Lately I’ve had a lot more work on my plate than I could handle, and it will probably stay this way for a little while longer. To try and overcome this overload, I’ve been looking into tools that can help me be more efficient in my every day work. The funny thing is, I haven’t had a huge amount of luck in finding one central resource to suggest to me all the tools that could help me get better at the work I do every day, just several different sites all selling different tools to me. I get it, they want to make money, but where are the guys like me who just want to be more productive and use technology to help make that happen?
Well I’m here anyway, so I’m going to write about what I’ve been finding and trying out and hopefully help out at least one other person as well.
I did several different searches and keep coming across productivity systems like GTD or Bullet Journal, as well as the big tools like Trello or Asana, but I just want a small suite of tools that will make my every day work in Windows easier.
QTTabBar: Tabbed Browsing Your Folders
Recently, I stumbled across the QTTabBar. Basically this application will give Windows Explorer tabs like in the browser, so you can keep many folders open in one window.
I was looking for something like this because I often need to have two or three folders open at a time, and even with keyboard short-cuts, I find myself getting disoriented and losing my focus on what I’m trying to do. Having them all visible and being able to navigate between them in one window has made quite a difference. Before I found this application, when I had multiple folders open, I would end up with them getting covered by other running applications and having to move and resize them so I could keep them in use, with the QTTabBar, I just have the one window to keep track of and know that when I open that window, I will have access to the folder I wanted to.
This feature is expected to be getting released in Windows 10 soon, I’ve read that it’s in the wild already for some beta testers, but in the office I use Windows 7 so that’s no good for me, and besides that I need the feature right now, not after Microsoft have finished testing and bug-fixing the thing.
So far it’s working out quite well, although it does seem to be a little slower when interacting with Windows Explorer now. For me, it’s worth that.
I’ll post again later about how I’m getting on with it.
PhraseExpress: Type Faster Without Touch-Typing
When I was in college, I took a touch-typing course. 45 minutes a week I would sit in front of a computer doing these practices from a text book, typing fjfjfjfjfj in various combinations to begin with and then moving onto the other letters on the keyboard. It was dull, very dull, but it definitely made typing easier later on (I think my current typing speed is quite respectable).
However, we can all be faster and why be faster by ourselves when we can use automation to make us faster?
We have all experienced auto-correct, where it ‘fixes’ our typing that goes wrong, sometimes with even worse results! I tried to harness that a little myself by making up some auto-correct entries of my own that would expand into a body of text, which I would use in emails. This has some success, but it was hard thinking up the uses and I ended up with some obscure codewords I would never use, or ones that I used so often that I was constantly deleting blocks of text I had accidentally inserted.
Finally, I searched for ‘text-expander’ and basically hit the jackpot. There’s a huge world out there when it comes to text expansion and all these tools are out there to help us write more while writing less.
One of the key lessons I learned while moving up in my career is that trying out something that might only be average straight away is better than waiting to use only the best thing in the world some time in the future, so rather than spend hours deliberating over what the best text-expansion software might be, I decided to jump right in and start using PhraseExpress.
I was underwhelmed.
The auto-complete feature where it learned things you write regularly was completely missing, what the heck?
And macros? How could I be expected to learn how to use macros when what I had perceived as the ‘killer-feature’ of recognising things I wrote often and writing them out for me wasn’t even there?
Turns out you have to turn that on in the settings. So I did that and yes, it finally did what I wanted. I could write out a sentence a couple of times (with punctuation, that seems to be how it recognises sentences) and it would kindly suggest that sentence the next time I started writing it.
I’m not going to describe how to turn the feature on, because I’m not writing a guide, but it’s there and you can find it too and it works very well.
Now that I have the ‘killer feature’ working and saving me key strokes, I have begun using the other features, such as setting up phrases that I can enter with keywords.
I’ve only set up one for my email and two others so far, but those two others have saved me several typos and typing time already, just a week after I started using them. I’ll certainly add more as I get used to the software, but I’m not too concerned if I don’t utilise all the features, I’m just happy to save myself a little bit of trouble.
I’ll write some more about how I’m getting on with PhraseExpress later, I have read about some of the competitors and may even find myself trying them out in the future.
Desktops: Have Four Computers In One
We always seem short on screen space in the office. I luckily have two monitors, and always have them filled. Usually I have my emails and folders open on one screen and Excel dominating the other. Sometimes I have Excel open on both screens to make side by side comparisons. I also always have the browser open, and like to be able to see that quickly. In all honesty, I would be happier if I had three monitors, but I think that would be pushing it.
I’ve used virtual desktops on Linux before, which is like having multiple home screens on your phone. I have seen virtual desktops on Windows, but it’s a pretty recent thing and I didn’t expect them to be available on Windows 7, which is what I use at the office. Luckily I was wrong! I found a small downloadable application called Desktops for Windows, which is a tool that enables virtual desktops in Windows 7 and above (and probably below, but I don’t care too much about that).
After downloading and running that tool (as well as setting it to launch on start up) I was able to quadruple my screen space. Granted, you can’t see the other desktops until you use their short-cut key combination to access them (or use the icon in the system tray), but being able to keep applications like Outlook and Chrome full screen somewhere and instantly view them by hitting Alt + 2 has been a great time saver for me.
Another benefit of having Outlook open on a different screen to the one I am focusing on is that I don’t see emails as soon as they hit my inbox. This is good as it means I get to focus on what I’m working on and can go and check my emails when I am ready, rather than feeling compelled to read them immediately.
I also keep notes open on another desktop (Alt + 3) and keep the fourth desktop for quick ad-hoc tasks that come in and I don’t want to completely shut down everything I have already been working on.
I’m not truly sure which of these tools has helped me the most recently, being able to glance and see all my folders and access them easily has certainly helped a lot, but the virtual desktops have let me keep more than one task open so that when I tire of one, I can carry right on working with another. PhraseExpress hasn’t made as big an impact as the other two, but it I think it has a bigger potential in the long term and I’m happy with what I’ve got out of it so far.
So those are three of the tools I’ve found to use in Windows to make me more productive. There are several others that I’m using that I haven’t mentioned yet and I will write about another time, but I’d be happy to hear from anyone reading about this any tools they’ve found useful.
Other tools I’m using now include Tomighty (pomodoro timer), TimeTray (as I only wanted the week number feature from T-Clock), Trello, Plus for Trello and Butler for Trello. I’ve also tried out OfficeTabs but it seems to work quite slowly in Office 2010 so I removed it (seems much faster in Office 365 for any users out there!), as well as Toggl (for timing, but I use Plus for Trello now) and Monday.com which was missing a lot of the features I liked on Trello.