22 FREE Tools to Help You Work Better and Smarter
Note: This article will appear in the September 2014 issue of Inside ASHE Magazine, a publication of the American Society For Healthcare Engineering
Philip C. Stephens, President of ASHE, wrote an open letter to the membership about the changing roles and responsibilities of healthcare engineering and facility management. Stephens cites both the challenge and opportunity that working smarter will bring to our profession.
Stephens’s goal: for ASHE members to become an even larger part of the solution to the problems facing healthcare. But when you’re already juggling multiple jobs, the idea that you can take on more seems, well, optimistic.
What if you could gain an extra few hours a week by using some smart tools? Grab an extra hour with a pre-built Excel template. Cut distraction by saving information to read later. Project management tools that give you better insight into resource allocation. Planning and brainstorming tools to innovate and solve problems facing you and your institution. Even ways to save passwords securely.
This list of 22 free tools covers a broad spectrum of our work day. All these tools are free and not just demos or free trials. Most have some paid version which gives you more storage, reporting, integration, options, or users. Most will require you to set up an account for access.
Some of these tools may be familiar to you – but my goal was to bring you both the new and tried and true. A little saved time here, a pre-built template there, it all adds up – and maybe frees you up to take on the change-agent role that Stephens is advocating. Try them and see what you can gain today.
RescueTime: This app installs on your desktop and tracks what you do, when you do it. Works silently in the background and requires no user input. From creating documents to editing spreadsheets, email to web surfing, your activities are there in black and white. Syncs and tracks across devices including Android and iOS. Dead simple to use – and eye-opening. Choose this if you want an app that tracks general activity without any input from you. (rescuetime.com)
TimeDoctor: While RescueTime works in the background, TimeDoctor requires you to tell it what you are doing. The advantage: more precise reporting. Where RescueTime reports that you were editing a spreadsheet, TimeDoctor will tell you which spreadsheet you were editing – as long as you put that into the task box. TimeDoctor also sends pop-up messages when it appears you’ve gotten off-task – which some users may appreciate and others may find annoying. Choose this if you want a little more precision – and are willing to input info. (timedoctor.com)
While many people rely on MS Project, it may not have the elements or interface that you are looking for. An online app also opens access to non-company members without the security issues.
Freedcamp: Log in to your central dashboard to manage one or many projects. Choose a project to track, and then access a tabbed interface with a wall to post comments, to-do lists, discussions, milestones, time tracking, and files. Add open-source applications including a calendar, task-lists, a password manager, and more, ranging in price from free to $12.99. The free level gives you limited disk space (20 MB) which you can upgrade in tiers from Basic (1GB/$2.49/month) to unlimited storage ($39.99/month). Clean, simple interface and intuitive design make this a winner. (freedcamp.com)
Trello: You get a board to drag and drop elements of the project, add members, assign tasks, and more. Less resource-oriented than Freedcamp; more list/activity organized. Use it across all devices. Free version limits your upload file size to 10MB – but you can sign up new members and qualify for “Trello Gold” – and more disk space. If Freedcamp is too austere, try Trello. (trello.com)
Ganttic: Create online, user-accessible Gantt charts loaded with extra features. Visually track and plan resource allocation, sync with Google Calendar, track changes – all with lots of customization options. Bonus: the free version gives you all features – your only limitation is that you can only track 10 resources. Great way for teams to view progress and resource allocations. (ganttic.com)
Cheat Sheets / Templates
Custom Guide: Need a quick, handy cheat-sheet for Access, Excel, PowerPoint, or Office? About 35 cheat-sheets for various applications are available for direct download. Create a free account to access over 100 more. (customguide.com/cheat-sheets)
BizFilings: About 150 templates on everything from OSHA compliance to equipment leasing. Documents download as RTF (rich text format) which will open in MS Word or Google Docs. A time-saving starting point. (bizfilings.com/toolkit/tools-forms.aspx)
JaxWorks: Over 1000 Excel templates to download. While many are financial- or sales-based, there are hundreds of budgeting, estimating, and resource templates. Also included: free “Excel Toys” which will let you build your own custom Excel systems and charts. (jaxworks.com)
ExpireTrack: Track product expiration dates. Set custom alerts and reminders. Get notified by email on a schedule you set. Add users and let them track products. Great way to manage inventories of perishable supplies – and assure first-in, first-out usage. (expiretrack.com)
Timebridge: Ever try to find a convenient time to get a group together? Connect your Outlook, Google, or Apple iCal to Timebridge and select several possible meeting times. Send email notifications with proposed times. Great when you are trying to bring together people outside your corporate scheduling group. Simpler to use than Doodle. (timebridge.com)
