With an ever-growing number of distractions that are fighting for your attention throughout the day, it’s more important than ever to be as productive as possible when you’re actually on the job. With that in mind, we’ve dug up the best Windows tricks in our arsenal and talked to some of the best minds in productivity to find 55 tips sure to help you get more work done with your PC in less time.
(Please note: These tips apply primarily to Windows 7, though most also work in Vista and many apply to XP as well.)
Let’s get down to it.
Minimize all windows (except the one that you’re working on). When your desktop becomes so cluttered that you can’t find anything, this step is a good way to regain focus. Grab the title bar of the window you want, and shake your mouse a little. All other windows will vanish into the taskbar. Repeat to undo and restore all of your hidden windows.
Use folders in your e-mail client. Letting your e-mail accumulate in a monolithic inbox makes it nearly impossible for you to find important messages without a laborious hunt, as well as greatly increasing the odds that you’ll forget or simply overlook e-mail that requires urgent attention. Delete the junk, and file nonactionable e-mail messages into clearly defined folders. Getting into the habit of sorting incoming mail in this way is critical for most users looking to enhance their productivity.
Be judicious with e-mail folders. An e-mail folder should not be so narrow of purpose that it’s never used, but neither should it be so broad that it becomes overstuffed with messages, unless you use that folder strictly for archiving and don’t need to refer to its contents regularly. Use a descriptive name for each folder and keep it short enough that it doesn’t require scrolling within the Mail Folders pane. Remember that folders can usually be nested, too.
Use rules to route messages automatically. When your personal involvement isn’t necessary, e-mail rules can save lots of time. For example, do corporate newsletters from the same address arrive ten times a day? Stuff them into a folder for “later review.” In Outlook, look for a simple rules wizard that walks you through creating your rules; to find it, select Tools•Rules and Alerts. Most other e-mail clients have a similar option for establishing automated rules.
Remap the Windows key. Don’t ever use the Windows key? Or dislike where it’s located and want to swap it with or ? Download a keyboard remapper. Many cheap or free apps for this purpose are readily available, but Keyboard Remapper ($10) works well. Remap to your heart’s content, but keep in mind that there’s no way to change or disable a laptop’s Fn key, since it bypasses Windows. (You can also check your computer’s BIOS for any potential tweakability.)
Customize your browser’s default search engine. Your PC builder has likely preset Internet Explorer’s default search engine to the one that’s paying it the most. Otherwise, it’ll be set to Microsoft’s liking: Bing. Change this setting by clicking the drop-down arrow in the top right corner of the IE window (within the search box), and click Find More Providers. You won’t find Google without a hunt, so type Google into the ‘Find add-ons…’ search box, and select the first result, Google Search Suggestions. Click Add to Internet Explorer, and at the pop-up, click Make this my default search provider.
Improve Windows Search. If Windows Search isn’t finding everything that you know you’ve saved, check the Windows Indexing Options (type indexing options into the Windows 7 Start Menu search bar), and then check the locations that are included in the search index. Click Modify, and navigate through the C: drive to add more locations to index.
Rename files fast. Renaming lots of files in Windows Explorer? Select the first file in your list, press F2, and type the new name. When finished, press Tab instead of Enter. Explorer will jump you to the next file in the list and automatically select the entire file name so you can rename it without having to press the Backspace key. Continue pressing Tab, and you’ll zip through the list one file at a time.
Drag in Outlook. In Outlook, you can drag any item to any other area of the program, and it will create a new item there, with the dragged information as part of the new item or event. Drag an e-mail to the Contacts button, and it will create a new contact for the sender, automatically populating the Name and E-mail fields, and putting the body of the message in the Notes field. Drag a contact to the Calendar, and you’ll create a Meeting Invitation ready to be sent to that person, and so on.
Don’t constantly check your e-mail. Frequent checking breaks your concentration and interrupts what you’re doing, wasting time as you return your focus to the task at hand. Reduce how often your e-mail client checks for new messages to something less distracting: Every 10 or 15 minutes should give you time enough to focus without keeping people waiting overly long for a response. In Outlook, click Ctrl-Alt-S and tweak the digits for ‘Schedule an automatic send/receive every __ minutes’.
Make important e-mail more findable. Just change the subject lines. Few things are more annoying than receiving an important e-mail message that carries a clueless subject like “hey” (or worse, an empty subject line). A more meaningful subject line improves your search index and makes your e-mail thread more valuable in general. In Outlook, open the message (this tactic doesn’t work with just a preview), select the subject line, and type over it with the more-useful text you want.
Select multiple files easily. Using the Ctrl or Shift keys to select multiple files in Windows Explorer can be difficult and an invitation to commit errors. If, however, you frequently need to open or manipulate multiple files at once, turn on Windows’ check-box system—it lets you select files more easily. In Windows Explorer, you can find this setting under Organize•Folder and search options•View. Scroll down and select Use check boxes to select items; then click OK.
Use Outlook’s categorization system. Outlook lets you color-code messages, task-list items, calendar entries, and even contacts into as many as six categories. Figure out a system and stick to it: red for business, for example, and blue for personal items. Or color-code items by level of urgency: green for “must do today,” blue for “to do this week,” and yellow for “to do this month.”
Power up the ‘Send To’ feature. When right-clicking a file in Windows Explorer, hold down Shift before you click, and then select the Send To command. Windows will reveal a whole host of additional options, such as one to move the file to an often-used folder.
Use Outlook’s Search Folders. Though it has somewhat less utility now that PC indexing and document search are commonplace, the Search Folders feature in Outlook still has a function. Essentially, these folders store copies of messages on the basis of predefined rules that you set—such as messages that have a keyword in the subject line or that are sent to or from a certain contact—and the folders update themselves as new messages arrive. If you need to constantly refer to a topic or to a particular person’s messages (such as those from your boss or a key client), but organizing them individually into folders doesn’t work for you, Search Folders can be a great time-saver. You can set one up under New•Search Folder.