Up your keyboard shortcut game with TextExpander

A few years ago on Unclutterer, we made a couple suggestions for increasing your computing productivity with keyboard shortcuts. I’m a huge fan of this practice and suggest everyone spend less time with the mouse and more time learning the keyboard-based equivalents of the tasks you perform most often. But, if you’re really ready to ramp up your keyboard wizardry, look no further than a program called TextExpander ($49.95).

TextExpander is a Mac utility that lets you replace one string of text with another. And do not fret, Windows users, I have not left you users out in the cold. PhraseExpress (starting at $49.95) is fully compatible with TextExpander, and syncs shortcuts between the two.

Also, I shouldn’t have to state this outright, but I’m going to: I pay for this utility myself, it’s what I use, and I’m not being compensated in anyway to write this product recommendation. Phew, now that’s out of the way …

Why would you want to use a utility like TextExpander? The short answer is that it saves you a lot of typing. Let’s say you own a small business and must produce a boilerplate email to customers who write requesting certain information. The response is just three short paragraphs long, but the time spent writing it over and over adds up. TextExpander lets you define a brief string of text, say “.response”. We’ll call that the trigger snippet. When you type .response, it’s immediately replaced with the three-paragraph email.

Or, let’s say you’re a developer who must use the same bits of code over and over. You can create a trigger snippet that’s replaced with the code in question, saving you time and reducing the likelihood of a typing error. As you use TextEpander you begin to realize its magic simplicity.

Today, I use TextExpander to:

  • Replace commonly misspelled words
  • Replace the surnames I often get wrong
  • Add a lengthy URL when I need to
  • Reduce the potential for human error when pasting complex code

TextExpander offers advanced features that make it even more useful. For example, you can opt to have it place your cursor at any point in the replacement text, which is great for those times when just one part will change. You can also turn it on or off in specific programs, so you don’t have to use it.

Build a time buffer into your schedule

Under-scheduling your day — even by just 30 minutes — can be an effective method for keeping to your schedule all day.

I’ve been working from home, in one capacity or another, since 2009. Six years’ experience has allowed me to come up with many great organizational and productivity tricks, and one of the most effective strategies is essentially accounting for the unpredictable.

I’m a big fan of routine and scheduling. I know when I’m going to work on a given project or area of focus. Before I go to bed at night, I review what must be done the next day. That’s a great way to eliminate the dreaded “what should I work on first/now?” questions. By the time you sit at your desk, you should be ready to go.

But that’s not my favorite trick. I schedule nothing — not a single task — for the last hour of the day. This “time buffer” is handy in so many ways. A last-second appointment come up? No problem. Kids need to be picked up from school? Got it. Even if nothing comes up, you’ve now got to time to process email, work up your schedule for tomorrow, maybe even relax a bit and decompress for the day.

It’s easy to schedule every minute of the day, and even over-schedule. Try building in a time buffer each day for a week to see if it’s beneficial to your effectiveness and productivity. I suspect it will be.

A clean-slate office

Having recently started a new job, I’ve come into a real treat: a brand new workspace. A complete blank slate. It’s a rarity and a treat.

My first thought, of course, was to populate it with the tech and tools that I’ll need to get my work done. I started making a list when it dawned on me to stop, throw the list away and take an altogether different approach. Let experience dictate what I add. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience.

I started with the bare minimum: pens, some index cards, and a calendar. Big items like a computer and printer were supplied by my employer. Everything else I’ve added only when I’ve needed something.

First, I realized I needed my smartphone and a charging cable for it. Rather than schlep a charging cable back and forth every day between my home and office, I bought a cable to live at my desk. Next, once I knew for certain that wearing headphones was acceptable when working, I added a set of earbuds go my supplies. Nothing says, “Can’t talk, I’m working,” like a pair of headphones. Plus, I’m more productive and happy when listening to music.

(More on keeping wired earbuds under control.)

Next, I added software I wanted as I needed it. Unfortunately, there are strict policies on getting software approved for a corporate computer, so this process wasn’t instantaneous. Eventually, I received approval to to get all of the software I depend on, and they’re all browser-based cloud services. Namely:

Not only can I get to work with my preferred tools, all of my documents, preferences, etc. are in place.

It’s nice to start new and not have any software or equipment cluttering up my work. Instead of assuming I’ll need something, waiting until I actually need it has kept things to an appreciated minimum.

