Update: I have recently revisited this post in More Ways to Stop Wasting Time at Your Computer and posted what I hope is a more relevant set of tips. Please consider the advicce given here deprecated. Thanks.
Many people today spent large parts of the day in front of the computer. The sad truth is that many of these people end up wasting a large amount of time even when there are a lot of ways to work more efficiently, simply because they don’t what those ways are. If there is something that you do regularly, doesn’t take much brains and can be reduced to following a few simple steps, then there is most likely a technological way to save yourself from such drudgery. After all, that is what computers are for. If you spend more than an hour or two at your computer, the following tips will probably be of some help to you.
1. Stop checking multiple email inboxes
If you’re someone like me, who has different email addresses for work and personal email, then chances are you spend a good bit of time switching inboxes, organizing mail and keeping contact lists up-to-date. Well, stop it. Even if you spend just a few minutes a day switching inboxes, that will add up to many hours over the years, hours that could be better used doing something else. If you’re a fan of desktop email, there are numerous clients out there that can handle multiple email accounts and keep your mail separated and organized for you. If you prefer webmail, get a Gmail account and set it up to collect your email from the other locations. Gmail automatically makes sure that if you reply to an email which came to a particular address, the reply email will have the same address, not the Gmail one.
2. Stop visiting the same websites over and over
If you depend on websites that get updated regularly, then in all probability those websites will have RSS feeds. Subscribe to them via a feed reader, I recommend Google Reader for an online reader or FeedDemon for a desktop alternative. Not only will you save time by not having to move through all those sites, you’ll also save a fair bit of bandwidth.
3. Don’t backup to CD or DVD
Writing to a CD or DVD is still quite slow, you’ll probably need special software and it’s much harder to undo a mistake. And a single scratch would make your data unreadable. Try out online storage or if you prefer to keep your data to yourself, get an external hard drive. If your budget is tight, at least get a USB pen drive. If you need to keep multiple versions of your data, don’t resort to file names with numbers and dates at the end, get a proper versioning system like Subversion and invest some time in learning to use it.
4. Learn keyboard shortcuts
You’ll be surprised how much time you can save by leaving the mouse alone. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a software that doesn’t support keyboard shortcuts. If you use a particular program a lot, find out what the keyboard shortcuts there are and use them. Some programs let you create your own key combos, so if a shortcut doesn’t exist for a regularly used command, you can create it. In case you find that you simply cannot remember the shortcuts, write them down or print them out and put them somewhere you can see them all the time. After enough practice, using shortcuts will become second nature.
5. Learn to type faster
Unless you’re someone like a graphics artist who uses the mouse for most of the time, you will probably be spending a lot of time using the keyboard. Even if you’re use of the keyboard is limited to writing emails and letters, you can save large amounts of time by typing faster. Take a speed test, there are numerous free ones online, read up on the various speed-typing techniques and learn one or two. If you think you need a better keyboard or a different seating arrangement, make the changes. Also try to make stress on typing error free as much as possible. The less time your fingers spend on the Backspace key, the better.
6. Know your tools
If most of your time on the computer is spent mostly using just two or three programs, then you could save yourself a lot of time by properly learning how to use the programs. Now, this doesn’t mean spending time learning about features you almost never use, but a good read through the documentation can turn up a good few valuable tips. If your program supports plugins or extensions, see if there are any available that will speed up commonly performed tasks. If macros are supported, recording macros for regular tasks could save a great deal of time. Once again, learn keyboard shortcuts. If you search the internet a lot, learn the various operators that you can use with Google as well as how to narrow down your results.
7. Don’t multitask
A lot of new research is showing that multitasking does not really increase efficiency, in fact it might even hinder it to some extent. This is even more so for tasks on the computer. There are lots of distractions on the computer, many of which are addictive. Don’t start checking email or reading a blog unless you absolutely need to, or have free time on hand. Disconnect your IM client if you need to work without interruptions. Shut down programs you won’t need and whenever you have free time on your hands, make a rough list of what you have to do next, preferably in order. If you think you’re suffering from an addiction or can’t seem to stop yourself, get professional help. If you suddenly think of something that should be done soon, but you’re afraid you’ll forget, write it down somewhere. Don’t break your workflow unless it’s urgent.
Most of the above will not save yourself more than a few minutes at a time, but those little moments of saved time will add up in the long run. If you want to make use of those little moments, try keeping a list to small things to do, which don’t require more than a few minutes and get them done with your new free time. For some more general time saving tips, see this article.