Make Your Computer Work for You

In my last post, I focused on ways to automate tasks on your computer, from backing up to document writing. Automation is something that computers are especially good at — it is, after all, what they do.

An important part of mastering your computer, though, lies not in the software you use but the attitude you bring to the computer, the worldview that shapes how you interact with it. This isn’t so simple as feeling grumpy or cheerful, but how you think about your work at the computer. Today, I want to focus on practices and attitudes that can help you make better use of your computer — or any other.

1. Get organized

Years ago, I worked at a museum where we got a grant to upgrade all the computers to Windows 98 (they were DOS-based before that). One of the department heads, an older woman who had never been all that comfortable with computers to begin with, had been saving all her documents, for years, to the default C:\ directory. When they upgraded her system, all those files showed up on the desktop. Thousands of them.

It’s important to have a system in place so you can easily find everything. It doesn’t have to be complex, just consistent. For instance, I start a new folder for every type of project in my life, whether that’s a course I’m teaching, a job I’ve taken on for a client, a website I’m running,a vacation I’m planning, or whatever.So I have folders for “Article Submissions” and “Courses” and “Websites”. I create subfolders for every project large enough to need one; for projects with only a few files, I use the file names to keep everything sorted (see below). After years of resisting Microsoft telling me what to do, I’ve also started using the “My Pictures”, “My Library”, and other “My [Blank]” folders that Windows wants me to use so desperately.

I’ve adopted a standard file naming convention cross most of my files, consisting of either the date followed by a description (for photos and receipts, where I’m likely to remember when I did something) or by project name and description (for documents where I’m more likely to remember what it was for rather than when I made it). For example, all my photo folders have names like “20080331-Lacrosse Game with Uncle Scott”; all my payment receipts look like “20080401-ATT Bill Payment”. In an alphabetical list, the files will retain chronological order. My projects look like “(Lifehack) Post Ideas” or “(Magazine Title) Query Letter”. In my “Article Submissions” folder, then, all the files will line up by the title of the magazine I submitted them to.

2. Use networking

If you have more than one computer in your house, make use of the network for more than just accessing the Internet. You can share files and printers, play music (and often movies), and backup over the network, generally with very little setup.

In our house, we have 4 computers — two laptops and two desktops. My desktop stays on all the time, and functions as a kind of household server. Every other computer has access to the laser printer attached to my desktop, making printing easy from anywhere in the house. I also have my multimedia folders and my “Documents” folders shared and mapped as drives on my laptop (and the multimedia folders are mapped on the other computers — nobody else needs to get to my documents easily). This allows me to access working files from my laptop anywhere in the house, and everyone to play music from my huge store of mp3s.

Once you start thinking of the computers on your network as servers, you’ll probably come up with a dozen ways to make use of them. For example, install XAMPP and create an intranet for your household — you can run calendars, blogs, photo galleries, just about anything you can do over the Internet you can do within your household network. To make it easier, you can add a line to the HOSTS file (at C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\etc\HOSTS in most Windows systems) to create an alias for every computer in your system. Open the file in a text editor, find the line that says “127.0.0.1 localhost” and add a line beneath it with the IP address of a computer on your network and a name to call it. My desktop is at 192.168.1.150 (local network IP addresses usually look like 192.168.0.x or 192.1.1.x where “x” is a number identifying the specific computer), so I have an entry that looks like “192.168.1.150 dustin” in the HOSTS file of the other computers. If you type “dustin” into the address bar of a browser on any computer in the house, it goes to the server on my computer. “dustin/wordpress” goes to a WordPress install on my computer, which I use for testing but you could use for a household diary or photo gallery or whatever.

3. Centralize

You’re organized, you’re networked — now you can centralize. Like I said, media files on my computer can be accessed from any computer in the house — so all the media files can go in the same place. (With a suitable backup, of course.) I can access my working files from anywhere in the house on my laptop, and using LogMeIn(the free version) I can access the whole desktop from any computer in the world. So I don’t need to carry a thumb drive with the files I’m working on (except as a backup when I can’t be absolutely sure I’ll have a working Internet connection)or worry about whether a file is on my desktop or my laptop (I use SyncBackto keep my laptop and desktop’s “Documents” directories synchronized).

Centralization means only one set of files to worry about backing up. It means always knowing where to find a file you need to work on. It means you can access the same files wherever you are. And it means it’s much easier to get a new system set up, or to reinstall an existing system when the inevitable Bad Thing happens.

4. Use the Cloud

I do make one exception to my overall preference for centralization, and that’s using web-based apps. Since LogMeIn requires some installation, I might not always be able to use it (for example, many corporate computers don’t allow the installation of ActiveX programs or FireFox extensions, which you need to run LogMeIn). So I’ve started doing the vast bulk of my writing using online applications, especially Buzzword. I download the “in progress” files to my desktop when I’m at home, for backup. Since you can save a set of pages as your “Home” in most new browsers, I just click “Home” and Buzzword, Google Reader, Gmail, and a few other online apps pop open.

Using the Cloud means that I don’t have to worry about upgrading software, waiting until I can get home to work on a project, or run dozens of programs at the same time. Everything’s right there, in whatever browser I’m using. Although I rarely use Google Documents to create documents anymore, I do quite like the looks of DocSyncer, which synchronizes all the MS Office files in a chosen folder to your Google Docs account, making the line between working in Word or Excel and working in Google Docs pretty seamless. If nothing else, it’s a great backup.

5. Create workflows

I’ve wasted probably about as much time in my life trying to remember how I did something last time as I have used just doing it. Somewhere along the line, I realized: write checklists, idiot. Consider doing the same thing (minus the self-deprecation, of course) for any complex tasks you do often. This is something that comes naturally to most programmers,who know it’s the only way to get the computer to do exactly what they want.

Consider one task I do every few weeks or so: adding guest contributors to Lifehack’s pool of writers. Guest contributors applypretty much constantly; their applications need to be reviewed, and the successful applicants need to be accepted, sent information about writing for Lifehack, added to our contributors mailing list, and given permissions to post to the site. I have some boilerplate I sue for some of that, some steps are automated, and the rest… Well, I forget. Which is why I wrote a checklist telling me what steps to take, in what order, and using what applications/websites.

As you perfect your workflow for any task, keep an eye out for steps or groups of steps that can be automated.Consider grouping shortcuts to the programs or documents you need by workflow in your Start Menu, or in a folder on your desktop. Or launch multiple programs together using a program like StartProgs XPro or using a batch file (follow these instructions).

The bottom line

In the end, the only trick is to be 10% smarter than your computer. Most people use their PCs in a reactionary way, reacting to whatever their needs are at any given moment.A little forethought and a few simple tools can go a long way towards making your computing life smoother and more productive.

What are your thoughts? How do you keep your computer under your control, and not vice versa?

Love this article? Share it with your friends on Facebook