I have made two changes to my computer-based behavior in the new year that have regained an enormous amount of time and changed the way I do things in a positive way. I’d like to share them here for the benefit of others and to hear from you what other things you’ve done with similar results. Here are my two tips:
I Don’t Save Browser Tabs
It starts innocently enough. You have a project or an idea and you start machine-gunning the control-t key combo. New tab! New tab! New tab! You do some Google searches on various keywords to start your data gathering efforts. You middle or command-click the search result links to open those pages in new tabs. You scour those pages, absorbing their information and further middle / command-click links on them. Treesort on a Sandy Bridge Xeon couldn’t find the root node of your tab history before the heat death of the universe. In fact it would probably make a measurable contribution to the universe’s heat death.
Before you know it, your 8GB workstation is slower than an anesthetized tree sloth and your browser is hugging its knees while rocking itself in a corner. Even worse, you might have multiple browser instances, each with their own standing army of open tabs. “Yeah, Chrome window #1 has all my Exchange migration tabs. Chrome #2 is all about the Cisco problem I’ve been having. FireFox is for the MikroTik research and I think Safaris #1, #2, and #3 can be blamed on Reddit.”
Starting any web browser on your PC takes longer than booting Vista from punchcards. A browser crash that loses your tabs requires your co-workers to quickly recall how to use the portable defibrillator unit that HR put in the server room the last time vSphere had a major version upgrade to perform.
I know all of the above well, because that person is me. Or rather, was me. Not anymore. I no longer save tabs. Closing a web browser loses all tabs and opening a web browser brings up a fresh, single tab populated with an innocuous home page (i.e. not Reddit). This has several positive side effects:
First, it forces me to collect information in a more orderly fashion. Every time I close a browser, I know that all information is gone for good. This has changed my information gathering habits to now put information that I need to retain for any length of time, either as a bookmark or in another information gathering tool like OneNote or EverNote.
I was a OneNote fan for a long time. I still am. However, I switched to Linux two years back, and then moved to a Mac a few months ago. The switch to Linux required a virtual machine to keep OneNote around, but that was a little cumbersome. Then moving to a Mac, I wanted to integrate into that OS more. Thus, I switched to EverNote (Yay cross-platform!). Doubly helpful is their cloud storage of notebooks that I can see and use on many other devices.
Whatever you do or use, I would venture to say that not saving tabs in such a volatile thing as a web browser will get you to reconsider your main method of information storage. It will likely improve your research habits and make information easier to store, find and annotate. It’s starting to for me.
Second, I’m beginning to use bookmarking better. Caused by point #1, I now look to the cloud bookmarking features of Safari and Chrome. I’m now making better use of browser bookmarking in general. An improper cataloging system can be a huge burden, just as bad as tabs that go on forever. However, I’ve found that research-based links are better organized by date whereas links that are generally used and useful are better categorized by topic.
So the big pfSense project I’ve been agonizing over for the last few days? (Okay, weeks) Those tabs and links should be put in a dated hierarchy. I start with year, then month, then week or day. I can then think “I was working on pfSense… January. I think it was January,” and have a good shot at finding those links later. Putting my myriad of pfSense links that are specific to the problem I’m having into a general “Networking > pfSense” folder would be futile and cluttering. In my experience anyway. Your tastes might vary, and indeed my own preferences might change as I continue to use this method.
Nevertheless, using bookmarking better is a good thing, and in my opinion using cloud bookmarks is even better because you’re not out of luck if you tend to spread work out over multiple computing devices. I’ve got a laptop, a desktop, a phone and a tablet. Bookmark syncing can be very helpful in that scenario.
There was a time when I used mailing lists and newsletters as a means of not having to remember things. If there was a product or company that I liked the looks of, I’d subscribe to their marketing newsletter to gradually learn more about them. Would that feature that could really help me really come out in the next six months like the sales guy said? (Ha!) What other products do they have that I didn’t know about? Are there little training tips that I’m missing out on? Maybe I just want to be reminded about this company a few times so I don’t forget them when I need their product.
(Believe it or not, that last reason has actually been a useful tool for me. I remember things based on repetition [as do most people] so if there’s a vendor / product that has the potential to be useful, I’ll sign up to their newsletter for the sole purpose of seeing their brand and products over the course of a month or two. Then when I’m reasonably sure I’ll remember their name and products, I unsubscribe. I don’t think that habit needs to change change insofar as I remember to unsubscribe at an optimal time.)
I also used to sign up for general industry news outlets. Smart Briefs, IEEE newsletters, Technorati, Gizmodo, Garner, Forrester, Techcrunch, YouTube channels, yadda yadda yadda. There was a time when I would receive about a 100 to 150 emails a day, most of which were glanced at for five seconds or less. Or worse – they were immediately discarded in annoyance. My reasoning, especially for the news briefs, was that I’d scan them for 30 seconds, see if there’s anything I think I should know about as an IT professional (or just an individual), and then read the article.
(Side note: That thought process also encouraged the problem I mentioned above concerning browser tabs. That Smart Brief on IT management? Three tabs would spawn. The top stories on LinkedIn? Two tabs. Gawker? Another two. Or Twelve. Then I’d have, quite literally, 10 to 20 tabs of stories that I thought would enrich me. In reality, I’d recognize that it would take at least an hour to get through them all, and I can’t spare that amount of time for reading what amounts to virtual newspaper articles. So I’d skim them. The end result? My concentration discipline was weakened, I never deeply absorbed any of the information, and I got dumber.)
My email inboxes (yes, plural) would consume two or more hours of my day. That wasn’t even counting actual correspondence with anyone. I was essentially just managing text files. Two horribly unproductive hours. Two shameful hours of not just being unproductive, but getting stupider. I was a vile, filthy, wretched, untoward, worm of a… well, okay, I just let a bad habit get worse and didn’t question it until the habit got very wasteful.
Question your use of time. In fact, why are you reading this? Should you be doing something else? I’m not trying to nag you like your mom, but am I actually helping you? Is that my blog’s general tendency or do you often think “Why did I just drag my eyeballs across that?” If you get this blog in your inbox, consider unsubscribing. If it’s in your RSS feeds (I stopped reading my RSS feeds long ago for similar reasons), make sure I’m one of the more useful ones. If you’re on my site, reconsider coming back.
If it’s not helping you, it’s hurting you. If I’m not consistently enriching you, get rid of me. Same goes for anything else. Tabs, emails, and more. Ditch it.
Any other helpful hints to gain time back? Even during the writing of this post I thought of a few other time vampires that I could write about, but I didn’t want to make the post any longer than it already is. Let me know in the comments below, and feel free to contact me if you want to write a post about it and share it with a broader audience. Or write on your own blog and I’ll link to the post. Time is a limited resource – use it wisely.