How to Add Half a Year to Your Life

By Jeremy Wagstaff

At the risk of boring you all to death this week I’d like to talk about folders. Yes, I know it’s not the most exciting subject in the world, but I’ve seen too many people make a mess of this that I reckon reading this article should save you on average about 10 minutes a day, which over a lifetime adds up to nearly 180 days, so you can thank me when you’re in your retirement home.

The problem is this: We create files, we save files, we copy files, we move files. We delete files, we edit files, we rename files, we back up files. We lose files. It’s the last bit that I want to focus on. In short, we treat our computer like a store cupboard that we never organize and never clean out.

When you buy milk you know where to put it, right? In the shelves built into the fridge door, right? You put the washing back in the cupboard when it’s all folded, right? When you bake a cake you put it in a tin, right?

But when we create, move, save, rename, copy, backup a file we rarely do anything similar. If we’re disciplined we put it in the My Documents folder (in Windows) or in Documents (on Macs.) If we’re feeling really energetic we might even make a special folder called “Other documents” or something equally imaginative.

This is about as far as we go. It’s like throwing the milk anywhere in the fridge, or the towel in the nearest drawer, or the cake in the nearest cupboard. The more files you have, the harder it’s going to be find them. You’ve probably found that already.

So the obvious first lesson is: organize your folders. I’ve told you about that before, so that’s not really the lesson. But it’s worth saying again: organize your folders. Make new folders for new projects, and make them subfolders (i.e. folders within folders) of bigger categories. Projects, for example, may be a main folder, but have other folders within it called ‘Logo design project’ or ‘Cake baking’.

Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s logical and you get into the habit of storing all related documents in the same folder.

Now, here are some tricks to make this process easier. In Windows you’ll see a little icon in the box that appears when you want to save a file (what’s called the ‘Save As Dialog’ that looks like a folder with a corner of it on fire. This is the button for creating a new folder. So navigate to the folder or place where you want to make your new (sub) folder and click that button. Type in a name, hit enter, and then save your file there.

I would recommend you make it really simple for yourself by making folders like C:Documents and C:Downloads and C:Dump and C:Backup to store your stuff. (The C: refers to the hard drive, which is always called C for historical reasons.) You can make subfolders below these, but having these folders in what is called the root directory makes it easy later.

The problem is that once you start making lots of folders, you’ll find that the Save As dialog doesn’t always open in the folder that you want it to, and navigating around subfolders is slightly less fun than visiting the dentist, even if you’ve put them in the root canal, sorry directory.

Here are a couple of tricks to make it easier in Windows. If you use XP, download a little piece of free Microsoft software called TweakUI (UI stands for User Interface). You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/2meyw (just scroll down the rights hand side until you see the download link.)

Once you’ve installed the software launch it (you’ll find it in the Powertoys folder in your Start Menu) and select the Places Bar item in the Common Dialogs entry. Once you’re there type in the names of the four or five folders you use most (if you’ve used my suggestions above, this is easy enough to remember. If you haven’t, jot down the full path (with all the backslashes and stuff, and type them in. I know it’s not fun, but it’ll be worth it.)

Once this is done, click OK, and try opening a Save as dialog in one of your Windows program. You should notice an extra little pane in the left hand side with your newly entered folders appearing in a list. Click on one of those and you’re magically shuffled off to that particular folder. Now you should be saving precious minutes already. (Thanks to Dennis O’Reilly of CNET for this tip.)

A word of warning: This doesn’t work in Microsoft Office, which uses a slightly different dialog box. There you just navigate your way to the folder you want to save, right click in the left hand pane where the special folders are located and select the “Add ‘[the name of the open folder]’” option.

I’ve got one more tip for you in this field, which will help if you’ve got more than five folders you want to access or save files to. A small, free, program called FileBox eXtender (from http://tinyurl.com/yjhns8) will add an extra couple of icons to your Save as or Open dialog boxes which will contain a list of your recently used folders. (The software is useful but not that intuitive; if you’re having problems try an alternative, also free, called Direct Folders from http://tinyurl.com/ynt235.) Both should work with Vista.

I’m not aware of Mac programs that do this, but doubtless I’ll hear from users and be informed/chastised accordingly.

Jeremy Wagstaff writes for The Wall Street Journal Asia and the BBC World Service. His guide to technology, “Loose Wire”, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

Computers: Right Back Where We Started

image

A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

Inside the Pocket of a Productivity Porn Star

Merlin Mann does a great blog on personal productivity at 43 Folders. After foodies watching and reading about food without actually cooking anything (food porn) and travel shows about places you’d never actually go or activities you’d never actually do (travel porn) this is productivity porn: an obsession with the detritus, in this case the books, pens, notebooks and gadgets, of the action, in this case productivity, without actually becoming more productive.