Of course, you don’t have to accept a new job to approach your office or workspace with a clean slate. Take a week or two and notice what you use and what you don’t. Write down what you need but don’t have, and finally observe what you have but never use. Then make adjustments. You just might end up with a tidier, more efficient and more productive work space.

Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Make printing less painful and more productive with Google Cloud Print

Years ago, when I worked as an IT Director/help desk for a residential school, the one thing I loathed to hear — more than server issues, backup recovery or Wi-Fi woes — was this simple, three-word sentence: “I can’t print.”

Computers continue to improve by leaps and bounds, while it feels as if printers are just as cumbersome and unreliable as ever.

At least one printing problems appears to have found a fairly simply solution. If you’ve ever had need to print out a document and mail it, now you can skip the mailing step and simply have the document printed at its destination. (The opposite is also true, if you’ve ever needed a document someone can have it printed on your printer.) This act of sharing is possible via Google Cloud Print. This is a solution that lets you connect to a printer via the web, instead of a USB cable or the local network in your home or office. Once you set up your account, you can easily give anyone you want — wherever they are — access to your printer. When it comes to documents that you need to have a physical copy in hand, this is a great and productive option.

My parents will fly to my house from Florida for a visit. Before leaving the house, they use Google Cloud Print to print their return flight boarding passes on the printer here at my house. They don’t have to send me an email, I don’t have to open the email, and I don’t have to print the document. It saves both of us time and improves our productivity.

Another case: You’ve left work and realize you forgot to print a contract for your boss to sign later that evening. No problem, just connect to the work printer from home and fire it off right then and there. You won’t have to drive back to work and your boss won’t be late to her next meeting.

My favorite time-saving advantage is that you can print directly from an iPhone, iPad, or Android device using an app. While we’re on the subject, Google Cloud Print doesn’t care what platform you’re using, so Mac and PC users can both enjoy the service. Earlier today, I was able to print files from my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and my daughter’s Google Chromebook all to our little Epson via Cloud Print. No fussing with drivers, software, installer CDs, or any of that stuff.

Isn’t in nice when technology actually does make our lives easier and save us time?

While nice, Google Cloud Print doesn’t solve everything. Printers are still sub-par devices that eat time, paper, and money. However, consider this as one way to take the sting out of having to print. Now, if only I could remotely remove paper jams …

10 things you can do right now to be more organized

Here at Unclutterer we often focus on long-term solutions for clutter problems. But this week, I want to focus on the short term. The following are 10 things you can do within the next 10 minutes to help yourself be more organized.

  1. Lay out tomorrow’s outfit tonight. Last week, we wrote about what I think of as doing a favor for your future self. Unless you’re going the Steve Jobs route and wearing the same outfit every day, you probably spend a few minutes each morning staring at the dresser or closet in an early morning fog and the longer you stand there the more you run the risk of being late for work or school or wherever you need to go. Reclaim that time from your morning by doing it the night before. It’s a great feeling to pop out of bed and find your outfit ready to go.
  2. Update the calendar. Once a week I ensure that our family calendar is up-to-date. This is especially crucial now that the new school year is starting. It only takes a few minutes to ensure that every appointment that’s scheduled for the next seven days has been properly recorded. If you live with other people–kids, roommate, spouse, whomever–have everyone participate in this activity to be sure everything is included on the calendar.
  3. Plan the week’s menu. Years ago, I supervised a group home of students with autism and other developmental delays. Something that my staff and I had to do was prepare nightly meals for everyone. Every night we cooked for seven students and five teachers. That was when I learned to keep a weekly menu up on the refrigerator; a habit I continue today. It’s much nicer to see what I’ve planned to prepare, as opposed to wondering, “What can I make tonight?”
  4. Find a pen and some scrap paper. Prep a stack of index cards and a small collection of pens and you’ll be ready the next time you need to jot something down while on the phone, at your computer, or wherever ideas come to you. If note cards won’t work for you, get a small notebook and carry it with you in your pocket so you can capture ideas before putting them down in a more permanent way (like on a to-do list or calendar).
  5. Round up extra batteries. Instead of searching your home for wayward batteries whenever you need them, put together a package of each type — AA, AAA, and so on — in an obvious place. If you don’t have any extra batteries of a type you typically need, consider getting reusable ones and storing those.
  6. End the missing sock nightmare. There are four people in my house. For years, sorting socks was a nightmare. They all ended up in the same laundry basket, and we played Rock Paper Scissors to identify the poor soul who had to sort them. Today, everyone has a mesh laundry bag for socks. Put the socks in the bag, tie it up, and put the bag in the washer. Socks come out clean and more importantly, sorted.
  7. Employ a tray. Not long ago, we abandoned the key hooks we used for hang car keys. Keys then cluttered up the kitchen table until I put a small, unassuming tray right beside the door. Now that there is a key tray it’s where the keys land, without making a cluttered mess. Even a tray full of haphazard contents appears sorted and tidy simply by being a container.
  8. Tidy your work area. The dissonance of visual clutter is real and can adversely affect your work day. Take just 10 minutes to tidy a desk and you’ll feel better and maybe even be more productive.
  9. Label your cables. Raise your hand if you’ve played the “unplug this to find out what it’s connected to” game. It’s no fun. A simple set of cable labels can eliminate that nonsense.
  10. Take 10 minutes to just be. There’s so much going on each day: Work and maybe kids, home life and friends, the constant firehose of social media. Find 10 minutes in each day that you can use to walk in the yard, listen to quiet music, or simply sit and experience the moment. This might sound a little hippy dippy, but it’s a great practice to get into for keeping the rest of your day organized. An organized mind helps a great deal in having an organized life.

