Productivity tips tried and tested


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As you’ll know from my recent review of Gina Trapani’s Lifehacker book, the subject of productivity tweaks has been on my mind lately. I thought I’d share some of the ideas I’ve tried and how they are working out, and then ask you for your own experiences.

(Before starting, I should acknowledge that most of these involve Google products and services. In the interests of balance, and given some people do have legitimate concerns about the company playing such a major role in online life, I’ll point towards a series of blog posts by Benjamin Ellis who tried spending a week online without using any Google services.)

Switching to Google Chrome

This is something I’d been considering for some time but finally got round to after realizing that on one particularly long working session without repeatedly closing and restarting Firefox, it was now eating up 1.5GB of RAM. So far I’ve been very impressed by how smooth and intuitive Chrome feels, with notable features being the ability to sync your account so that bookmarks added on one machine show right up when you use another machine, the way that opening a new tab comes with a list of the eight pages you use most often, and the “Close tabs to right” feature which is very handy when you are working on multiple projects throughout the day.

I’ve also found three extensions (similar to Firefox’s plug-ins) that make day-to-day work much easier:

BugMeNotLite: Based on the BugMeNot site, this is a one-click button which automatically fills username/password fields for sites from a user-submitted database. It’s not for storing your own details, but rather for getting quick access to sites which insist on a registration process. Whether it’s ethically sound to use such a service may be debatable, but it certainly works smoothly enough (though whether valid details are available for any predictable site varies immensely.)

ChromedBird: This is a single icon showing how many Twitter posts have been made by people you follow since you last checked; there’s also a drop-down menu where you can read the posts without having to visit Twitter’s site. The most useful feature is that the icon changes color when somebody makes a post mentioning you or when you get a direct message.

Google Mail Checker Plus: I’d previously used the standalone Gmail Notifier, but this has some advantages. Most notable it allow you to view a message in full through a drop-down screen and then reply, file it or delete it without having to visit the Gmail site.

Adopting the Inbox Zero strategy

I talked about this in the book review, but in short it means emptying your inbox every time you open it, either by deleting a message, responding to it, or filing it. With Gmail it’s even easier to use as you only need to create two folders/labels, in my case Action and Reference (the latter being e-mails you will need to refer to in the next week or so, and the other, the one into which I send messages and links which contain possible article ideas).

The main advantages of the system are that you adopt a mindset which eliminates/files unnecessary messages rather than letting them pile up. This then leaves the Action folder as a much more effective form of To Do list with all the psychological benefits that come with clearing it regularly. (I do use Gmail’s Tasks lists, but at this stage the contents might as well be labeled ‘Aspirations’…)

I’ve also found that the mail function on the iPod Touch/iPhone works much more smoothly than the Gmail site for ploughing through a batch of messages (eg in the morning) and deleting/filing them as needed.

In this hour-long presentation Merlin Mann, who is writing a book on the concept, explains the thinking behind Inbox Zero:

Google Calendar as an alert service

Another tip I mentioned in my Lifehacker review, I’ve now made more use of the ability to set up recurring events, complete with e-mail alerts. A paper diary or calendar would certainly perform the same role, but sad as it may be to admit, I’m much more confident I’ll check my e-mail every day than I am that I’d look at something on paper.

Using Google Docs

I wound up using this by accident when attending a coworking event and realizing that somehow my laptop no longer had any office software (a trial version had expired since I last used the machine) and that the Wi-Fi connection was too slow to make downloading OpenOffice a viable option. For the work I was carrying out — basic word processing with spellcheck and word count facilities — it worked fine. It also did a great job of coping with a couple of internet connection dropouts; indeed, I didn’t even notice them until somebody told me. I wouldn’t be comfortable using this as a full-time replacement for Office software yet, but it certainly does the trick when you are on the move.

Dual monitors

This is the big one, and is mainly inspired by the GeeksAreSexy thread about our readers’ often-stunning workspace set-ups, including Chance Gearhat’s octo-display shown above. (Well, that and a local store running a special on monitors.)

