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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 July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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