Certainly continue to work toward those far-reaching goals, but don’t overlook the power of 10 minutes in the meantime.

The power in 15 minutes

Uncluttering is a lifelong endeavor. Perfection is not the goal, especially in a working home, and time is often a rare commodity in a busy home. Recently, I’ve been working to see how much I can get done in a small amount of time, and how good I can feel about the results. I’ve found that 15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to be productive and not feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment.

I started this experiment by cleaning the closet for half an hour without pause. I went about this logically, as I wanted measurable results. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and got to it.

It went well, but two things happened. First, my interest started to wane around the 20 minute mark. Other tasks — tidying the kitchen or the laundry room — took less than the 30 minutes I set aside, so I either ended early or started a second project that put me over my 30-minute limit.

Next, I dropped it down to 20-minute intervals with a smilier effect. Ultimately, I dropped down to 15 minutes, and it has been exactly what I needed.

I’ve stuck with this number for a few reasons. First, it’s quite easy to work for 15 minutes without getting distracted by something else. Second, I’ve been amazed at how many tasks only take about 15 minutes. I’ve been able to completely organize my desk reducing visual clutter, get laundry folded and put away, organize the kids’ stuff for the next day, and so on.

I also found that 15 minutes is perfect for doing one of my favorite things: a mind dump. I take a pen, a piece of paper, and the time to simply write down everything that’s on my mind — it is so liberating and productive. Even an overwhelming list of to-do items can seem manageable when you’ve got it written down. There’s a sense of being “on top of it” that comes with performing a mind dump, all in 15 minutes.

Find a timer and discover what length of time is good for your for completing most projects. You might find that 10 minutes works for you, or 20. The point is that when you say, “I’m going to work on this and only this for [x] minutes,” you’ll be surprised at what you can get done.

Organizing now to save time in the future

I recently heard a podcast where a former high school teacher was talking about how he prepared his lessons. He spent a lot of time preparing PowerPoint slides (with speaker notes) and practicing his delivery so he knew it worked well and fit the time he had. He said other teachers thought he was a bit odd for doing this much work, but his reply was that he’d much rather spend the time up front to save the time later. Once the lesson materials were created, he could pick up the same materials the next day or the next year and be ready to go.

As I listened to this, I thought about how so much organizing involves just this: doing some up-front work so things work smoothly in the future.

  • You create filing systems so you can find the papers (or computer files) you want when you need them.
  • You organize your books on bookshelves so you can find the book you want without too much trouble.
  • You organize your first aid supplies and create disaster preparation plans so you know you’re set for any future emergency.
  • You create to-do lists and checklists so you won’t forget critical things at some future time. For example, a packing list created once saves time on all future trips. It also prevents the trouble you’d have if you forgot your passport, some critical medications, the charger for your cell phone, etc.

Thinking about investing time now to save time in the future helps when trying to decide just how organized is “organized enough.” It makes sense for a teacher to invest extra time in lesson preparation when he knows he’ll be teaching the same lesson many times in the future.

Similarly, sometimes it’s worth spending more time on a filing system than other times. Some papers get accessed frequently, and others (such as insurance policies) are not needed that often — but when you do need them, the situation is critical. With those items it makes sense to spend time creating a well thought out filing system that lets you put your hands on the right papers almost immediately.

