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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 November 5, 2020

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. A rut can manifest as a productivity vacuum and be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. Is it possible to learn how to get out of a rut?

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, or a student, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on Small Tasks

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks that have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate positive momentum, which I bring forward to my work.

If you have a large long-term goal you can’t wait to get started on, break it down into smaller objectives first. This will help each piece feel manageable and help you feel like you’re moving closer to your goal.

You can learn more about goals vs objectives here.

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2. Take a Break From Your Work Desk

When you want to learn how to get out of a rut, get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the bathroom, walk around the office, or go out and get a snack. According to research, your productivity is best when you work for 50 minutes to an hour and then take a 15-20 minute break[1].

Your mind may be too bogged down and will need some airing. By walking away from your computer, you may create extra space for new ideas that were hiding behind high stress levels.

3. Upgrade Yourself

Take the down time to upgrade your knowledge and skills. Go to a seminar, read up on a subject of interest, or start learning a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college[2]. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a Friend

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while. Relying on a support system is a great way to work on self-care when you’re learning how to get out of a rut.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget About Trying to Be Perfect

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism can lead you to fear failure, which can ultimate hinder you even more if you’re trying to find motivation to work on something new.

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If you allow your perfectionism to fade, soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come, and then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

Learn more about How Not to Let Perfectionism Secretly Screw You Up.

6. Paint a Vision to Work Towards

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the ultimate goal or vision you have for your life?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action. You can use the power of visualization or even create a vision board if you like to have something to physically remind you of your goals.

7. Read a Book (or Blog)

The things we read are like food for our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great material.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. You can also stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs and follow writers who inspire and motivate you. Find something that interests you and start reading.

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8. Have a Quick Nap

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep[3].

Try a nap if you want to get out of a rut

    One Harvard study found that “whether they took long naps or short naps, participants showed significant improvement on three of the four tests in the study’s cognitive-assessment battery”[4].

    9. Remember Why You Are Doing This

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall your inspiration, and perhaps even journal about it to make it feel more tangible.

    10. Find Some Competition

    When we are learning how to get out of a rut, there’s nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, and networking conventions can all inspire you to get a move on. However, don’t let this throw you back into your perfectionist tendencies or low self-esteem.

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    11. Go Exercise

    Since you are not making headway at work, you might as well spend the time getting into shape and increasing dopamine levels. Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, or whatever type of exercise helps you start to feel better.

    As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

    If you need ideas for a quick workout, check out the video below:

    12. Take a Few Vacation Days

    If you are stuck in a rut, it’s usually a sign that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange one or two days to take off from work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax, do your favorite activities, and spend time with family members. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest.

    More Tips to Help You Get out of a Rut

    Featured photo credit: Ashkan Forouzani via unsplash.com

    Reference

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