Time-saving tips for the new year

Make a resolution to be more productive in 2014 by avoiding time sinks and focusing on tools and techniques that help you work more efficiently.

Temporary Site Blocker window in Google Chrome
Put your time-sink sites temporarily off limits with the Temporary Site Blocker extension for Chrome. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Workers are more productive than ever. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "nonfarm business sector labor productivity" increased 3 percent in the third quarter of 2013 over the same period a year earlier.

Much of the increase in worker productivity can be attributed to technology. But as anyone who uses a computer at work can attest, technology giveth and technology taketh away.

These tips will help ensure you're on the positive side of the technology equation.

A 5-minute video that can save you hours
Last spring, New York Times technology writer David Pogue gave a 5-minute talk at TED 2013 that described 10 ways to save time. Pogue's tips cover everything from how to blank a PowerPoint slide during a presentation to how to skip those irritating voice-mail instructions.

If you're too rushed to watch the video, here are two simple shortcuts covered in Pogue's entertaining presentation: press the spacebar to scroll down a Web page (Shift-spacebar scrolls up); and on your phone and tablet, press the spacebar twice to enter a period at the end of a sentence.

A modest proposal: Skip system backups
I recently swept about 15 years of outdated technology products from my home office, garage, and attic. Among the detritus were dozens of backups I never needed: floppies, Zip disks, CDs, DVDs, USB thumbdrives, you name it.

In past posts I have described free online backup services , a free backup utility that outshines Windows 7's built-in disk imager , and even a Firefox add-on that automatically backs up whatever you type .

Now I'm ready to break with convention and recommend that you not waste your time with system backups. That's right, forget about PC drive images and other system backups.

Cloud storage reduces the value of PC backups: nearly all of my important files are uploaded to iCloud, Dropbox, and other online storage services. I create instant backups of locally stored files by attaching the files to e-mails I send to myself.

As long as you're prepared to reinstall your applications, adopting a fix-on-failure approach to PCs lets you avoid the bother of system backups.

Not long ago I spent the better part of an afternoon wrestling with Windows 8.1's built-in backup program, which kept turning up its nose at every backup medium I chose. I soon realized all the files I was backing up were already stored online as well as on the PC's hard drive.

In fact, most of my important personal data is no longer stored permanently on my PC. My contacts are on my phone, which I back up via iTunes. My music files are on iCloud, and my documents and image files are on Dropbox.

In addition, I have gotten into the habit of attaching important files to e-mails that I send to my own Web mail account as a form of on-demand backup.

Once your files are stored online, system backups become a waste of time and effort. Computing without a net puts you on notice that you can't rely on a backup to cover your bacon if something goes wrong.

My home office has four different systems: two Windows 7 PCs, a Windows 8 laptop, and a Mac. That's a lot of backing up. The time I would have spent creating system backups can be put to more productive use.

As contradictory as this may sound, I actually feel safer knowing I don't have to rely on a system backup when a computer fails. Once you've disabled Windows' automatic backups, you have one less thing for your PC to nag you about.

Tell the software updater to wait
Speaking of nags, how many software updates are so important they require that you stop what you're doing to apply the latest patches?

There was a time when it was safest to set Windows to download updates but wait before installing them. Today the risk of a zero-day attack outweighs the risk of an update causing a problem, so it's safest and most efficient to set Windows to update automatically.

You can't do much to prevent other software updaters from popping up reminders to check for and/or install an update in the middle of your workday. The best approach is simply to close or minimize the update notification until you're ready to take a break.

Windows' Group Policy Editor lets you disable the "Restart is required" reminder that accompanies some of the OS's updates. Unfortunately, the Group Policy Editor is available only in the Professional versions of Windows 7 and 8. The How-To Geek explains how to edit the Registry to prevent the restart warning from appearing.

To do away with restart pop-ups via the Group Policy Editor, press the Windows key (if necessary), type gpedit.msc, and press Enter. In the left pane, navigate to and select Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Windows Update.