Doodle: Create an event, select dates from a calendar. Set up the time slots and create a poll. Customize a message, enter all the email addresses, choose what to track, and hit send. Advanced settings let you choose yes/no/if need be, force participants to choose a single time, and close out slots based on a limit you set. Nice features: auto-reminders to missing participants and time slot copy. More complicated than Timebridge, but more options and features. (doodle.com)
Planning / Brainstorming / Charting
Exploratree: Use “mind mapping” software to explore different ways to solve problems. Stuck? Try Reversal and look at the problem from end to beginning. Facts or opinions? What are the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s events? Lots of ways to go beyond your regular white-board thinking. (exploratree.org)
Gliffy: Create flowcharts, forms, network diagrams, and org charts. Really easy to use. Drag and drop shapes, resize, connect them any way that you need. No more fighting with MS Word to create the charts or forms you need. Create large charts and export as an image or vector graphic. (gliffy.com)
Online Meetings / Conferences
GoToMeeting: The web standard for large-scale webinars offers free 3-person video conferencing. Sign on and share a link with two participants (a popup makes it easy). Conference members allow their cameras and microphones to connect (most laptops have these built in) – and you’re online conferencing. It takes only a couple of minutes to set up. Simplest to use – but limited to three participants. (gotomeeting.com)
Google Hangouts: Participants sign into their Google+ accounts and start a conversation. Bonus: If your end-users don’t have access to a camera and microphone they can connect via telephone. US calls are free – and they don’t have to sign into Google. A little more complicated than GoToMeeting, but you can have more than three people online conferencing. (Google.com)
Join.Me: Want to be able to conference and share screens? Basic account allows up to 10 users to conference call, share screens, transfer files, and share control of screens. Attendees download the app to their device. Create a meeting, share an invite via email, select from a dropdown list of phone numbers, and everyone’s talking and viewing screens. Pass control from attendee to attendee. More complicated to set up than GoToMeeting or Google Hangout (takes 5 minutes or so) but the only one that lets you share resources. (Join.me)
Pocket: How often have you run across an interesting article online – but don’t have time to read it right now? Save it to Pocket, an online tool that works on your desktop, iOS, Android, and Kindle. Once installed, just click on the icon in the task bar to save it and read it later. Syncs automatically across devices. Third-party apps for Blackberry, Windows phones, and others. Simple to use, with an appealing, tiled interface for viewing saved articles. Pocket does this one thing really well. (getpocket.com)
Evernote: Write once, read anywhere. Organize notes, lists, documents, and web articles. Access on your desktop, phone, or tablet. Supports a hand-writing application (Skitch) that lets you annotate and draw on files. Like Pocket, you can add the app to your browser toolbar for a quick save. Choose to clip just a section of a document to read later. There is also a text-to-speech reader which is surprisingly good. More versatile than Pocket, but more features to wade through. (evernote.com)
Block out Distractions
Focus@Will: Focus your attention for a 60-minute block of time by using music scientifically programmed to increase concentration. While it sounds like hocus-pocus, there is solid neuroscience behind the theory. Ten different music themes with three energy levels. The paid version (about $45/year) gives you access to more music and an ability to set the timer to customized lengths of time. Less flexible than FocusBooster, but has the added advantage of scientifically programmed music. If you like to listen to music while you work, try it. (focusatwill.com)
Focus Booster: Set the session length, create projects/clients, and set break lengths. Based on the Pomodoro technique which traditionally sets 25-minute work sessions followed by 5-minute breaks. Your signup starts as a free trial but after the trial ends, continue to use the free online Focus Booster HQ Live. If you don’t like working to music, Focus Booster may be for you. (focusboosterapp.com)
Secure Your Passwords
Sure…you know that 1234 is not a secure password – but who can remember RvX+90#vBf&2@3? Password apps can. Regardless of which you use, you should visit each account and update your password, but these “vaults” will store the harder-to-break password for secure access.
LastPass: Download the desktop app (Windows, Mac, and many browsers), let LastPass import your existing browser passwords – or pick and choose what you keep. Want access across all platforms? Premium costs $12/year. Prettier and more automated than KeePass, but the free version only works on your desktop. (lastpass.com)
KeePass: Rock-solid and around for years. Download the app to your desktop, Android, or iOS, create a master password, and then start adding all your accounts – with new secure passwords. Choose your level of password security and KeePass will create random password. Tip: If you create your KeePass file on Dropbox, you can access the same KeePass file across all platforms. (Just make sure that your KeePass Master Password is secure!) KeePass isn’t as pretty or intuitive LastPass, but you get free mobile access which is a premium option on LastPass. (keepass.info)
What is your favorite tool or online resource?
There are millions of free sites out on the web. Just because you think “everyone” knows about your favorite doesn’t mean that you can’t share it here. Add your favorite (and tell us why) in the comments below.