But other papers might be much less critical. For example, you may need to keep certain papers for legal reasons, but you don’t expect to ever have to access them — and if you do, the need won’t be all that time-sensitive. In that situation, you may want a much less detailed filing system, because it’s not worth the time to do anything elaborate. For example, a big collection of related papers (such as receipts for a given year) could just go into a Bankers Box. As long as the box was properly labeled, you could always find any papers you might need, in the off chance you do have to find any of them.

And consider your books — how organized do they need to be? My books are arranged by category (history, art, mysteries, science fiction, etc.). I’ll usually keep books by the same author together in a category, but I don’t do any further organizing within a category because I can find a book pretty quickly with just the system I have. If it gives you great pleasure to organize your books quite precisely, that’s fine — organize to your heart’s delight! But the rest of us can choose to be less structured.

As you’re creating each of your organizing systems, stop and think: Are you making a good trade-off between the time you’ll save in the future and the time you’re spending up front?

Shuffling cards: a mindless activity to enhance creativity

Many people have mindless activities they engage in when they need to think. Some shoot hoops, others go for a walk, and I shuffle cards. I keep five decks of cards at my desk for the sole purpose of giving me something mindless to do when I need to formulate a post idea, work through a problem, or figure out whatever it is that has me stuck with my writing. I know I’m not alone in my shuffling (or walking or hoops playing) or really wasting time, because scientists have found that a little mindless activity actually enhances creative work.

However, visual clutter distracts me from my work, and can even get me feeling uneasy. As a result, I must have a tidy work area, free of extraneous stuff. Therefore, I have to keep the cards stored nicely in their packs and in a contained area so they don’t interfere when I need to stay focused on my mindful work. (There are organizers that hold as few as two decks to thousands of cards.)

We’ve talked in the past about filing being a good mindless activity to let you accomplish a to-do item on your work list, while not focusing on mindful work. Scanning, sorting, and shredding are other mindless, yet productive tasks. Shuffling cards doesn’t help me get anything else off my to-do list, but it certainly helps me think and solve my work problems, so I’m not about to give it up. What mindless activities do you do to help you think and enhance your creativity and overall productivity at work? Also, how do you organize any stuff related to your mindless activity? Alternating between mindless and mindful activities is great, so if you don’t do something right now, check out comments from our readers to see if there might be a mindless activity that is perfect for you.

Helpful smartphone apps for people with ADD

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In short, I was thrilled; years of frustration were explained and I got a comprehensive plan for the future. Surprisingly, my smartphone is a part of that plan.

One of the reasons my iPhone is part of my comprehensive ADD plan is because it’s always with me and a lot better at remembering what needs to be done and when than I am on my own. Listed below are some of the apps and other practices that I absolutely depend on to help me focus and get things done. Perhaps they’ll help you or someone you know.

Before I begin, please note that any ADD treatment plan is multi-faceted and individualized, and typically involves input from a trained, experienced professional. This post is presented for your information only and not meant as medical advice. With that said, on to the apps.

Due: I have a terrible time remembering to do those little tasks that must be completed every day. I can write a note to myself, yes, but that’s an incomplete solution. How will I remember to read the list? Most of the time, I don’t. Or I lose the note. Fortunately, the answer is simple; have the list present itself to me at the appropriate time.

Due is that list. It’s a reminder app for iPhone and iPad that’s perfect for quick additions and relentless with the reminders. Due is not a calendar, a GTD solution, or a to-do list. It won’t sort items by context or project. What it does is answer the question, “Will you remind be about ____?” with a resounding “Yes.”

By default, Due pings and produces a dialog box at the designated time and every 60 seconds thereafter until I act upon it by either marking it done or putting it off. Due’s persistence won’t let me forget about the task, so I’m likely to either complete it or delay it if necessary. Also, delaying the deadline doesn’t affect the snooze function. Those pesky but immensely helpful reminders are also pushed ahead.

Evernote: Where Due is my short-term memory, Evernote is for long-term storage. Anything that I don’t need to act upon right away, but might need to refer to in the future, goes into Evernote. I get such a huge sense of relief knowing that I have all that information and, more importantly, that I know where to find it.

MindNode Pro: I’ve written about mind mapping before, as it’s my favorite way to brainstorm. When I get started, ideas just show up for me rapidly and without any organization. A mind map suits this tendency well, as I can just capture these thoughts easily and attach them to other relevant thoughts quickly.

