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.

Get the most out of Netflix streaming by being organized

Like many of you, I love Netflix. For just a few bucks a month, I can watch a slew of TV shows and movies on demand, across devices. Identifying what I want to watch is easy. So easy that my “queue” of videos gets out of control quickly. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Fortunately, there are things you can do to organize and take control of your Netflix account.

My kids watch shows on Netflix as do I. That’s fine until Netflix starts suggesting I watch Pokemon and Uncle Grandpa. No thanks, Netflix. The solution to keeping what you watch separate from what others in your house watch is to create a specific profile for each person. Thankfully, profiles are pretty easy to create.

In the upper right-hand corner of your screen, you’ll see a link for “manage profiles.” When you click it, a new window will appear with the option to “Add Profile.” Give everyone in your house an icon and a name and you’re good. The new profile will join your list and you can even edit restrictions for kids, which I recommend doing.

If you don’t have kids, or if you’re the only one watching Netflix, you can still make use of profiles. You can make up to five per account, so set them up for genres you like. Comedies, horror, documentaries, etc. That way, you’ll get great genre-specific recommendations … which leads me to my next point.

Rate what you watch. Netflix’s algorithm is pretty good at learning what you like — and dislike — and making recommendations based on those preferences. The best way to improve those results is to rate everything you watch accurately. You can do this in the Netflix viewing app or through their website, if you wish to bulk rate things you have watched in the past.

Next, I recommend using a third-party website to find what you want to watch. Sure, you can scroll through Netflix’s suggestions, but it’s faster to make use of a website that’s designed to help you find something decent. For example, What Is On Netflix lets you browse titles that are top rated by Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and more. Instawatcher is another good choice, as it lists what’s popular as well as each title’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you plan on watching on your computer, learn some keyboard shortcuts. They can save a lot of time:

Enter/Spacebar: Toggle pause/play
Left Arrow: Rewind
Right Arrow: Fast Forward
Up Arrow: Volume Up
Down Arrow: Volume Down
M: Mute

Streaming video services can be quite convenient. I enjoy Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Streaming, and others. (So does Erin, she doesn’t even have a cable television subscription any longer.) With a little effort and organizing, the experience gets even better.

Organize your Facebook friends

For many, Facebook is the primary way they communicate with far-flung family and friends. Keeping those contacts organized is pretty easy, if you know where to look.

Many people complain about Facebook — and it does have its problems — but for no-hassle communication it works easily. One of its biggest issues is organization. After a few weeks, months or even years of casually adding friends, you end up with a big, disorganized list. Thankfully, there are ways to fix this issue.

To get started, visit your account’s page and click “Friends” in the left-hand column. A new page will appear with the full list of every account you’ve marked as a friend. Next to each name and photo, you’ll see a drop-down menu labeled “Friends.” Click it to reveal several options.

Close Friends

Facebook doesn’t put every update that your friends post into your timeline. If they did, the result would be unreadable for anyone with a reasonably large list. Instead, the Facebook software uses an algorithm to guess as to what information you’d most like to see and features those posts based on your previous commenting and liking. You can force this system to see particular people’s posts by adding people to the “Close Friends” list. These folks’ posts will appear in your timeline more often, and you’ll be notified every time they publish something new. It’s best to add people to this list who mean the most to you. Leave acquaintances to be organized by using custom lists.

Custom lists

Next to the name of your friend or acquaintance, hover over the Friends’ drop-down list and click “Add to another list…”. There are two types of lists there. Those with a little lightning bolt icon are “smart lists.” Facebook creates these self-maintaining lists for you. Your friends are sorted by variables like work place, college, geography, etc. As your friends make changes to their own accounts, they’re moved among these lists.

As you scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll see “New list.” Use this function to create a new list manually. Simply create lists and move contacts into them. “Sorority pledge class” or “First cousins” are types of subcategories you might make into lists.

