How to get more done in less time? If you ask yourself this question pretty often, high five! If you are a busy person, or you just enjoy optimizing your processes down to milliseconds, this list may inspire you to find your own, new ways to be more efficient.

Self-organization is one of the most important steps to efficiency. But as you got to this line, I assume you are an already advanced, organized person. You likely know your way around to-do lists... This post is about the little things beyond that.

Note about the author: I've founded and co-founded several businesses, of which two are currently alive. I design products, talk to people, set up processes, deal with a lot of the bureaucracy around multiple companies, etc. There's a lot to deal with and I've already suffered from RSI. So it's a matter of survival.

Overview

The practices can be broken down to the following categories:

  1. Remove distractions
  2. Automate
  3. Reduce steps
    • Template-ize
    • Reduce clicks
    • Batch process
    • Reduce iterations with people per task
  4. Speed up

1. Remove distractions

The first step is to create and maintain a distraction-free environment. Make a habit of it. Here are a few things that may help:

  • Clean your desk from everything that is not related to the problem at hand.
  • Kill unnecessary notifications.
  • Unsubscribe from the newsletters. Keep only those which you really, really read. Otherwise, it's just bloat.
  • Get noise-canceling headphones to keep you in the productive flow.
  • Setup asynchronous communication wherever it helps.
  • Set anti-distraction rules for your workspace. For example, we have invented a "Yo" rule. It works like this: If you need to discuss something with your colleague who is sitting next to you, you just write her "Yo" on Slack. It translates to: "Hey, I need to discuss something with you in person quickly. Please get to me when you have time.". This way, people do not shout or wave and distract each other and everyone else around.
  • Keep your inbox at zero and use the proper email features like archiving. Never "mark as unread" your emails (this topic is worth a separate article).
  • Set your desktop wallpaper to a solid dark grey color. Having a photo there is just another distraction.
  • Little bonus for Mac user: if you got too many icons in your navbar, Vanilla App helps you to hide the ones you don't want to see.

Over the top

In the morning, when you are dressing up, are you sometimes not sure what t-shirt to wear? That is another unnecessary analysis paralysis (or paralysis by analysis, here's a great video about it). To simplify my life and get rid of another decision making, I got 20 of the same white t-shirts. This is actually a common solution among busy people.

2. Automate

Motto for this one: Automate what can be automated.

Automate your email client.

Note: a requirement for this is keeping inbox zero.

For example, you can automatically archive received emails of specified type.

In my case, such emails are bank statements from my bank. I need to download bank statements for my companies (to later sent to the accountant). But I don't need the bank statements from my personal bank account that I receive from the same bank. So I've set a rule in my email client to archive these automatically.

Setting it up is easy. The Rule checks every incoming email for "from address" and a specific text in the name of the attachment. If there is a match, it archives it.

Similarly, I archive emails that contain a string "Sponsored." This removes some of the unwanted messages from mailing lists I'm in.

The email client I use is called Airmail (here's a guide on it's rules), but you can do this in Gmail and (I suppose) most of the popular email apps.

At home:

  • If you don't yet have an autonomous vacuum cleaner, I encourage you to get one, if you can.
  • Get a maid. Find a trustworthy one and give him or her the keys with an exact list of stuff that needs to be done every time. The time you save pays off the cost, your time is more expensive.

3. Reduce steps

I split tricks for step reduction into the following categories:

  • Template-ize
  • Click reduction
  • Batch processing
  • Reduce iterations with people per task

3.1 Template-ize

The motto for this one is: Never write the same thing twice.

Text snippets

How many times do you need to type your email, street address, mobile number, ZIP code or bank account number? Do you even remember those? I don't. I use text snippets instead.

I use for this an app called Alfred. I can search all my snippets like in Spotlight Search on my Mac, and I can also automatically add snippets by typing a keyword.

Snippets that I search by name:

  • Billing addresses. I use this every time I need to send someone billing info for invoice. Multiple companies, multiple billing info, that does not need to take up space in my brain.
  • ZIP codes (I search by street name)
  • Bank account numbers (we call those "IBAN" in Europe)
  • Company IDs and VAT numbers
  • Mac OS special symbols ⌃⇥⌘⌥↩⇧→←↑↓ (I design user interfaces, so I do need those from time to time).

Auto-expanding snippets:

  • Emails. I write =ee and it automatically replaces it to my email example@example.com. I currently administer 11 emails, and I use snippets for 3 of those. Saves my fingers every time I log in.
  • Phone numbers (one with the country extension and another without). I write =00 and it gets replaced by 0909123456
  • Company names
  • Short (code) comment. I write ///, it's replaced with:
/*

*/

Here's how it looks:

I have hundreds of snippets. It saves me a lot of time.

In Alfred, you can sync all the snippets and settings using Dropbox. It's useful when you have multiple computers, plus it's always good to keep a backup. Bad news for Windows users: Alfred is for Mac only.

Email templates

I have been using snippets also for writing emails until I discovered email templates (in my Airmail client). Email templates are useful if I need to write the same emails from time to time manually. Here are some examples:

  • Order courier to pick up a package (I order pickups by email).
  • Send our accountants links to documents related to previous accounting period, every month (I know this is a stupid step whatsoever, I should instead upgrade our accountants).

Todo lists

  • What to buy at groceries. I share it with my wife and we keep it up to date.
  • List of all stuff to install and migrate after moving to a new mac (I don't use the Migration Assistant, I like starting fresh). My complete setup and sync from start to finish take around 2-3 hours. Around 80% of that is just passive syncing of data, as most of my non-cloud data are on Dropbox and Google Drive.
  • Stuff to pack for a trip. Divided into different activity types like a business trip abroad, festival or wakeboarding trip. Everything from socks to the list of chargers.

