Review: Lifehacker

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

LifehackerI’ve been a fan of Lifehacker (the blog) for years – as someone highly interested in personal productivity, there’s always something interesting to read on the front page. I have just one nit with the site, though – it’s almost too broadly based for my tastes. The site spends a lot of time talking about various software products that I have little interest in, and it also often swerves pretty far into things that are merely novelties. Take away those, and you have a blog that’s easily my favorite on the internet.

That’s why when Gina Trapani (the editor of Lifehacker) came out with a Lifehacker book subtitled “88 tech tricks to turbocharge your day,” my interest was, at the very least, piqued. I use a lot of computer tricks to keep my focus throughout the day, from managing information and scheduling to keeping me in touch with the data I need for The Simple Dollar. I also knew from long-time experience with the blog that many of the small little time savers on the site were actually quite useful.

Is this book actually worth digging into, or is it merely a boring rehashing of a lot of very basic productivity ideas? I was eager to dig in and find out, so I read through all of the tips and chose twenty of them to look at in this review – twenty that I actually have begun to utilize in my own life.

20 Tasty Samples of Lifehacker

Hack 1: Email Your Future Self
Although I’m pretty fanatic about using Sunbird to schedule infrequent stuff, I find it’s extremely useful to set up emails to myself to remind me about important upcoming events, like emails a week before people’s birthdays and anniversaries. I just put these important events in Google Calendar and tell it to email me a week before the event. That way, I can take care of any gift-giving plans if I’ve forgotten about the event.

Hack 6: Take Great Notes
This section gives a ton of ideas on great notetaking. I find that my best notes are the ones where I take away the main points I need to remember and execute along with the required associated information needed to do it. Everything else is really unimportant.

Hack 8: Block Access To Time-Wasting Web Sites
My biggest weaknesses when I should be working on The Simple Dollar are looking at my site stats, reading reddit, and playing Desktop Tower Defense. What’s my solution? When I sit down to work on The Simple Dollar, the first thing I do is open the file C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\hosts with Notepad and add the line

127.0.0.1 reddit.com kongregate.com sitemeter.com mybloglog.com

Then I save the file and close it. When I’m done, I just open the file again and delete the line. What does it do? Whenever I try to visit the distracting web site, I just get a blank page. This keeps me from burning a few minutes here reading reddit or a few minutes there playing a game. Note that this only works on Windows XP and Vista, though – the book provides other ways to do it with other operating systems.

Hack 9: Reduce Email Interruption
Another thing I do to really get in the flow is to not check my email. Most people seem to pop open ther email at the start of the day, then before they know it, it’s 11 and all they’ve done is swap emails with people. If I did that, I’d never ever keep up with The Simple Dollar or the myriad of other things in my life.

Instead, what I do is not even open my email program at all unless that’s my sole task. I just leave it closed – the email can wait until my other tasks are done. I do the same thing in every professional context – if I have tasks that need done, I just close the email window and don’t look at it again until the job is finished.

Hack 11: Build A “No Fly Zone”
A “no fly zone” refers to a place where interruptions and distractions are at their absolute minimum – in fact, the only items around are the ones required for you to get your tasks done. It’s usually a small room with a door (to minimize interruptions) and a phone that can easily be disconnected.

For me, this is the office in our home, where I happen to be sitting as I type this. My desk itself has minimal distractions on it (just books related to The Simple Dollar, mostly) and, using some of the other tips listed here and in the book itself, about the only thing that can easily take me out of the zone is staring out the window.

Hack 18: Automatically Back Up Your Files
This hack offers some general tips on how to automate backups – this is a great thing to do to make sure you never lose important data files due to a hardware failure. For my situation, I use the Back Up Files utility provided with Windows Vista to back up my data files regularly to a memory stick, but there are a lot of ways of doing it. The key is to make it automatic – find some scheme that just backs up your data without any intervention from you so you don’t have to sweat it.

Hack 39: Optimize Your Laptop
My primary workstation is a laptop, so these tips were really useful to me. Among them:

Use the Control Panel to set your computer on Power Saver mode. For most everything I do, this is just fine. It extends the battery life significantly as well, which means not only more time being mobile, but less energy use because there are fewer recharges.

