Stop Wasting Time On Your Computer

Professors, other adults, and your parents probably think that you are really good at using a computer. Based on my none-too-empirical observations of most Claremont McKenna College students, unless you're an Resident Technology Assistant or Lab Technology Assistant, you probably suck at using a computer. Test number one: Are you reading this article on Internet Explorer? If yes, stop reading this article and download literally any other browser. All of the other options are faster, better designed, have more features, and are more secure. Subtest A: Do you know how to download another browser? If no, I’m not sure I can help you. Ok, now read on.

Should every CMC student be able to configure a VPN or access their computer’s root directory? No. Nobody wants to put the RTAs out of a job. There are, however, a lot of simple things you can do in order to make the time you spend on your computer more efficient, leaving more time for Reddit, or The Vampire Diaries, or, you know, being outside.

1. Use two monitors

The number of students I see staring into tiny laptop screens worries me. Beyond the fact that squinting into a tiny screen is terrible for your eyes, people are simply more productive with more screen real estate. Studies have shown that adding a second monitor boosts your productivity by at least 20% and possibly up to 40%. Mike Malsed has put dual-monitors in Poppa, and since you probably invested in a nicer computer than the ones in the labs, why settle for a worse display? Assuming you have a laptop, you’re already halfway towards having two screens. I’ve been using a 19-inch widescreen monitor with my computer since my sophomore year, and I can’t imagine going back. You can purchase a monitor for $100 and a laptop stand, keyboard, and mouse for prices ranging from free to $20. Or, for a more Do-It-Yourself solution, make a laptop stand out of a stack of books like I do.

2. Use a mouse

I have yet to find a task I do on a daily basis on my computer that could be accomplished more effectively with a trackpad than a mouse. Yes, Apple’s Magic Trackpad and other nifty devices are cool if you are flipping through pictures or zooming in and out a lot, but almost all software and websites are designed for mouse input. I’m all for keyboard shortcuts, but if I’m going to pick my hands up off the keyboards, I would rather be reaching for a mouse than sliding around a trackpad, or worse, the ridiculous “pointing stick” they put in the middle of some PC laptops.

3. mail.cmc.edu

This one is a major pet peeve for me. I cringe every time I see someone checking their CMC email by going to www.cmc.edu, clicking on “Gateways”, then “Current Students”, then logging in to their email. Mail.cmc.edu, or cmc.edu/mail will both get you there much faster. Even faster? Just have your CMC mail forwarded to a personal Gmail account that won’t log you out. Want to access the portal? It’s at portal.cmc.edu. Have a hard time remembering all of these? Save them in your bookmarks. But then you say, “I use computers in the labs, or at a research institute, as well as my personal computer, so I don’t always have my bookmarks accessible”. To which I respond...

4. Try browser syncing

Browser syncing is a must if you use several different computers on campus. In my case, I work on my laptop, at Poppa, and at the Rose Institute - usually all three in a single day. Why would I waste my time making sure all my bookmarks are available on my laptop if I use other computers regularly? Because Chrome and Firefox both have a nifty feature called “browser syncing,” available in the preferences. Once I’m on a computer and have Chrome installed, I simply go into the preferences and log into my Google account, and 30 seconds later the browser looks exactly like it does on my laptop, complete with themes, bookmarks, and settings. This is especially helpful if you’ve bookmarked important but hard to find web sites, like online job or scholarship applications.

5. Dropbox & Google Docs

This might not save you time at your computer on a regular basis, but the amount of time it will save you if something were to happen to your computer is impossible to quantify. Case in point: I’ve been working on my thesis for two months now, have written 10 pages, collected dozens of articles, drafted several versions of an outline, and have a dozen Excel spreadsheets of data. If I threw my laptop off the 4th floor of the Kravis Center right now, I could head over to Poppa and pick up my thesis right where I left off. Why? Every article that I’ve read (or plan to read) and every spreadsheet I've made is saved to my Dropbox account, and I’ve written every word on Google Docs. This means that I can jump between computers and have access to all my materials, anywhere there's an internet connection. Having the Dropbox app on my iPad means I can read an article for my thesis while waiting for a drink at the Motley. This is when I get seriously stoked about technology - something like this would likely not have been possible even two years ago.

6. Know how to kill programs

The old claim that “Macs don’t freeze” isn’t really true. (95% of the time that my Mac freezes, it’s caused by a Microsoft-made program, but let's ignore that for now). Everyone needs to kill a program from time to time, because all software sucks. If you’re a PC person, you’re well acquainted with how to do this: Control+Alt+Delete. Then choose the program and click “End Task”. (Nothing happened? Oh...jeez...that’s too bad. Can't help you there.) Unfortunately, Apple likes to pretend that their software never fails, so they make it much harder to kill a program. If a program does freeze on a Mac, the first thing to try is to right click or click and hold the programs icon on the dock and choose “Force Quit”. Sadly, even this doesn’t always work, and there’s no magic Control+Alt+Delete solution. Open the Finder, go to Application, then Utilities, then “Activity Monitor.” Find the app and click the big “Quit Process” button. Problem solved.

7. Simplify your dock/desktop

Live an uncluttered life. Most people don’t come close to using (or even understanding) all the applications they keep on their desktop or in the dock on their Mac. So why keep them there? Stop wasting space on your screen and get rid of them. (“Delete shortcut” on PC, right-click, then options, then uncheck “Keep in Dock” on Mac). I don’t even like to see my dock if I’m not using it, so it hides automatically until my cursor moves to the bottom of the screen. I keep four applications on it - Chrome,Twitter for Mac, Adium (for IM), and iTunes. (The picture below also has an icon for "Skitch" on the right, which I highly, highly recommend for taking fantastic screenshots on a Mac.

8. Write simply

Seriously. Live an uncluttered life. Microsoft Word can do a lot of things, which is great, but do you really need to do all those things when you’re writing? No. You just need to write something. I do this by opening a Google Doc, going into full screen mode, and resisting the urge to open another tab. I won't be prescriptive about how you go about isolating your writing from the billion other distractions your computer offers, but I highly recommend you find yours and stick to it when there's writing to be done.

9. Get a your digital life organized

Have a to-do list (I use the Tasks built into Gmail because it allows me to automatically convert an email to a task, and a program called Asana for the Rose Institute because it allows me to collaborate with our 24 other employees). I’ve heard great things about Evernote and Things, but don’t personally use them. I use 1Password to keep track of my log-ins. Just don’t keep important information on a sticky note on your computer desktop, or worse, a physical Post-it note on your actual desktop. This might happen.

10. Exercise

The more time you spend off your computer, the more productive the time you spend on it will be. Hit up Ducey. Or try this out.

Want more from Dave Meyer and #CMCTech? Check out Dave's articles on 3 Tech Tools to Simplify College Life, Twitter, The Rise of the App Store and Steve Jobs.