More ways to stop wasting time at your computer

Almost two years I published a post about ways to stop wasting time at your computer. Since then the post has regularly made to the top 5 most viewed posts on the site. Though I love computers and regularly spend many hours the day in front of one (mostly typing something or the other), I also appreciate the value of getting your work done quickly and having time for non-computation related activities. So I’ve decided to go back to my old list and remake it with some lessons learned in the two years and many hours spent computing since then.

1. Combine and conquer.

You probably spend a significant part of your day interacting with other people over email or IM and reading blogs and other websites. You can save a good amount of time if you pull related activities into a single point. For example, use an email client of Gmail to consolidate all your email accounts so that you don’t have to spend time logging in and switching between all your accounts. This also reduces the mental overhead required to deal with which email was where. If you have a number of websites or blogs that you visit on a regular visit, then look if they have RSS feeds (blogs almost certainly do). Add them to a feed reader (I recommend Google Reader). Once again you’ll save a lot of time by having things in one place. For IM, there are a number of good applications that allow you to sign on to multiple networks at the same time. Try Adium for the Mac, Pidgin for windows and Linux and Meebo if you switch computers a lot.

2. Know your tools.

Chances are that you spend most of your time on just a handful of programs. For average users it’s probably a browser and some office programs. For programmers it’s probably a browser and an IDE of some sort. Specialized users like scientists or accountants generally have their own programs. No matter what you do, consider investing time to get to know your tools properly. Most programs have keyboard shortcuts which aren’t hard to learn. Keep a cheatsheet in front of you and in a few weeks you should be able to do things a lot faster. Also remember that moving your hand from the keyboard to the mouse and back takes time which you can save by using shortcuts as much as possible. If you find yourself a serious of tasks over and over see if your program already has a simpler way of doing it or something like a macro or scripting that can automate it. Most people only use a small fraction of their programs features, but if it is something you use for hours a day, it is worth your time to learn it a little better.

3. Multitasking.

The ultimate dilemma for computer users. The computer lets us to do so many things together, it’s tempting to do them all at once. Since publishing my old post (in which I advised against multitasking) I’v received a number of queries regarding multitasking, in particular what to do if you’re in a situation where it can’t be avoided. All things considered, my opinion stays mostly the same: Avoid multitasking unless it’s really necessary. The scientific reason is that human short term memory is severely limited: we can only hold about 7 individual chunks of information at a time. Though with training you can redefine these chunks to be complex sets of information, it’s  still a pretty hard limit. Furthermore, if you spend a large amount of time focused on one task you enter a state of flow, where you become fully immersed in what you are doing and work better and faster.  But this flow state is fragile and once broken can be hard to reenter.

So what’s to be done when it is necessary? Well if you’re switching between multiple programs, try to have them open at the same time instead of needing to start them up everytime. All those programs will require some extra horsepower so consider getting some more RAM and maybe a larger monitor so that you can see all those programs at the same time. If that isn’t an option, try using lightweight programs that take up fewer resources. If you’re on Linux or BSD, try a tiling window manager that lets you easily see programs side by side with minimal manual management.

If you have sufficient control of your work schedule, then nothing beats good old fashioned time management. The single most effective tip I’ve find is to divide your time into segments so that you have long blocks of time where you can concentrate on big programs (writing a program or that novel you want to publish) and separate blocks to handle a bunch of smaller tasks which require shifting attention (like email, answering questions, making phone calls, cleaning up or making plans for the rest of the time).

4. Type faster.
Let’s face it, no matter what you do, you’ll spend a significant amount of your time typing. I’ve mentioned in numerous posts before that typing fast is a very important skill. There are lots of typing tests out there to test your speed and lots of ways you can improve. If you work in a position where typing is a large part of your job (programmer, writer, secretary, medical transcription) then a proper typing course will almost certainly be a worthwhile investment. While you’re learning to type at light speed, you want to make sure you’re taking care of yourself with the proper equipment. Trying to set up an ergonomic work environment and at the least get a keyboard that you’re comfortable. Remember that keyboard preferences varies greatly and you won’t find one you like until you try out a few. My professor uses Microsoft’s split ergo keyboard while I personally type fastest on my laptop (I love the scissor keys) and can’t stand the older Mac keyboards.

5. Disconnect when possible.

The internet can easily be a great distraction and time waster. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email all can swallow up massive amounts of time without you even noticing it. I strongly recommend disconnecting (by which I mean physically yanking out the cable or turning off the wireless) whenever you can. How realistic this is depends a lot on what you actually do. A programmer will almost certainly need to look up documentation regularly (but this could be downloaded and stored locally) while a novelist probably does not need a connection to write the chapter where the main character turns evil and the plot thickens. Even if you do need the internet to look up information, at least turn off IM and close your email when you’re working hard on something else. People can often be the greatest distractions of all. Try to organize your work in advance so that all network related work gets in done in a certain block of time, leaving the rest to focus on other important things.

6. Go minimal.

The best way to not give into temptation is to avoid it altogether. Close applications that you won’t be using for a while. If you have separate work and play machines, make sure that there are no games or other distractions on your work machines. On a single machine, consider setting up separate user accounts. Considering using a plain text editor instead of Word so that you can’t start playing with formatting. If you find yourself constantly customizing your setup, make it a point to stop doing so. Once again using something like a tiling window manager will stop you from wanting to keep adding useless frills.

7. Try to work away from the computer

Even though computers make lots of things much simpler, ask yourself if all your tasks need a computer. Do you really need Google Calendar or iCal to keep track of your schedule when a simple paper organizer will do? Do you plan on organizing class notes on your computer, but find yourself IM-ing when you should be studying? Why spend time writing an email to the guy down the hall and waiting for a reply if a half minute conversation will do? The best way to stop wasting time in front of your machine is to not be there is the first place.

I hope that these tips will help you find ways to get things done faster and better. However, even if you don’t apply everything that I said, there is one thing that you should remember: if you really want to not waste time, then you need to make a plan for what to do with all the free time. Otherwise any time you might save will probably get wasted anyway. Inertia is a powerful force. Once you’re sitting in front of your computer, it’s tempting to stay unless you have a reason to move. So before you start applying these suggestions, make sure you’ve found your reason.

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