Anyway, occasionally Merlin catches the zeitgeist, and when he posted something on this blog referring to a NYT/IHT piece about the Jimi, a minimalist plastic wallet with an ideological goal of reducing the amount of stuff you store and carry in your wallet, readers were excited. A request for readers to share how they carried their money and credit cards around drew a slew of responses – 130 at the current count – which manage to be informative and, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious at the same time. Always a risk, I guess, when you ask people what they have got in their pocket.

I personally prefer the Viz Top Tip-esque (“Don’t waste money on a lead. Simply walk your dog backwards holding its tail”) home-made money solutions, which may or may not be written with tongue in cheek (you never know with the productivity porn lot), like this one:

Five years ago, I bought a bag of rubber bands for $0.99 and they have been my wallet ever since. A few times a year, the band breaks and I grab another from the bag. Besides being economical, it adds practically zero bulk to my pocket, and it’s quick to access. Cash tends to get a tad crumpled, but it’s worth it.

WalletAnother guy said his favorite was a metal cigarette case. It held a few cards and some cash perfectly, and looked really cool. I used it for years, until one of the corners got kind of scraggly, and it started poking me in the ass. Another touts a red binder clip, another a bungie cord case, another a 3×5 index card wrapped around his stash, while someone called trevor uses his girlfriend’s “’Yasmin’ birth control pill sleeve. It holds 3 credit cards (MC, Discover, ATM) on one side, driver license, insurance cards (auto/medical) on the other. It’s super slim, pretty durable and I get a new “wallet” for free each time my girlfriend gets a new supply of the pills.”

Sadly none of these solutions work in a country where the highest denomination bill/note is less than $10 and you use a credit card at your peril. But that’s my fault for living in Indonesia.

Social Technology vs Antisocial Technology

After chatting with Jerry Michalski, a great guy and a keen supporter of social software, I was given to thinking. This is what I thought: I know other people use the term, and I haven’t read everything they’ve written, but I feel the world of technology can be divided between ‘social technology’ and ‘antisocial technology’.

To me social technology is technology that brings people together. Antisocial technology tears them, or keeps them, or encourages them to be, apart. An example: A phone brings people together because it connects them (unless the person is dialing a recorded message, I guess, but even that’s a form of social interaction). An example of antisocial technology: Earphones. They squeeze out the environment and make it much less likely the wearer will interact.

So how well does this distinction work? And is it useful? Well, one complaint about computers is that they tend not to bring people together. But is that true anymore? Email, chat, blogging, Wikis, online gaming, all create interaction. But is that enough? Are these interactions improvements in quality, or just quantity? The answer, to me, would determine whether the technology is social or anti-social. (Antisocial is defined as either meaning ‘shunning contact with others’ or ‘unwilling or unable to conform to normal standards of social behavior’.)

Jerry, if I’m recalling our conversation correctly, made a distinction between social software and productivity software (Office, all that kind of thing). He pointed out we’ve been obsessed with the latter for so long, whereas now we’re beginning to explore social software, such as networking sites, Wikis, chat etc. I think that’s an excellent way of looking at things. Productivity software is great for helping us write that memo, that report, that novel. But it doesn’t help us ‘socialize’ it, as Indonesians have a habit of saying. By that I mean it doesn’t push the end-product out into the world so it bumps into other people, other ideas, other cultures. To that extent productivity always meant ‘personal productivity’ and while it helped a lot of folk, it also helped cement the idea that sitting at a computer is a solitary, introverted and antisocial activity. (Ignoring for a moment the ‘team productivity’ component, which still keeps ideas within an established, i.e. not a social, group — the team.)

Looking at things away from the computer, I can easily see an argument that it’s not the technology that’s social or antisocial, it’s how you use it. True, up to a point: SMS is a great way to communicate with people, so it’s social technology, right? Not if you’re doing your texting while your bored, disgruntled and ignored spouse is sitting opposite you in a restaurant. An MP3 player is not a social technology, because it seals you in from the outside world. But not if you find yourself sharing what you’re listening to with strangers, building connections where they didn’t exist. So there are grey areas.

But I see the distinction as good enough to survive this nitpicking. WiFi is a great social technology, as is VoIP. Both allow people to communicate with other people in cheap, efficient ways. These technologies are likely to be truly revolutionary because of this, and that is most clearly visible from where I am sitting right now: a place like Indonesia, where the infrastructure is lousy, the phone companies expensive and slow to deploy new lines, and people yearning for a cheaper, better way to learn, share, work and meet new people. Viva social technology.