Windows 8 Group Policy Editor settings for Windows Update
Disable Windows' "restart to complete installation of updates" notification by changing this setting in the Group Policy Editor. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

In the right pane, double-click "Re-prompt for restart with scheduled installations." Select Disabled in the top-right corner of the dialog and click OK. You can also choose Enabled and set the number of minutes Windows will wait before prompting you to restart.

"Re-prompt for restart with scheduled installations" dialog
Choose the Disabled option to do away with restart prompts, or click Enabled and set the number of minutes Windows will wait before nagging you to restart after an update. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Use the paintbrush to format Office docs
When you paste information into a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or other office file, you can apply the file's own formatting by pressing Alt, E, S to open the Paste Special dialog, and then arrow up to Unformatted Text and press Enter.

The quickest way to reformat text and other elements of Office files is to use the Format Painter to copy the formatting of the current selection and apply it to anything else you choose in the file.

The Microsoft Office support site provides a short video that explains how to use Format Painter in Office 2013, as well as instructions for using Format Painter in Word 2010 and in other Office 2010 programs.

Free services helps you locate a misplaced phone
"Where did I put my phone?" has joined "Where did I put my keys?" and "Where did I park my car?" as the most common questions we ask ourselves.

If your phone is lost, you can use a free service such as Find My iPhone or LocateMyDroid (donationware) to pinpoint the phone's location on a Web map.

On the other hand, if you've simply misplaced your phone, you can just call it from another phone and locate it when the misplaced phone rings. But what if you don't have another phone handy?

Several free Web services offer to call the number you enter on the site. I hesitate to use these services because the site may resell your number to telemarketers or other third parties.

The privacy policy on Phonemyphone.com convinced me I could trust the service enough to supply it with my phone number.

My iPhone has the added protection of using the the Do Not Disturb feature to block calls from numbers not in my contact list. Since Phonemyphone's number isn't in my contacts, the service's call was blocked the first time I used the service. I simply added the caller to my contacts to allow future calls to get through.

(The Do Not Disturb feature was one of several techniques I described in post from last February on how to screen unwanted calls on iPhones and Android phones .)

Note that Phonemyphone accepts donations, and the site's developer says he may be required to charge for the service in the future.

Real-time collaboration made simple
The typical office document has many contributors. Document creation is usually a serial process: each person does their thing and passes the file on to the next contributor.

That's not necessarily the most efficient way to work. The free PiratePad service lets two or more people work on the same text file at the same time -- no registration required.

Start by clicking the frog, which opens a new public pad. Send the pad's link to others via e-mail. Links are available for collaborators and for read-only access. When I tested the service, the built-in "send e-mail" feature didn't work, so I simply copied the pad link manually and pasted it into a new e-mail message.

PiratePad shared-document window
The free PiratePad online document collaboration service lets you share your "pad" with any collaborators via e-mail. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Each collaborator's contribution is color-coded. The text editor isn't particularly sophisticated, and when I created a document I encountered some minor formatting glitches. But the service's response time was great: changes by each collaborator appeared quickly in the pad of other collaborators. Likewise, the service's chat feature worked without any noticeable lag time in my unscientific testing.

You can save and restore versions of your document, as well as import text, HTML, Word, and RTF files, and export text and HTML files. When I tested the service's import feature, I was unable to import a one-page Word doc, but I was able to export a pad as a text file and as an HTML file.

Chrome add-on puts sites temporarily out of bounds
Self-control is all well and good, but sometimes nature can use a little assistance. If you find yourself unable to prevent your favorite sites from keeping you from the task at hand, add the Temporary Site Blocker to Google Chrome.

After you install the extension, activate it by clicking the extension icon at the right end of the address bar, choosing Temporary Site Blocker, and clicking Enable Site Blocking. Then navigate to the site you want to lock out, select Temporary Site Blocker again, and click "Block this site." The site will be added to the extension's block list, which is shown at the top of this post.

When you try to open a site on your off-limits list, you're redirected to a page that states simply "Blocked!" Of course, you could just remove the site from the blocked list or disable the extension's blocking altogether... if your conscience lets you.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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