9 Free Tools and Websites To Make You More Productive

Free. Is there a word that people love more than that? Probably not. Especially in this market.

And when you’re starting a business, you better take a look at where you’re spending money and ask yourself if there is a more cost-effective (free) alternative.

Working in the technology industry my whole career, I often take for granted that I hear about new products, services and websites that assist in my daily productivity. Some of these services cost money (generally not much) while others are completely free. Today, I’m going to share with you a list of products and websites I use to help me stay productive and organized. The best thing about the names in this list is that they won’t cost you a dime. (Note: some of them offer a paid version of their product/service, but I’ll only discuss the free side of them.)

Now for a moment of full disclosure: some of these sites are advertisers on the website. However, I use each and every one of these services on a daily (or near-daily) basis. I’ve also included a couple of responses from my friends on Twitter who were kind enough to share with us some of the free tools they use. Some of them I use, others I don’t and I will share with you my thoughts on them as it warrants.

1. I Want Sandy – For those of you who already have a personal assistant, you can go ahead and skip this one. For the rest of you, I highly recommend taking a look at Sandy (I will be referring to this site as if it’s a real person – that’s how much I like it). I’m not inherently good at staying organized. In fact, I suck at it. But Sandy works for people like me. She works because I don’t have to think about how the information I send to her is stored. Much like a live personal assistant, I just give her instructions like “Remind me to call Joe at 3pm tomorrow” and Sandy notifies me based on the preferences I setup. I can email instructions to her, get a daily list of to-do items and appointments or have her retrieve information like “What is my Southwest passenger number?” There is a lot more she is capable of, but you get the idea.

2. Skype – If you have a business or work that takes place overseas or online, you need Skype. Most outsourcing companies use Skype because it allows you to call Skype-to-Skype for free anywhere in the world. You’ll need a headset/microphone combo because the built-in versions in most laptops are terrible for this. Also, be aware of your connection speed. I have a DSL connection that can sometimes be a bit slow. But when you’re saving a lot of money while talking to people in India, you learn to deal with it.

3. Thunderbird, GMail & IMAP – OK…so this is three things but they all work together for managing my email and calendar. Here are some details on my setup:

  • I have two computers that I use regularly. One is a Windows desktop that I work on when I’m in my office. The other is a Macbook Pro laptop that I use for certain projects or when traveling.
  • I also have an iPhone for times when I don’t have a computer.
  • I actively use about 8-10 different email addresses for different projects or businesses.

As you can imagine, keeping my email synchronized between all of these different systems could present a few problems. To help manage this, I installed Thunderbird on both of my computers. I don’t like it as much as Outlook, but hey, it’s free and it sends and receives email. I then use GMail and other IMAP mail accounts for all of my email. That way, if I send email from one computer or device, it’s automatically available from the others. There are some limitations I won’t get into as it pertains to doing this with as many accounts as I have, but I doubt most people have to worry about this.

4. Xobni – If there is ONE major thing I miss having in Outlook that is not available in Thunderbird (other than a really pretty interface), it’s Xobni. Xobni is an easy-to-install plugin that makes Outlook uber sexy. Among the really cool features are incredibly powerful email search and contact information extraction. Just received an email from a new contact? Xobni can extract the information in their signature and create a new contact for you. Reading an email from a coworker and want to find a Word document they sent that you but can’t remember the name of it or the date they sent it? No worries. Just click on an email from the person and Xobni will show you a list of all the documents you’ve ever exchanged via email with them. How could you not love this? Rumor has it they are going to create a version for Thunderbird, but there are no specifics on when.

5. OtherInbox – Staying on email for one more item, this is a website that I love. My work requires that I try just about every application that comes out. I give out my email more than I would like to admit and I receive upwards of 750-1000 emails on a daily basis. A lot of this is spam and a lot of them are valid emails but time wasters none-the-less. I want my main email in-boxes to only get email from real people – not newsletters, Google Alerts, system updates, Amazon shipment notices, etc.  I also wanted to be able to give out an email address to a company but not worry about whether I would get bombarded with spam.