I’m still experimenting, but for the moment I’ve plumped for my original monitor in front of me for web browsing and the new monitor to the right, turned on its side to portrait mode, for word processing. I’ve not been using this set-up long enough to confirm my initial belief that it is cutting time (because there’s no need for Alt-Tabbing between Word and Chrome), but one advantage I’ve already found is that portrait mode means I can see an entire page of text at a readable size, which makes it much easier to estimate at a glance what my current word count is without needing to repeatedly click on the relevant toolbar.

So here’s where you all come in: Have any of you used such productivity tweaks? Could I be using any of these tools and tricks better? And are there other tactics I should be adopting? Please do let me — and more importantly your fellow GaS readers — know via our comments section.





17 Responses to Productivity tips tried and tested

  1. I'd love to use Google Chrome (again), but inexplicably it stopped working completely for no reason what so ever.

    Stopped even trying to do anything to any given address typed into it.

    Uninstalled, reinstalled about 20 times…emailed Google, searched for help fixes, found people complaining about the same thing, but no solutions. Cleared cookies, and still no replies.

    Google does not care about the individual, as you might expect.

  2. I’d love to use Google Chrome (again), but inexplicably it stopped working completely for no reason what so ever.
    Stopped even trying to do anything to any given address typed into it.
    Uninstalled, reinstalled about 20 times…emailed Google, searched for help fixes, found people complaining about the same thing, but no solutions. Cleared cookies, and still no replies.

    Google does not care about the individual, as you might expect.

  3. Chrome:

    I switched to Chrome on my laptop, and was delighted at the extensions now available. I admit I went crazy at first and got so many extensions I got bogged down.

    Copy and Paste Buttons:

    I would actually pay good money to have a custom keyboard created that had a built in Copy and Paste button. After 4 years of moving data from spreadsheet to spread sheet, cell to cell, it occurred to me that not only was Ctrl+c Ctrl+v inneficient for tools used ALL THE TIME, it also was causing me physical pain. (the pinky was never intended for extensive use!)

    After trying multiple key stroke managers, that didn't allow you to include the ctrl key, I gave up and called Leo Lapporte the techguy who recommended Autohotkey.com.

    Now after a minimal amount of time on a script, I mapped my Caps lock button to be Copy and Windows key to be paste. Those two buttons are bloody useless, and it has made a WORLD of difference.

    Bonus: I now have hotkeys for common phrases I type at work, saving me literally hours of what used to be typing or copy/pasting!

    • Foot In Mouth, many gaming keyboard have additional keys that you can pre-program to be different keystrokes, open programs, or trigger recorded macros. I often map two of these keys to ctrl+C and ctrl+V, as well as some others i use often, such as win+D and ctrl+T.

      Logitech G11 and G15 come to mind, and i've heard that Razer keyboards can have a programmed macro forevery single key, though i'm not sure.

      As to productivity, nothing trumps multiple monitors, for me.

    • Er..why not just use the finger next to the pinky for the ctrl key, if your only complaint is pain? Maybe your keyboard is too big/your hands are too small to do that, in which case, instead of buying a custom keyboard..just buy a smaller one.

      Caps Lock is surely far more useful than holding down the shift key while doing lots of typing in uppercase, no?

      And the Windows key offers a bunch of keyboard shortcuts if you learn them.

  4. Chrome:

    I switched to Chrome on my laptop, and was delighted at the extensions now available. I admit I went crazy at first and got so many extensions I got bogged down.

    Copy and Paste Buttons:

    I would actually pay good money to have a custom keyboard created that had a built in Copy and Paste button. After 4 years of moving data from spreadsheet to spread sheet, cell to cell, it occurred to me that not only was Ctrl+c Ctrl+v inneficient for tools used ALL THE TIME, it also was causing me physical pain. (the pinky was never intended for extensive use!)

    After trying multiple key stroke managers, that didn’t allow you to include the ctrl key, I gave up and called Leo Lapporte the techguy who recommended Autohotkey.com.