Minimize your processes If you’re on a Windows machine, pull up the Task Manager (ctrl-alt-del) and kill everything that isn’t serving a purpose for you. This makes things run faster when running on Power Saver mode and also seems to extend the battery life a bit more. I do this shortly after startup each time I reboot my laptop.

Hack 46: Decrease Your Email Response Time
Whenever a message hits your inbox, deal with it. If it’s something that you can handle in a minute or two, do it now. If it’s something you can’t handle right now, say so. If you need more info, ask for it now. A quick response, even one that says basically “I can’t deal with this right now” is far more professional than one that is never dealt with.

Hack 47: Empty Your Inbox (And Keep It Empty)
This was something that became a huge boon in my life once I figured it out. I was first introduced to the concept when 43 Folders ran a series entitled Inbox Zero. The idea, in a nutshell, is that you should keep your email inbox as empty as possible – anything that still resides in your inbox is something that’s a negative in your life.

Here’s how I do it. When I check my email, I quickly run through all of it and delete all of the spam and notifications that I don’t necessarily need to read. After that, I start going through every single message in the folder. Most of them get responded to quickly and wind up filed in a “Site Correspondence” folder. The rest end up getting filed into a series of four “things to do” folders. At this point, I’m done with the email – I shut it off and then move through those “to do” items offline so that no more email arrives in my inbox.

Hack 50: Script Repetitive Response
I am a big fan of an extension of my mail program (Thunderbird) called QuickText. I have about ten items set up with this that enable me to respond very quickly to most of the common queries I receive at The Simple Dollar. Without it, the time I burn on email would easily triple and I would either have to start ignoring a lot of people or cut down on my writing – and both options are not good ones.

Basically, I have a “standard template” for a response to many messages, along with about nine or so specific prewritten ones for specific issues that frequently come up. Since they’re almost all tied to keyboard shortcuts, I can whip through mail easily. I read a message, hit Ctrl-R to reply, then hit Alt-1 for the basic framework of a message or Alt-2 through Alt-9 for specific messages. It makes dealing with a batch of email much, much quicker than before.

Hack 55: Choose Secure, Memorable Passwords
A secure password is one that is long, contains letters and numbers (and symbols, if allowed), and isn’t anywhere close to a word one might find in a dictionary. The only problem is that they’re very difficult to remember. What’s my solution? I use the first three letters of the domain name as part of an overall scheme to remember passwords (this may or may not be true, but I do use a certain number of letters from the website I’m visiting). I then substitute those letters into my password in key places. I also use the number of characters in the domain name, too, as a number in the password. This allows me to use one very simple password for all of the websites I use – I only have to remember one thing, but the password is different on every site.

Hack 59: Design Your Own Planner
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of planners, but none of them worked for me. So I wound up going with a Moleskine small pocket diary with the pages marked the way I like, along with a hipster PDA, to keep track of all of my dates and important information on the go.

Why the Moleskine? Aside from the date, the pages are almost blank, with only faint lines for guidance if you want to use them. If they ever decide to make one with totally blank pages excepting the date in the corner, I would love it.

Hack 60: Make Your To-Dos Doable
Like most people, I have a long list of things I’d really like to get done, but when I look at them, they often seem insurmountable. This little hack takes care of that problem and is very similar to one of the central tenets of GTD.

Basically, if you have a really big task you need to get done, don’t put that huge task on your list. You’ll just come to it, think “Man, I really don’t want to do that,” and then do something else. Instead, try to take that task and figure out what the first little thing to do is, then put that on your list instead. For example, one ongoing project that I’ve been tackling is waterproofing our wood deck furniture. The task itself is pretty immense, so instead of putting that on my list, I put each step on my list: “get the water seal and sandpaper” then “sand down one chair” then “sand down another chair” and so on. That way, I can go through the project a piece at a time and the small piece isn’t overwhelming.

Hack 61: Set Up A Morning Dash
A “morning dash” is a list of tasks that you can run through in one to two hours in the morning at the very start of your day. The book encourages setting up your morning dash the night before with a to-do list so that you can hit the ground running the next morning and feel really productive before 10 AM.