Organizing your friends on Facebook is a bit time-consuming, but usually worth it. Why? Because you can determine who sees what you post. The next time you create a post, click the “Public” drop-down menu, and then “More options.” Now you can pick from the lists you made and send a post directly to one group or another. Don’t want your work colleagues to see your Throwback Thursday pictures? This is simple when you have lists established and can easily exclude everyone in your office from seeing your photo.

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.

Using Slack for families

I enjoy pointing out technologies and tools that can help groups of people to be productive and organized. Every now and then, a great example pops up that seems to have taken on a life of its own. This week, I want to highlight the current tech darling of San Francisco, Slack.

Slack is a communication tool meant for businesses and groups. It provides real-time conversations between team members, file sharing, a very powerful search, what amounts to topic-focused “chat rooms,” and more. I’ve been using it in a professional sense for months now. Only recently did it dawn me on what an effective family communication tool it could be as well.

If you’ve ever participated in a group text or a chat room, you’ve got the basic idea of Slack. Once you’ve signed up (there is a free plan as well as paid options, starting at $6.67 per user per month that is billed annually), you’ll get a domain like “smith.slack.com.” And from there, you can create an account for mom, dad, the kids, etc. You can add as many people as you like.

You’ll start with a chat room (Slack calls them “channels”) called “General.” Posting a message into the channel is as simple as typing it out and hitting Return. Once you’re all comfortable, start making your own channels. This is where it gets good.

You could create a channel for activities, like ballet or sports. Perhaps there’s a trip coming up, or an ongoing volunteer activity that some of you do every week. Making a channel for each gives you a destination for conversations on those topics. Those who are interested can follow along. Those who aren’t, don’t. Additionally, if someone who isn’t typically involved with, say, the park clean-up committee suddenly needs to be, he can go in and read the whole history in that channel to get up to speed.

Sharing files is another area in which Slack shines. You can share all manner of files with Slack, and they remain searchable and easy to find for all involved. Slack indexes the full body of a shared file, not just the title. So, if you know there’s park clean-up this weekend but can’t remember where, simply search “park” to bring up the PDF that was shared a week ago.

Lastly, Slack can eliminate texting and email. Slack has several notification options, from the fire hose (which alerts you every time something new is posted) to a more controlled approach (like whenever your name is mentioned in a chat). Finally, I’ve found that people begin to communicate in Slack more often than email once they’re used to it, as it lends itself to real-time communication and won’t get your stuff lost in a bottomless inbox.

There’s so much more to this fantastic service — like free desktop and mobile apps, so you can constantly be in touch with your family if necessary. Yes, Slack is a business tool, but it can certainly have a place with your family, too. And that’s an essential part of organizing: seeing tools that already exist and using them to meet your needs.

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 …

Computer desktop clutter

There are two types of people in the world — those who are okay with this, and those who aren’t:

Computers have been a part of my daily life since about 1994. The machines and technologies we used back then would be almost unrecognizable today, with one exception: files saved on the desktop. When Apple released the first Macintosh in 1984, it featured what we think of as the desktop today, with files, a trash can, a clock, and little program icons.

Since then, people have taken to saving digital files to the desktop, much as one does with a physical desk. We’ll call these people the “desktop group.” Others prefer to keep things sorted by folders tucked inside the hard drive itself, not visible from the desktop. We’ll call this second group of people the “folders group.”

I have a strong opinion on this, but first let me share both sides. The desktop group would claim that their method keeps everything within sight and within reach. Files that are necessary for the task at hand are right there, as are reference materials that will be useful in the future. This is how Erin works: she has all her files for her current project’s work saved to her desktop and then at the end of a project she carefully organizes everything into folders in her Documents area of her computer. For long-term projects, she makes alias folders on her desktop from her Documents area so that she can save directly to her desktop and access the folders from her desktop, but the files aren’t actually stored there. She says that working from the desktop saves her time during the work day but also allows her to delete temporary files easily so that they don’t clutter up her well-organized Documents area of her computer.

