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

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

Computers have the potential to vastly increase our personal productivity. They are also, of course, capable of becoming vast time-sinks, sucking our productive moments away in a haze of frustration and imposed patience. Alas, the line between one and the other can be exceedingly thin.

Here, then, are five ways to keep on the “productive” side of that line and avoid the “time-sink” factor. I’ve focused here on practices and attitudes, not technical details — it pays, though, to make sure your system is optimized, your hardware is up to snuff, and your software is as good as it can be.

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1. Use scripting

There was a time when using a computer meant programming the computer. Today, we’re lucky enough to have software available for just about every task, but the legacy of the do-it-yourself past remains just under the surface of your computer. Mac users have AppleScript, plus the entire legacy of Unix scripting support at their fingertips. Windows users can use a program like AutoHotkey to record sets of actions. (Linux users interface directly with the CPU via telepathy, but if they’re tired, they can use the same UNIX scripting support Mac users have.)

Consider a task like ripping a DVD, formatting it, and transferring it to your portable media player. There are some one-step solutions that work for some devices, but for the rest of us, there are several steps involved — and each one takes a lot of time. You need one program to rip the DVD, another (in some cases, a few others) to convert the video to a format your player uses, and usually yet another to sync the file to your player. Using a program like AutoHotkey, you can automate most of the process, so you can insert a DVD, trigger the action, and walk away.

2. Use templates

Chances are there are certain documents you create over and over again. Freelancers create invoices and project quotes, students create papers, writers create manuscripts and query letters, business people create memos and business requirement documents, non-profit workers create grant proposals, and so on. Spending some time to create templates for these documents will save you from having to do the repetitive, time-consuming part of formatting the document and entering in the same data (like your contact info, your signature, your bio, etc.) over and over and over and over. Most productivity apps (like word processors and spreadsheets) allow you to save templates with pre-defined spaces for entering the parts that change from document to document — but if yours doesn’t, save a copy of your document to a “Templates” folder and just replace the parts that need changing.

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3. Use boilerplate

In addition to certain kinds of documents you use over and over, you probably also find yourself creating certain kinds of text regularly. Maybe you often have to write the HTML to insert a link into a webpage, your bio, a description of your business or product, or a signature block — whatever the case, if you’re going to do it more than once a day, it’s wise to use a program like TextExpander (Mac) or Texter (PC) to automatically insert boilerplate text when you type some pre-defined set of keystrokes.

I use Texter for a variety of HTML formatting codes. For example, I write a lot of bulleted lists, where I have a bold-faced topic, a colon, and an explanation or definition, like this:

  • Bullet point 1: I like to use bullet points to increase clarity and ease of reading.

The code isn’t hard, but I’d rather focus on what I’m writing and not on how to format it. So I have a Texter shortcut, “bp”, that inserts the HTML tags and the colon, and places the cursor between the “strong” tags so I can type my bold-faced text. When I’m writing a Lifehack post, I simply type “bp” and hit the tab key, and voila! Instant bullet point.

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Texter also offers the ability to replace common typos on the fly, but I find I type to fast for the program to keep up. I have it set up to replace “hvae” with “have” instantly, since that’s a typo I make a lot — but in practice, the “have” tends to end up in the middle of whatever word I’m typing three or four words down the line.

4. Automate tasks

There are plenty of routine tasks that can be totally automated, requiring no intervention from you at all. The most important in my schedule is backing up. I use the free version of SyncBack to automatically copy any changed files in my “Documents” folder to an external hard drive every night while I sleep. (I also use Mozy to automatically backup files off-site.) It took me about 20 minutes to set up, and now I know that my important files are always available.

Almost every kind of routine task can be automated. Look for programs that have automation built in, or use the scheduler built in to your operating system. If you can’t automate a task directly, create a script using AutoHotkey or whatever works on your system and automate that.

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5. Track revisions

Ever work on something for a while and realize that the version you had two hours ago was better than the one you have after all your futzing around? You could hit “Ctrl-Z” (or your system’s equivalent) for a half-hour until you get back to the state you were last happy with — assuming your program tracks history back that far. Far better is a version control system that tracks your changes for you.

The simplest version control is this: every time you save, you “Save As” and use a new file name. For instance, you might create a file as “20080323-lifehack-computer-a”; as you work on it, you save as “20080323-lifehack-computer-b” then “c” and so on. This is complex and difficult, though — far better to automate that, too.

With a little work and technical know-how, you can set up a Subversion repository (check out these instructions for Windows users). With Subversion, you “check out” documents, work on them, and then “check in” your finished work. Subversion automatically keeps a copy of each document at every stage of creation.

If Subversion is overkill for you (it is for me), use FileHamster (Windows only; Mac users have Time Machine, as they never tire of reminding us PC users). FileHamster watches every file in a folder (or folders) you designate and saves all the old versions every time you save. Everything happens automatically, so you know you always have a store of past versions of every document or other file in your watched folder(s).

What else?

This is only a start, of course. In fact, I have even more ways to make your computer work for you that I’m saving for my next post. In the meantime, what practices help you show your computer who’s boss?

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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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