I find that doing this with The Simple Dollar really helps. I’ll set up a list of exactly what I want to do in the morning before I go to bed, then when I first get up I have a list of tasks to get done. When I get through those, I usually feel really productive, just as my children are waking up and the real day is about to begin.

Hack 64: Dash Through Tasks With A Timer
This is an extremely effective method for getting things done with a family around. Quite often, I have to find little slivers of time in which to write throughout the day, particularly on weekends. So, when I do find a sliver, I tell my wife that I’m going to work on my side business for, say, exactly 45 minutes. During that period, I need to finish one task and then move ahead on two others, so I split the time into three equal pieces – I get the first task done in 15 minutes, then split the time between the other two, hopefully nearing completion on both of them.

Hack 67: Schedule “Think Time”
My “think time” is usually in the form of a walk that I take either early in the morning or immediately after work. I schedule in half an hour to just get into a groove of leg motion and then let my mind wander to other things. I tell people I don’t walk for my health and they sort of look baffled, but it’s true – I do it because it plants ideas in my mind. Almost every great idea I’ve had for The Simple Dollar has come from this time off just to think.

What I usually do is fill myself up with some sort of topic just before I go. Usually, I’ll read something for me to chew over – often, it’s five pages from a nonfiction book like Made to Stick that I can mull over carefully and try to apply to my life. Then I’ll take off and let that piece of reading jog around in my mind, combining with other ideas and thoughts. The result often is a really useful idea. I also usually take along a small voice recorder to record any thoughts I might want to review later.

Hack 72: Get 10 Must-Have Bookmarklets
For those unaware, bookmarklets refer to links on the web that actually perform a specific task when you visit them. People often bookmark these in their web browser so they can keep using them. I use quite a few of them, but here are three of the ones I really liked from Gina’s list:
Wikipedia lookup: Highlight a word on a page, then click this link – it will look it up automatically in Wikipedia
TinyURL Want to mail a link to someone, but the link is just too long? Bookmark this link, then whenever you’re at a page with a long URL you want to send, use this bookmark – it’ll create a very short URL for you to send.
Google Translator Ever stumbled across a page with info you want, but it’s in another language? Bookmark this link, then when you’re on a foreign language page, use the bookmark. Google will translate it for you.

Hack 74: Set Multiple Sites As Your Homepage
One of the best things about modern web browsers is the ability to have multiple tabs open, so I can keep all of the web pages I’m looking at in the same window. Even better is the ability to have not just one startup page, but several spread across multiple tabs.

It’s pretty easy to do if you’re using Firefox or Internet Explorer 7. Just make a list of all of the URLs you want as your homepage, then put them all on one line separated by just a pipe symbol – |

Here’s one, for example:

http://www.thesimpledollar.com/|http://news.google.com/

Just paste all of that into the place in your browser options where you can put your homepage and then when your browser starts, it will open with two tabs, one with The Simple Dollar and another with Google News.

Hack 79: Capture Web Clippings with Google Notebook
Often, when I’m doing research on a topic, I find tons of little bits of information here and there that I want to save, but I also want to be able to jump back to that web page, so cutting and pasting doesn’t quite fit the bill. I also want to be able to retrieve it later, so putting it into Word doesn’t fit the bill, either.

This is basically the exact task that Google Notebook is made for. It installs an extension in your web browser, then whenever you see something interesting in a web page, highlight it then right click on what you highlighted and choose the Add to Notebook option. Boom! The info you saved is stored, as is the source URL. Then, you can jump back to your notebook and add notes to what you saved, easy as pie.

Hack 82: Clean Up Your Startup
This is a very simple thing that anyone can do to make their Windows computer start faster. Click on your start menu, then go to the Startup folder. Is there anything there that seems useless? If there is, right click on it and choose “Delete.” Doing this will make your computer start up faster and also run a bit faster as well, because it’s not starting up programs that eat up precious system resources. The chapter outlines several other more complicated tweaks that you can do to eliminate even more startup junk.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Lifehacker does an extremely effective job of extracting pieces of the Lifehacker blog that I enjoy. The majority of the tips in this book are useful to me in some way – almost all are useful for keeping you on task and focused.

