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Becoming More Productive

By Haidong Ji,

Readers who follow my writing may notice a theme in most of my articles: automation. After all, we are in the computer business and computer is supposed to make our life easier. Whenever we can, we want computer to do things for us, not the other way around. To that end, I am constantly looking for ways to automate tasks and increase my productivity. Giving the ever increasing workload on us all today, this is getting more and more important. After all, if we spend most of our time doing repetitive tasks, how can we find time to learn and do real creative stuff?!

In this article, I want to share with you some practical productivity tips that I learned over the years. Hopefully they will be helpful to you also. There are a lot of books on this subject. The famous ones are "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"; and "Get things done: the art of stress-free productivity". I have not read the second one but have heard good reviews.

Touch type. Learn it if you are not doing it already

Touch typing is typing without looking at the keyboard. Not only you are typing faster, more importantly, when your eyes are off the keyboard and on the text you are typing, it feels like your thoughts are flowing through your fingers. Therefore, you are more likely to be "in the zone" and your thought process is not interrupted. This may sound trivial, but actually touches the core of high productivity. That is, to be highly productive, you need to concentrate for a period of time without interruptions.

Maybe a lot of readers out there do this already. For a non-native English speaker like me(my native language is Chinese), this does not come naturally. There are many different tutorial software packages that teach touch typing on the web. I've downloaded TypingMaster and followed that program. I cannot fully touch type yet, but feel that it has made a difference in my productivity, especially in composing emails.

Let's face it, most of us will spend a significant portion of our lifetime sitting in front of a computer. If you can type fast, imagine the time you could save over your lifetime. Download a touch typing program and practice for about 30 minutes or so after lunch every day for a few days. It is a very good investment of your time.

Master a good editor

As I mentioned above, we will spend a lot of time entering and editing text. Therefore, it is important that you use a text editor that you feel comfortable with and knows most of the functions and shortcuts (Avoid the mouse if you can, the time you have to move away from the keyboard and move the mouse is time wasted). The popular ones out there are EditPlus, UltraEdit, and TextPad. Steve Jones wrote his review on EditPlus; you can check it out here.

Don't use Microsoft Word to enter and edit your files. This is true almost in all cases. Word's many so-called features really are just distractions. If you have to, enter and edit text in your favorite editor first and format it in Word later after you are done. You probably end up saving time 9 out of 10 times. As for myself, for my own documentation purposes, I use plain text. If I need to make it look fancy, I just use HTML.

My personal favorite editor is VI. More specifically, it is VIM, because VIM is available in almost all platforms. I've heard many times before how great VI is. It really took a couple of years for me to get that and be productive in VI. (That is probably not strange. I read a very good essay somewhere that says it takes years to master a programming language. I've been learning C on and off for a few years now but still am not comfortable with it. I guess I need to use it to write something useful, instead of just following books and tutorials. If readers have or know a project somewhere or on SourceForge that uses some beginning C skills, let me know, I'd like to participate). Once I learned a few VI commands, I was absolutely hooked. I now use VI for all my text editing tasks.

Handling emails

Email is such an important part of our life that we can hardly live without it, yet it can be a huge productivity killer if not handled properly. I will not waste my time here explaining why that is the case. I will just guide you to an excellent essay by Ole Eichhorn instead.

Things I do so that email enhances productivity, not diminishes it:

  1. If you can, only check your email 3 or 4 times during the day. Leave your email software program closed the rest of the day. When I come to work every morning, I check my emails, tasks, and calendars within Outlook. I take note of tasks, appointments, and other things I need to do on a piece of paper and then promptly turn off Outlook. I then check again once after lunch, and once one hour before I go home. I may check more or less depending the tasks I have for that day;
  2. If you have to leave your email open, turn off the new email notification feature if you have it on. It is such a distraction and productivity killer;
  3. Create folders within Outlook's inbox and create rules within Outlook to sort inbound emails automatically based on the sender, subject, etc. This way, your inbox is not going to be cluttered;
  4. I classify my emails into 2 categories: Informational and Action-Oriented. For Informational emails, I will read them and decide if I want to keep them afterwards right away. This helps me to keep my mail box size under control.
    For Action-Oriented emails, if you use Outlook, you can create a macro that can automatically create an Outlook task for you. You can also set reminder in this task so that user request will never be buried in the email. Follow this link to get that macro.
  5. If you use Outlook, get a plugin called Lookout from Microsoft. Lookout indexes all contents within Outlook. Afterwards, you can search your emails much, much faster. You usually get results within a second, much better than Outlook's built-in search function.
  6. While on the topic of Lookout, I highly recommend you download Google's desktop search tool.

Conclusion and Resources

Let me know what you think by posting your comments on this article's forum. What are your favorite productivity enhancing tips?

Resources

  1. TypingMaster, program that teaches touch typing;
  2. Steve's review of EditPlus
  3. VIM, one of the best editors;
  4. an excellent essay by Ole Eichhorn on email;
  5. Macro that creates a task when an email is selected;
  6. Lookout, an excellent Outlook plugin for email, calendar, task, and contact search;
  7. Google's desktop search tool.
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