    Now after a minimal amount of time on a script, I mapped my Caps lock button to be Copy and Windows key to be paste. Those two buttons are bloody useless, and it has made a WORLD of difference.

    Bonus: I now have hotkeys for common phrases I type at work, saving me literally hours of what used to be typing or copy/pasting!

    • Foot In Mouth, many gaming keyboard have additional keys that you can pre-program to be different keystrokes, open programs, or trigger recorded macros. I often map two of these keys to ctrl+C and ctrl+V, as well as some others i use often, such as win+D and ctrl+T.

      Logitech G11 and G15 come to mind, and i’ve heard that Razer keyboards can have a programmed macro forevery single key, though i’m not sure.

      As to productivity, nothing trumps multiple monitors, for me.

    • Er..why not just use the finger next to the pinky for the ctrl key, if your only complaint is pain? Maybe your keyboard is too big/your hands are too small to do that, in which case, instead of buying a custom keyboard..just buy a smaller one.

      Caps Lock is surely far more useful than holding down the shift key while doing lots of typing in uppercase, no?

      And the Windows key offers a bunch of keyboard shortcuts if you learn them.

  5. Chrome. Never had a problem. Love it.

    Dual monitors are a must.

    Input Director. Share one keyboard and mouse across multiple machines with no hardware switching. Even share clipboards. Can't work without this one.

  6. Chrome. Never had a problem. Love it.

    Dual monitors are a must.

    Input Director. Share one keyboard and mouse across multiple machines with no hardware switching. Even share clipboards. Can’t work without this one.

  7. I fall in love with Google Chrome too. I use it first at my office and then, after several months of pure happiness with the software I decide to use at home with my wife. At first she didn't seem to like it but when I explained to her everything you can do with it she stop using Firefox.

    Thanks for the ChromeBird, I miss some chance to a contest since I was not watching enough my twitter but with this simple extension I will not miss it the next time :P.

    Dual monitors is actually a must for anyone working on complex things.

    I already do the Inbox Zero strategy for my personal mail, but not for a productivity standpoint. I think I will give it a try at my office. It will be easier to find a specific mail for reference instead of searching all my old mails.

    And "Foot In Mouth", if you are really serious with paying money (a lot) into a custom keyboard, maybe you will like this one : http://www.thinkgeek.com/computing/keyboards-mice
    I think this keyboard is the perfect productivity keyboard once you setup it for everything you want, but it is costly and you don't want your coffee to slip on it :P.

  8. I fall in love with Google Chrome too. I use it first at my office and then, after several months of pure happiness with the software I decide to use at home with my wife. At first she didn't seem to like it but when I explained to her everything you can do with it she stop using Firefox.

    Thanks for the ChromeBird, I miss some chance to a contest since I was not watching enough my twitter but with this simple extension I will not miss it the next time :P.

    Dual monitors is actually a must for anyone working on complex things.

    I already do the Inbox Zero strategy for my personal mail, but not for a productivity standpoint. I think I will give it a try at my office. It will be easier to find a specific mail for reference instead of searching all my old mails.

    And "Foot In Mouth", if you are really serious with paying money (a lot) into a custom keyboard, maybe you will like this one : http://www.thinkgeek.com/computing/keyboards-mice
    I think this keyboard is the perfect productivity keyboard once you setup it for everything you want, but it is costly and you don't want your coffee to slip on it :P.

  9. I run triple monitors at work ( IT ) and could use bigger monitors or another. I use a LOT of applications though…

    I have been using dual or 1 large screen for the last 6 years at home. I got small-screen-phobia :)

  10. I run triple monitors at work ( IT ) and could use bigger monitors or another. I use a LOT of applications though…

    I have been using dual or 1 large screen for the last 6 years at home. I got small-screen-phobia :)

  11. I run triple monitors at work ( IT ) and could use bigger monitors or another. I use a LOT of applications though…

    I have been using dual or 1 large screen for the last 6 years at home. I got small-screen-phobia :)