mind mapping tool. I find it very useful to come up with blog post ideas and also feel comfortable writing detailed posts when I use it.

  28. as a webdesign agency we searched a really long time for a convenient online-jobmanagement solution that fits our needs – and found

    it’s also free (paypal donations).

  29. For billing etc, I like Freshbooks but prefer the layout and simplicity of Less Everything’s “Less Accounting”

    For those like me that aren’t accountant-minded, it’s an easy solution and free for up to 5 invoices per month etc.

  30. @Andy Hayes

    Remember The Milk (RTM) has an offline mode via Google Gears. Out of all the ToDo managers I tried ( around 5 of them ), I found RTM to be best, particularly with GTD.

    I currently use‘s Exchange service because I’m a heavy Windows Mobile user and Exchange works very well in that case. I find the RTM mobile web interface usable, but not nearly as robust as Pocket Informant.

    You can sync RTM with Outlook using RTM’s MilkSync to sync with your Windows Mobile device, then syncing your Windows Mobile device to your Desktop/Laptop.

    I can’t wait until Google comes out with their own ToDo manager.

  31. Excellent List! I would include Evernote to it. I use it to write notes, and as my blogging niche requires me to do a lot of screen capturing… Evernote makes it very easy and it backs it up online. Definitely deserves a spot in the the list.

  32. For productivity in a small business environment take a look at The productivity benefit is that it incorporates all of the tools a small business typically uses, into the single, collaborative online space.

    For example, data from timesheets is automatically accessible by the project management, calendars, billing/invoicing and management reports. Take a look at

  33. Very nice list!

    I miss the following tools:
    Notepad++ with the free available plugins

  34. I’d echo the recommendations for FreshBooks as an invoicing solution. In addition, when it comes time to actually handling the record keeping for taxes, you might want to check out It’s a super simple online accounting web site that help you track income and expenses, get your finances organized for tax time, and even help you pay estimated taxes on time. Plus, it automatically imports invoice and payment data from FreshBooks:-)

  35. For video makers, converting to avi (Divx, Xvid) VirtualDub os King! So many web and digital cameras with different movie formats VirtualDub converts to avi so your DVD player, your computer and YouTube (and others) will play your videous.
    You’ll find the last versing at Sourceforge.

  36. For searching desktop files you should checkout Google Desktop – it helps you search within files as well as by filename!

  37. excellent productive tips and which makes me more productive. can you please tell me any alternative of Irfanview? I am XP. thanks to share with us.

  38. I can’t live without UltraSnap

  39. “excellent productive tips and which makes me more productive. can you please tell me any alternative of Irfanview? I am XP. thanks to share with us.”

    Sakib, why an alternative to Irfanview? It works for XP.

  40. I find BizRoof ( to be simple and intuitive to use CRM. And, once you find and use their support email they are very open to feedback and suggestions for improvements.

    I love Skype for making long distant phone calls.

    Great list and great comments.

  41. Definitely agree with everyone who recommended Evernote. If you like Evernote you’ll love Dropbox. I also suggest Skitch (Mac only) for photo-editing/screen grabs/sharing.

  42. I love my for drafting posts. Also like irfanview but have been having fun with the upgraded version. Thanks for these good ideas.

  43. I love Toggl, at It allows me to keep close track for hourly clients, even if I need to respond to another client in the middle of a task, when I’m linkbuilding for clients with overlapping audiences and want to be able to switch back and forth at a single site, or just have an inspiration for one while I’m working on another.

  44. A list quite interesting, which is different from what I have! It would be interesting to also make a full list!

  45. What do you have, Adrian? And full list? What are you looking for that’s not represented?

  46. Hi all –

    What is a good free drawing tool (Windows) for a non-artist?


  47. Windows has its (poor) draing tool – Paint
    The powerful free one is GIMP (

  48. For FTP, I use the FireFTP plugin for Firefox. It’s as full-featured as most of the freeware FTP utilities, but it runs from a tab within Firefox.

  49. Also check out Intervals, a web-based project management tool that includes client communication, time tracking, and invoicing all in one place. So you can replace three apps with one login and save some time and money in the process.

  50. Thanks!
    How about a simple free website builder (with templates)?

  51. … to build something like this:


  52. Braingain, not sure that’d be something “creative”… most web developers I encounter lately are building sites from scratch!

