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5 MORE Ways to Make Your Computer Work For You (And Not The Other Way Around)

5 MORE Ways to Make Your Computer Work For You (And Not The Other Way Around)
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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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?

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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