Get Better at Getting Better with your Tech

This article first appeared on Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 3: Organizing, subscribe and buy here

Ever since we grabbed the first stone, a piece of wood or whatever fell under our hands as Homo Sapiens, we’ve been looking for ways to make better use of those tools. Our capacity for self-improvement has grown exponentially since and our ability to improve the way we work continuously has shaped the worldview. This continuous improvement seems almost incremental in comparison to the way things have changed since the birth of computers, even though 1 in 5 US citizens is still not connected to the Internet. 60 million people who have never experienced the power of having the world’s knowledge at their fingertips!

The impact that the Internet has made is simply astonishing. Information has become universally accessible, virtually an extended part of our minds. To that extent that we assimilated as a part of our language. How many times have you said: “I’ll look it up on the Internet?” Now the Internet is no longer something we visit, it’s something we own.

Invisible habits around our software tools

When it comes to physical tools, it is obvious how we develop habits around them. The way we hold our knife and fork and how we plug the key into the lock of our front door are both actions that we carry out without thinking. Like a blacksmith who has an exact feel for how he needs to beat a piece of metal in order to mold it, regular use of technology will cause you to develop unconscious habits around your usage pattern.

The Internet is no longer something we visit, it’s something we own.

The tasks you perform regularly are the ones you are going to become good at. If you spend a lot of time writing than you will become better at writing in the digital environment. I have numerous invisible shortcuts that allow me to go through my computer like the back pocket of my pants; But if you give my computer to anybody else, they will be confused about how to operate it, as it is completely customized to my own needs.

There are hundreds of habits and technology shortcuts that now run completely in the background of our minds and we couldn’t describe many of them until we try to do without them, at which point the absence of these shortcuts will come painfully into focus.

The Under-Utilized Productive Habit: Keyboard Shortcuts And Text Expansion Snippets

Keyboard shortcuts are the bread and butter of my personal productivity. Despite me falling in love with mobile devices and enjoying tablet and phone productivity, keyboard shortcuts move me through the computer faster than any smartphone or tablet that’s currently available.

As laptops and desktops are still the most important paradigm in the office and working environment of the majority, the topic of keyboard shortcuts is still incredibly impo*rtant. The difference between people who use keyboard shortcuts and those who don’t is as obvious as the difference between walking and driving. By failing to utilize the shortcuts that are available to them, many people leave themselves stuck in the technological slow lane.

Text expansion is a story in and of itself. It’s been a little bit over a year since I’ve included Text Expander as a regular component of my workflow. I started small, acquired a habit and from there I’ve been slowly adding snippets to the portfolio of useful keyboard shortcuts that I don’t even think about. The initial investment paid itself off tremendously, not only because it saved me hours on end, but it also made certain things possible without generating the slightest amount of friction to my work. Not to mention all the things that I would write off as impossible on iOS if it hadn’t been for the incredibly useful mechanics of text expansion.

Tapping patterns

For mobile, the touch-screen equivalents of keyboard shortcuts are tapping patterns: the steps that you memorize and can invoke at any moment in order to get you where you want to be in the fewest taps possible. This becomes ingrained in respect of the positioning of icons on your screen (and the screens themselves) and in the choices of UI made by the developers of the apps you choose to use most regularly. Make a change to any of these and you might be surprised at the size of impact it has on your productivity.

In the same way that keyboard shortcuts offer significant efficiencies to those who take advantage of them, apps like SwipePad on Android and Launch Center Pro on iOS are great examples of how you can take swiping patterns to the next level. Complex sequences can be embedded into simple gestures, rendering previously lengthy tasks like sending a short SMS into lightning-quick actions. Drafts is another good example where the use of “actions” can eliminate the need for several different tap sequences, embedding these instead into the automated procedure of the app itself.

Apps like Launch Center Pro and Drafts might feel like the preserve of the power user; there are certainly some incredible things that those with the ability and inclination can achieve. But even to the less adventurous, there are simple and straightforward efficiencies that can be gained: from redesigning and streamlining your home screen to programming a few simple routines into LCP or Drafts.

Complex sequences can be embedded into simple gestures, rendering previously lengthy tasks like sending a short SMS into lightning-quick actions.