The folder group would assert that the desktop group’s method is cluttered, the icons strewn across the desktop a complete mess that can slow down the memory on the computer, and that a series of clearly-labeled folders is the way to go, despite taking a little navigation to reach them.

Unlike Erin, I fall squarely with the folders group. I really dislike the visual clutter of a desktop strewn with icons and must have my desktop free of as much clutter as my computer will allow. It barely takes me any time at all to save information to well-organized folders and it saves me time later from having to go back and clean up everything.

So, which method do you espouse and why? Let’s see what we can learn from each other.

Keep your computer clean with digital decluttering

A few days ago I got a desperate call from a friend. “My computer says ‘disk full’ and basically won’t work. What do I do?” Her laptop’s hard drive was full to capacity. She tried deleting the contents of her downloads folder, some unwanted photos, old emails, and stray files on the desktop and it wasn’t enough. Albeit a good start, I told her, but it’s kind of like using an eyedropper to empty a swimming pool. For real digital de-cluttering, you’ve got to break out the big guns.

While photo and video libraries can take up a lot of storage space, as well as music, backups and more, there are other, space-hungry files on your machine that you can’t see. For keeping those in check, I recommend using a piece of software. I recommend Clean My Mac and Clean My PC by the folks at Macpaw. (Both pieces of software are $40.)

Before I explain why, let me quickly discuss memory vs. storage.

Computer memory vs. computer storage

In the 20 years that I’ve been working with computers professionally, I’ve found that memory vs. storage causes confusion for people more than anything else. One refers to how much your machine can physically hold; the other, how much it can do at once.

Here’s an analogy: Consider an office desk. It’s got a broad worktop and many drawers for storing all sorts of stuff. To work on something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The drawers are your storage. The more drawers you have, or the more spacious they are, the more they can hold. A desk with six drawers can store more stuff than one with four (assuming the drawers are all the same size). The drawers are your computer’s internal hard drive. The larger it is, the more “stuff” — photos, videos, Word docs, music, etc. — it can physically hold. Back to the desk.

To work with something, you pull it from a drawer and place it on the work top. The bigger the top of your desk is, the more you can spread out and work on at once. The work top is your computer’s memory. The more memory your computer has, the more you can look at one time. There’s a little more to memory than that, but this is a good basic explanation.

Kill digital clutter

As I mentioned, there are big ‘ol files lurking on your machine that many people can’t easily find and drag to the trash. That’s why I recommend using a piece of software to help you find these. As a Mac user, I use Clean My Mac from Macpaw. Clean My PC has a reputation for doing an equally fantastic job on Windows machines. However, since I don’t have a PC, I can’t speak for it directly.

I like Clean My Mac for three reasons: It’s thorough, it’s clear on what’s happening, and it’s safe.


I cleaned my MacBook Pro earlier today, and Clean My Mac found outdated cache files amounting to nearly 2 GB, as well as iPhone updates that I no longer need. Additionally, much software is “localized” for several languages. I only need English, so Clean My Mac found the superfluous (for me) language files from my software and removed them — to the tune of 2.45 GB.


Whenever Clean My Mac conducts a scan, it identifies what it calls “Large & Old Files.” These files are not removed without your review and approval. You might find video projects in there, large audio files, and the like. For instance, the scan I recently conducted found several iMovie files that are quite large but not for deletion. Clean My Mac was smart enough to leave them intact for me.


This software’s help system is fantastic. Deleting files from your computer should not be taken lightly, even when you’re talking about known junk. The help section defines every term and process clearly and concisely, so you’ll know what’s going to happen. Additionally, the software’s main screen is quite legible and logically arranged.

It can be frustrating when your computer is cluttered. Fortunately, you can be safely proactive about it. Grab a good piece of software and stay on top of your digital decluttering before you end up with a virtual mess on your hands.