  53. Hello Tamar,

    That’s a fabulous list and I love these kinds of posts. Here are two I use:

    One of my BIGGEST time savers is RoboForm. It bookmarks sites you’re a part of which require a username and password and with one click you’re taken there and logged in automatically.

    It also stores your passwords encrypted and has a password generator.

    A fast online dictionary.

    Thanks again for the links. I’ve downloaded a few.

  54. Is there a good program for doing conference calls? I have 3 girlfriends that are all over North America and I was hoping that Skype or a Skype like program existed for us to have free or cheap conference calls. It would just be friends so it doesn’t have to be super professional… just wondering if anyone knows.


  55. I came across a web based collaboration tool called Vyew ( I will be using it for the first time this week.


  56. julie

    This might be exactly what you’re looking for



  57. And there’s also 🙂

  58. THANK YOU EVERYONE!!! Now, I found a couple of these doing google searches. Have you used them?? If not, maybe we will just try them all one by one until we have one that works for us. Thanks again… I will let you know my favourite. 🙂

  59. I’ve used for business calls with some big execs, and they seem to never complain. 🙂

  60. I’m a huge fan of Harvest ( Not only does it do all of the time tracking and invoicing for me, it has an expense tracking feature so you can insert expenses and save yourself all that time/money on bookkeeping. And it gives you reports of time spent, expenses, etc.

  61. Don’t forget Sketchup, by Google. If you need to draw, model, design just about any object the thing can do it, without the hassle of a lot of other programs.

  62. Cool list. Glad to know what people are using. We use most of the tools mentioned plus DeskAway for project collaboration, icontact for email marketing and for customer service.

  63. Great list and additions – thanks to all.

    I have several tools I love and use at different times, for different purposes. Here are a few:

  64. We’ve recently introduced a new version of our time and activity analytics solution, Slife v2.0. It’s now available for Mac/Windows and you can extend it to multiple users with Slife Teams.

    Give it a try – the Slife client is free. And feel free to contact us if you have any comments or suggestions.

  65. Thank you everyone! Tamar, I used and it was GREAT!! 🙂

    Sorry it took me so long to respond but we delayed our call a few times.

  66. Becky Clark says:

    This list is SUPER. I would like to share one more tool that I have found on the web for organizing group activities quickly and over email. It is You send out a sign up sheet, and people sign up interactively, from their computer. They instantly see what has already been “taken” – all the emails back and forth to finalize assignments, etc are GONE. Now that I’ve used it – I can’t live without it! They just added the ability to collect money also. I haven’t used this feature yet, but think this will really simplify things even further.

  67. The best thing I ever did was blowing off all Microsoft products and switching over to Linux (Mepis version). It’s fast, secure, easy to install apps on and constantly being improved. Did I say it’s FAST? Really FAST. Faster than any Microsoft OS. Did I say it’s secure? No annoying security downloads or patches that intrude at the worst moment in time. Did I mention that thousands of people all over the world are working on improving Linux’s performance (Fedora, Ubuntu, Mepis or any other color of Linux) on a daily basis.

    Just my humble opinion of course.


  68. Great list but you missed Fanurio.

    Fanurio helps with the less appealing aspects of freelancing like invoicing and keeping track of time and. It’s a useful application, with a user-friendly interface. It can be used on Windows, Mac and Linux.

  69. Great list!

    I know somebody mentioned Evernote (, but I think it needs further explanation.

    Swiss army knife for remembering anything: post from multiple devices, clip screenshots, clip text, clip audio, photos, docs, send from email, leave voicemail…

    Evernote is an insane tool and I think it should definitely be included in your arsenal of tools.

  70. This article and subsequent suggestions is fantastic. Thanks for sharing such valuable and helpful information. Today’s evergrowing technology makes handling one’s business easier and more efficient. Thanks again.

  71. Another free time management tool:

    might be a good addition to the list

  72. I have to agree with you about the Notepads of the world. Way back before the day, when I was still using Dreamweaver, the reason I stopped and switched to lights apps (in this case Arachnophilia, I still use a really old version) because if you wanted to make, as you so often do, just a quick change, in DW it was a case of call up the app, watch mountains form and seas dry while the damn thing opened… etc. whereas with Arachnophilia two ticks and the job’s done. Those behemoth applications simply outgrew their usefulness.