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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?

More by this author

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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