Mental Pathways In Software Use

The next level of accessing your data, in terms of shortcuts, is knowing how to find the information you need while being completely platform-agnostic. In this age of the cloud, we often need to access an email or a task we previously saved on a different device to the one that we are currently using. Gone are the days of carrying disks around with you, each containing your working documents. These days we take services like [Dropbox](http://alphaefficiency.com/dropbox) and [Evernote](http://alphaefficiency.com/tag/evernote) for granted, not giving the profound impact of cloud services a second thought. The ability to access our data without explicitly manipulating the files from place to place offers a huge efficiency, with the main visible constraint being the choices we make about which services to use and the ability of each of our devices to access them in everyday situations.

Creating Retrieval Habits For All Searching Needs

Search is one of the most underutilized functions. With attention spans shrinking, if a Natural Language Processing query such as show me all the files that relate to keyboard shortcuts doesn’t return the right results, we tend to give up. This can leads to repetition of work, email re-requests for documents and other types of wasteful effort. If a coworker sent you a file and you asked her to send it to you again because you simply can’t find it, then you’ve become part of the productivity problem.

Habits that revolve around search start with the way you name your files. Every filename needs to be connected with your thoughts so it can easily be retrieved and accessed within seconds of it reaching your mind. On the Mac, this is done through Spotlight. With the advent of SSDs drives, there is no excuse for you not to be able to access a file on your computer within seconds of contemplating it.

Darren and I have been going through this notion of telling each other “where the file is” because our iOS paradigm required it, but as soon I sit on the computer, I just need to know “what it’s called” and I am there. This is where OS X takes a massive lead in comparison to iOS. The same goes for PC laptops and desktops on Windows 7 and later. Search became so ubiquitous that it is your responsibility to expand your searching habits, and I am not even referring to web search, but the searching of your local files.

The biggest problem that occurs when we search is that too much information gets pulled back. As our databases grow bigger this problem will keep expanding. Sometimes this just means that you need to clean up your drive, but more often than not a simpler solution is to become more deliberate with your queries. Learning powerful filters will help you assess all of your junk instantaneously. Organizing files becomes an impossible task as our storage grows; Imagine cleaning up your email archives: How much value are you going to get in return for that effort?

Evernote users understand that their huge 5000+ notes databases can be very unwieldy unless they have the appropriate retrieval mechanism. See how even a simple query like “keyboard shortcuts” can return an unwieldy result:

As your databases expand, your queries will pull bigger and bigger result sets, making them less useful. A part of the solution to this problem is being more mindful of what we keep on our computers, as well as how we are naming those files. When it comes to email, it requires us to be more mindful of what kind of junk we’re subscribing to and how that increases the chances of pulling garbage into our critical search results.

Solving this issue happens when you take an active interest in learning how to search more effectively.

The complex relationship between you and your tools

Our relationship with tools starts out as intuitive, extends through repetition and is enhanced by finding powerful ways to improve and enhance it. Our brain encourages mental pathways by repetition, sending a little dopamine surge in a pathway every time we successfully complete a task. The more you repeat the positive loop feedback, the stronger the pathway will become. In this way, the “high performing” routines are rewarded, and the worse performing routines are discarded.

Oftentimes the most effective patterns are those that we have to discover and build the pathways ourselves; they are already laid out for us by other pioneering individuals and all we are required to do is learn them and acquire the habit. The ultimate efficiency is to accelerate your own development by learning from others, instead of reinventing the wheel.

As with most things related to organizing, return on investment is slight, almost invisible, but every time I look at my Text Expander statistics, I remind myself, how much I’ve grown from learning Markdown and marrying it to Bret Terpstra’s snippets. My content creation process has skyrocketed and saved me more hours than the snippets provide themselves.

The key to improving this complex relationship between you and your tools is to identify the actions that you consistently repeat and find ways to improve on them. These improvements will become more and more incremental over time, but think of their usefulness as compound interest. Every time you add a new pathway, you add value to your productivity portfolio. These small improvements add up, ultimately amounting to the difference between a rich repository of productivity or a poor selection of meager tools.