What to do with old USB flash drives

I’ve got an army of old flash-based thumb drives in a drawer and it’s time to put them to work. The following are ideas for what to do with these drives if you’re like me and now rely mostly on transferring files through the cloud (via Dropbox or similar).

Encrypted vault of secret files

I’m a big fan of Knox for Mac. It does several cool tricks including reformatting thumb drives to be secure, password-protected volumes. Perhaps you’re traveling for business and don’t want to take any chances with sensitive information. Maybe you’ve got info from multiple clients on a single drive and need to ensure they don’t get mixed up. Or, perhaps you want to pretend you’re an international spy. Whatever the reason, Knox keeps that information very secure indeed. You can even put a copy of the Knox app itself on the drive, so if you’re using it on a Mac without Knox installed, you can still open the volume (and Spotlight on that machine won’t index it, either).

Portable apps

So-called “portable apps” are light versions of software that don’t need to be installed on a host computer to run. By installing them on a thumb drive, you know you’ll be able to run the software you need when you’re away from you main computer. Some examples of portable apps include:

Audio books for the car

Many car stereos now feature a USB port for accessing media via the vehicle’s stereo or in-dash entertainment system. If you like listening to audio books like I do, you know that they can take up a lot of space on your digital audio player. Why not put them on a thumb drive and keep it in the car? That way you’ll have several of your favorite audiobooks available during long trips without taking up space on your smartphone or digital audio player.

Fun gifts

Need a gift for a family member or friend? CNET suggests adding music, photos, videos and other files that someone will find meaningful to a drive and then giving it as a gift. The recipient can even take those files off of the drive, put them somewhere for safe keeping and then have a nice thumb drive to use.

Press kit

I’ve received several press kits on customized thumb drives. They’ve contained a working version of a piece of software, a PDF of a press release, high-resolution graphics to use in a review, and more. Often the drives themselves bear a company logo. It’s a nice way to share such information and, like the gift idea, leaves the recipient with a nice drive to use.


Check with your local school, scout groups, camps, and other non-profit organizations to see if they need any drives. My kids needed them at school and camp recently. Just be sure to erase them thoroughly before handing them over.

Calendly is fantastic for easy, organized scheduling

I recently wrote about a few tech options for busy summer scheduling. After that article was published, I ran across Calendly, and now I’m wishing I could to back in time and mention that app in that post.

Seeing as time travel is not yet possible, I’ve decided to mention the app independently. I’m loving Calendly because it’s a hands-off, passive solution for scheduling. It lets you share a single link with potential collaborators, and it automatically accounts for what you already have on your schedule.

When you first create an account, you can link Calendly to Google Calendar or Microsoft’s Office 365. Once the accounts are linked, the app’s features are pretty impressive.

Let’s say you’re trying to schedule a time to talk with someone on Skype. All you need to do is send a person your personal Calendly link, and the service looks at your calendar and sees when you’re free. The person you’re trying to get together with can click any day, and Calendly automatically offers your available time slots to that person, based on what’s on your calendar. They click the one that works for them, adding an event to your calendar and sending you a notification.

As you add more calendar events, your availability in Calendly changes in real time. I’ve been using it for a week now and am hooked.

Note that there is both a free and a paid plan. The latter offers features like team scheduling, automated reminders, and an option to remove the Calendly branding, should you be using the service for business.

Get the most out of an older iPad

It’s amazing to think that Apple’s iPad turns five years old this year. It’s so ubiquitous in 2015 that it seems like it has been around for a lot longer. Even old models are still in use, which brings me to my motivation for writing this article.

I own an iPad 2. It was released in March of 2011 and it’s still alive and kicking. Apple has even noted that the next update to its operating system, dubbed “iOS 9”, will run on the aging device. Still, it’s not as zippy as its younger siblings.

If you’ve got an older iPad around and have been wondering about its usefulness, let me point out these great ways to keep it useful and in service. The following are four ways to use an older iPad.

