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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 January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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