While Lifehacker isn’t truly transformative in terms of day-to-day time management (like Getting Things Done, which radically shifted how I manage my time), it is very good at contributing little pieces that add to your effectiveness, particularly if you’re an office worker or spend significant time at your computer for professional reasons.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit and found that the vast majority of the tips were useful to me either directly or indirectly (in that they inspired other ideas that worked for me). In fact, I used at least three of them while writing this review – and they helped to get this review done more quickly than I would have ever expected.

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  1. Marsha says:

    Thanks, Trent, for the reminder about Lifehacker! I forget to check the website regularly, but there are some real gems there.

    I actually bought this book, but I feel overwhelmed by it. I appreciate your synopses here. I think I need to just choose 1 hack per week (for example) and see how/if it works for me.

    I’m sort of doing the “morning dash” thing with my exercise. I pull out exercise clothes + my mp3 player the night before, so I’m ready to get my neighborhood walk in 1st thing in the a.m. ** I like the idea of applying the same concept to work – will give that a go this week.

  2. Michel says:

    I love your reviews. I’ll definitely buy this book. But I think there is a new edition in progress. So I’ll wait.

    For hack #50 I use Opera Mail+Opera notes. I don’t trust thunderbird (had security issues with it).

  3. Heather says:

    For Hack #74
    One of the best add ons I have found for Mozilla Firefox is the Morning Coffee feature. You add all of your favorite websites onto morning coffee then click the coffee cup after you open your browser and all of those websites open instantly each on a separate tab.

  4. Mrs. Micah says:

    I love Hack #1. Google calendar reminds me a few days ahead of time when I should be paying bills. So handy! I still keep an eye on things, but I don’t stress about it. :-)

  5. mjcarrabine says:

    Trent, I trust your recommendations so I thought I’d check out your link to Desktop Tower Defense.

    I am now very mad at you!!! That game is the most addictive thing I’ve ever played.

    The irony at how unproductive reading this post on productivity has made me.

  6. Daisy says:

    These hacks are really useful. I love the ones on blocking sites and distractions while using the computer. I get into this rut pretty often.

    And the one about making a simpler To Do list really made me think. I’m avoiding one of the items on my list at the moment: study 20 chapters. LOL.

  7. passwords says:

    For remembering passwords, I use KeePass. It’s a free program that I can put all of my passwords, and it even generates new passwords for me when I create a new entry.

    Extremely useful, and worth checking out. The main reason I use it is that my wife and I both know the “master” password, so we both have access to all of our passwords without having to remember them. If something should happen to me and she needs to access our online accounts, she can open up KeePass, enter the master password, and then find the password for the site she needs to visit.

  8. Great review Trent. These are great tips, and definitely worth buying the book for. I had completely forgotten about Google Notebook; I used to use this all the time. Also love the tip about keeping the inbox clean. I implemented this recently, and it has made a huge difference!

  9. 60 in 3 says:

    heh, mjcarrabine. That game has cost me more work days than I want to think of.

    Trent, thank you for a great review of this book. I’m an avid reader of the site and I think their advice is always interesting and sometimes useful.

    Gal

  10. B says:

    lots of this are parallel to Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people.
    Also, Wikipedia is not always accurate :(

  11. I have started using the moleskin pocket journal and it has changed my life. I used to have all my tasks/ideas scattered but now I have never been more productive. That was a great tip! Thanks!

    Chris Kakaras
    http://www.chriskakaras.com

  12. Hi Trent,

    Great review, and a great reminder that I should be checking Lifehacker more often. You’re right, though, there’s so much stuff on there that you can kind of get lost.

    Hack # 67 – Schedule Think Time – has probably made the biggest difference in my life, even including GTD. I go somewhere dark for 10-30 minutes and just think. My husband always thinks I’m sneaking in a nap, but I find it’s great to go somewhere and have your only responsibility be thinking.

    Thanks again, Trent, and keep up the great work.

  13. Good stuff, I had been wondering about this book, Trent.

  14. Sites like this help us with families to feed. I need all the grocery coupons I can get so if you of any other sites please let me know.

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