As a cable-free TV

I’ll admit it, I use my iPad 2 to watch TV shows and movies quite often. More often than my actual TV, in fact. There are a slew of apps out there that make this happen, including:

  • Netflix: TV, movies and great original content
  • Hulu: A stronger focus on TV than Netflix, but it has movies, too
  • Crackle: Sony’s streaming service has plenty of movies
  • HBO Go/HBO Now: The former is a free add-on for HBO subscribers, while the latter is a stand-alone subscription at $14.99 per month, and both allow you access to HBO programming
  • Amazon Instant Video: A video streaming service that’s included with the company’s Prime membership at $99 per year
  • Your cable provider: If you have cable television or internet, your service may have an app that lets you stream television to your iPad

As a remote control

Don’t want to cut the cable cord? Or maybe perhaps you prefer to enjoy TV and movies on your actual television? No problem. Most TV manufacturers offer universal remote apps. Additionally, if you use the Apple TV, there’s a free Remote app ready to go.

It might not fit into your “Remote Boat,” but the iPad does a good job of controlling your TV. And it reduces clutter by limiting you to one remote instead of a pile.

Weather Station

A friend of mine has this super-cool wireless weather station at his house that I really like. Realizing that an app is cheaper than a whole new piece of hardware, I went looking for a compatible app and found WunderStation. This great-looking app provides a wealth of weather information that you can browse in real time. You can also customize its presentation so that it’s displayed just how you want. Add a handy wall mount and you’ve got a very cool weather station.

Kitchen Helper

I’ve been using my iPad in the kitchen pretty much from day one. Of course it’s great for storing recipes and keeping them handy for when you want to cook. But you can increase its usefulness with a kitchen-friendly stand. I use a ‘fridge mount from Belkin to keep my iPad 2 away from messy spills while I’m cooking.

Alternatively, you can use a Chef Sleeve or go low-tech (but just as effective) with a zip-top kitchen bag.

It’s funny to think of something that’s only five years old as near the end of its usefulness, but such is the nature of tech. However, I think the iPad is an exception. The usefulness for this device has certainly exceeded its cost at this point, and I plan to use it for many more years to come.

Online tools for easy summer scheduling

Ah, summer. Those three balmy months when school is out and many people are spending their vacation time. It’s great to get away and relax, and potentially tricky to work with collaborators. Instead of playing phone tag — or worse, email tag — consider some of these fantastic online tools that let everyone you wish to participate in a meeting list their schedule availability.


A long-time favorite of mine, Doodle lets you pick several potential dates for your meeting or event and invite others to check off what works for them. Once everyone has participated, it’s easy to see what’s going to work and what isn’t. Doodle is free to use, though a paid option is available, which includes a custom domain, custom design options and more. But for quick-and-dirty scheduling, the free version works perfectly.


ScheduleOnce is another option with a very nice feature: Google integration. Once connected to Google Calendar or Gmail, ScheduleOnce will populate those tools with the scheduling information added by your participants. That means one less step in the process of getting your meeting arranged. I like that.

Schedule Thing

I like the robotic name of this app: Schedule Thing! It’s not science fiction, it’s a scheduling application that makes use of what it calls “resources.” A resource can be just about anything, like a meeting space or a person. List when a given resource is available, and then participants click on the option that works for them. After the initial setup, Schedule Thing can save you a lot of time.

When is Good

I love When is Good because it’s super simple and completely free. When you create an event, you highlight or “paint over” the dates and times that work for you, as they appear on a grid. Save the unique URL to share with the rest of your group, as well as the unique results code. After everyone has participated, return to When is Good, enter your results code, and view compatible times in an easy-to-read grid. Like I said, it’s free and very easy to use.

Services like these aren’t unique to work situations, either. Perhaps you’re looking to schedule a fishing trip, a day in the city, or an afternoon at the lake with friends or family. Accommodate everyone’s busy summer schedule by letting them answer your request for info when they can. It’s convenient and easy.