OtherInbox saved the day. You create an account with them and get an email address that looks something like this: travis@[your_company_or_name].otherinbox.com. However, what they allow you to do is create AS MANY email accounts as you like. So…let’s say that I’m creating an account at Borders.com and want to use OtherInbox. All I have to do is put my email address in the form as borders@[my_company].otherinbox.com. I don’t even have to tell OtherInbox about this new address. I’m free to make them up as I go along. OtherInbox will get it, route it, filter it and sort it – on it’s own. I can also then see who sells my email address and block them from sending in the future. Very sexy. Very easy. It’s great for all those who practice Getting Things Done (GTD) and batch your email so you can process them at once. However, I almost NEVER process this stuff since I know that they don’t contain action items are just informational emails.

6. Mindmeister – Are you a brainstormer? Do lists on paper not quite do it for you? If you’re like me, you’ve tried creating Word documents with bullet points and then “spicing them up” by using different icons for the bullet points. But try as you might, it is still a linear list with no way to tell how items in the list relate. Enter Mindmeister. I had been looking for a way to create mind maps online using free tools, but hadn’t found one until recently. This is a very useful tool that allows you to create and share mind maps for any type of project you might be working on. You can also import/export with other programs you might already be using. I love this site and am using it for a couple of projects that are in the planning stages.

7. Zoho CRM – If you do anything involving sales or customer relations, you need to take a look at a Customer Relationship Managment (CRM) application. I’ve used and customized Salesforce at previous companies and think it’s a great application. However, it’s expensive. Zoho CRM is free for up to 3 users and offers almost everything that Salesforce has in their most expensive plan. Also, if you’ve used Salesforce, you’ll find the interface to be very familiar.

8. RescueTime – Ever wonder where your time goes when you’re working? RescueTime is a great utility for Macs and PCs that will show you – and the results can be sobering. Don’t think you’re spending too much time on email? This will tell you. Just remember, information is useless if you don’t act on it.

9. Twitter – (You can follow me using @tronash) Many people would probably lump Twitter into the distraction category, but I’d take issue with that. It’s all about how you use it. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of really interesting people through Twitter and have learned a lot from those I’ve connected up with. For example, prior to writing this post, I asked my friends to share with me the free tools they use and here are their responses.

@nicholaswyoung

  • Evernote – This is one application I need to spend more time looking into for myself. It allows you to capture information from just about anywhere, but is really useful when used with your camera phone.
  • Twitter – See notes above
  • NemusSync – Don’t have a jail-broken iPhone but want to synchronize with Google Calendar? Take a look at NemusSync. I’ve never used it and the website sucks, but I trust @nicholaswyoung. 🙂 Also note Nuevasync from @goggans below.

@TerenceChang

  • Google Alert, Gmail, Google Calendar – All good stuff. I use ’em all.
  • AIM / WIMZI – A widget you can add to your blog to allow people to chat with you when you’re online from your blog. Not really for me, but he likes it.
  • Twitter Search – A great way to find information you need on Twitter.
  • Thunderbird – See my notes above.
  • Lightning – If you use Thunderbird and Google Calendar, Lightning will enable you to synchronize them.
  • Yahoo Messenger – I don’t use Yahoo Messenger and recommend a program like Digsby (Windows and Mac compatible) for your IM chatting.
  • Skype – See my notes above.
  • Grandcentral – This is another application I really need to look into more. One phone number to ring them all with a single voicemail box. Check it out.

@goggans

  • Highrise CRM – A free CRM alternative to Zoho CRM. Their free version only allows for 250 contacts – not many. And then it gets a little pricey for my tastes. But their interface is sexy.
  • Time Tracker – This is for you Mac users who have to bill by the hour.
  • Fluid – Another Mac program. Gotta be honest here…not quite sure what it does. I’ll take a look at this soon. I’ve met with @goggans and he’s a productive guy – so if he likes it, I’m sure it’s good.
  • Smultron Text Editor – This is for you programmers out there. I personally use TextMate (which is not free but darn cheap).
  • Things – Task management for the Mac. If you don’t like Sandy (see above) then give this a whirl.
  • Nuevasync – Google Calendar Synchronization for non-jail-broken iPhones.

I hope you find these tools helpful. I’m always looking for new sites and tools so if you have suggestions for any other free tools, leave them in the comments section below.

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