These three apps go a long way to keeping me on top of what I need to do and capture the thoughts I have. Most importantly, they give me the peace of mind that I’m not missing something important, which is such an awful feeling (especially when it’s true). If you know of something else I should check out, let me know in the comments below.

Productivity with Henry Miller

I’m always eager to learn new ways to stay organized and productive. Often I’ll do what many of you do: read blog posts, listen to podcasts, and read books. Many people are doing great work in these areas today, which I appreciate. However, my focus on contemporary work often causes me to overlook fantastic advice from the past, which is why I wanted to feature a little helpful advice from someone from the past: Henry Miller.

Henry Miller was the American-born writer whose works Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, defined a new style of semi-autobiographical novel. Miller also wrote Henry Miller on Writing, in which he described how he set goals, stayed focused, and got stuff done. It included, among other things, a fantastic list of his “11 Commandments of Writing”:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Henry is taking about writing, of course, but his ideas can be applied to almost any work you do. I also think some of his words could use a little interpretation. Since Henry is no longer around, we can’t ask what he meant, but I’ll do my best to decipher his list.

Number one is self-evident and frankly, something I struggle with. It can be so simple to work on another project to distract yourself from what needs to be finished. Number two was clearly along these same lines, but specific to what he was working on at the time he created the list.

I like number three and four. Recently I was sitting in front of my computer at 11:00 p.m. and, after three unproductive hours, called it quits for the night. I was miserable and producing nothing, so I stopped. The next day I had renewed energy and a new perspective.

Number five is a great point: You can always work, or be productive, even if progress on your intended goal seems to elude you. There is always something to be done, and it doesn’t always have to be creative. Being in a creative slump doesn’t get you off the hook.

I think number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) “Project B” until Project A is complete.

Seven and eight are good perspectives because they remind you not to spend too much time in your head, which is especially easy to do when you’re working on a big and important project.

Nine is similar to his earlier points three and four. And ten is again very similar to one.

Finally, the idea behind eleven is to tackle the most important things first. When you have the most energy, focus that energy on the most important work you need or want to do.

There is solid wisdom to be found from smart folks who are long gone. If you search for it, you might be surprise at what you find.

Turn your brain off and get to sleep

Unclutterer reader Jade recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

But my biggest issue is getting to bed earlier. I know sleep is important, and when I get enough I am amazingly productive. The problem is getting enough. Not easy to go to bed early when you are a natural night owl waking up at 5 am for work … No, I’m not getting a new job, I love it too much to do that. But the sleep deprivation is killing me.

I get home and I’m too exhausted to do anything, until bedtime, and then by brain won’t shut off!

Meanwhile, Lynn shared a similar concern:

Also I’m also a night owl and don’t get enough sleep which causes me to feel tired and not want to tidy up.

Here’s a problem with having a brain in your skull: human minds are like motors. A motor that loves to run and run and resists shutting down. My wife and I have both dealt with this problem of our minds wanting to go, go, go. We’re in bed, trying to fall asleep, but the motor keeps running and trying to process the week’s school activities, bills, work, and so on. It can be very aggravating.

My first piece of advice is to build some wind-down time into your evening. I’m a night owl (it’s 9:00 p.m. as I type this) and as such I feel productive and energetic after the sun sets. I know this means if I don’t take steps to help me get to sleep, I’ll be up until at least 11:00 p.m., if not later. Knowing my personality, I start my wind-down routine around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. I’ll read a bit or do another task that requires little thought. This gives me time to slow down.

I also have a nighttime routine. I started this after remembering back when my kids were babies. We got them ready for bed the same way every night: bath, stories, bed. This gave them time to wind down and the process itself helped their bodies and minds shift into sleep mode. I do the same with myself and it works: get changed, brush teeth, find clothes for the morning, and read by my little reading lamp. Same thing, every night if possible.

A few years ago I adopted a productivity routine that had a nice side effect of helping me get to sleep. Namely, before I leave my desk at the end of the day, I write down the things I must accomplish the next day. I like the organization, and my brain likes knowing that these important things have been parked where I’ll see them in the morning.

Lastly, here’s a trick I learned while studying as a college student: your bed isn’t the place for work. When I was in the dorm, space was at a premium and I’d often end up doing homework on my bed. That wasn’t a good idea, as I started to associate that area with work, when the bed is for sleep. Sit on the couch with your laptop, not your bed, if you want to be comfortable.

One final note: If this becomes a persistent problem, talk to your doctor or perhaps a specialist in behavioral sleep medicine. The above advice is obviously for the common human motor of a brain.