There are many tools available that you can use: Asana, Apple Notes... whatever. I hope that one day you will try Smarkup for this, the awesome thing that we're working on so hard for the past few years.

3.2 Click reduction

Learn basic keyboard shortcuts.

If you are new to this, here are just a few for writing text (I'll be using Mac shortcuts, if you are on Windows, just switch Cmd to Ctrl):

  • Cmd Arrow jumps to beginning or end.
  • Opt Arrow jumps by a word.
  • If you add Shift to it, it makes a selection.
  • This for those of you who just sometimes write in a non-English language. Hold s to bring up the menu with special characters. Then press number to choose the character.
  • Press Cmd K to add a link. This works in most of the text editors.

There's a lot more to keyboard shortcuts.

Call custom app window templates

Instead of clicking on Chrome icon, creating a new tab, clicking on a bookmark, (or worse: typing URL, then clicking around), I use macros. It's very similar to Spotlight Search or the text snippet search described above.

I use an app called Keyboard Maestro. It's very similar to the native Automator app, but in some ways, it's much more powerful.

Chrome window templates

  • Active sprint view Jira, for our daily Standups
  • Our Jira backlog
  • Lunch menus of all nearby restaurants that we visit
  • Two time-tracking sheets that I fill every day
  • Facebook preferences page with a list of people blocked for event invites (some people invite everyone to everything, it bloats my calendar, so I block those).

Finder window templates

  • Open "Cost" folder Company 1
  • Open "Cost" folder Company 2

I found this to be a useful shortcut just to open a Finder window, something I do many times a day.

Other perks that are possible with Keyboard Maestro

  • Insert date of various formats. I write =yy and it replaces it with current date 2019-07-13. Or if I need our European format, I use =dd with 13.07.2019. Or =ww with a current week number W32.

  • Bind F-keys to custom scripts for controlling in-app volume of Spotify.

Like Alfred, Keyboard Maestro can sync settings to your Dropbox. So you set it up only once and if you change the machine, no problem.

If you use a mouse...

If you use a mouse, I recommend Razer Naga mouse with it's (sometimes very buggy) software driver Synapse 2 (Mac), or Synapse 3 (on Windows).

This mouse has a lot of conveniently placed keys, which you can bind keys to pretty much any action, or even a custom macro.

The most useful actions to me are:

  • New tab (simulates Cmd T in Chrome, the same action is in most of the other software).
  • Close tab or window (simulates Cmd W)
  • Next / previous tab (simulates Cmd Opt Left and Cmd Opt Right)

This way I can easily manage tabs in Chrome without moving my hand from the mouse.

Miscellaneous

  • If you're using two-factor authentication frequently, for google accounts, use the "Google" app (on both iOS and Android). It's the fastest way to authenticate I know about. No typing a code, just unlock your phone and press a button. This sounds like a small thing, but it takes away a lot of annoyance from 2FA.
  • If you are on Mac and are using a lot of reminders, Fantastical allows you to create and manage reminders inside the calendar view.

3.3 Batch process

Batch processing is a fancy term for doing multiple repetitive tasks all at once. For example, instead of opening and printing each PDF one by one, you print it all at once. You can apply the same principle outside IT.

Example: Batch processing your socks.

Most of the people have a collection of different pairs of socks. Different colors, styles, and age. That's cool, but you need to wash them separately, pair them, plus each pair wears out different time.

I gave away all my socks and purchased 30 pairs of the same socks all at once. I put them into a separate bucket, and if I run out of socks, I wash the socks all at once. Drying is easier too. No pairing. All wear out evenly. Bam! Life is fantastic, what else?

3.4 Reduce iterations with people per task

Iterations can be distractive, many of those are destructive. Using asynchronous communication helps a lot.

  • Use the right tools for internal communication and project management, and use them properly. I'm talking about the tools you use at work as a team. Jira, Asana, Wrike, Slack... If you are not using such tools already, I encourage you to jump on board as soon as possible. Learning how to use them properly takes time and effort. But when it starts paying off, it's worth it exponentially.
  • If you use Slack, you can use it to remind your colleagues about stuff. You do it by writing Slackbot a direct message. For example: Remind @sandy to pay the invoice tomorrow at 9am.
  • If you do meetings, try Calendly for scheduling. Instead of ping-ponging email with ever-changing availability, just send a link and let the other side choose the date that fits your calendar.

4. Speed up

Stuff like learning or reading can't be automated or batch processed (yet). But you can speed it up.

  • Watch faster. If you haven't yet tried to watch a tutorial on a faster speed, I highly encourage you to try it out. You will be surprised how good it is. There is a perfect Chrome extension called Video Speed Controller. You to speed up any video in your browser (not just YouTube) by 10% increments by pressing D, press S to slow down or R to reset. My average watching speed is 1.6x, which means I watch 60% more content at the end of the day.
  • Read faster. There are many speed-reading courses on the internet. There are also some free shorts which can show you at least some basics. It helps not just to read faster, but also to remember.

Takeaway

It is easy to become a caveman these days. A lot of the things mentioned above will be outdated within a few years. They will be replaced by new, better ones. To prevent becoming a caveman and stay efficient, keep up with the technologies.

What's next

As a technology company, we try to automate processes around development and deployment as well. More about that in the upcoming post.


This post is a result of our internal knowledge-sharing events at Smarkup that we call Wisdoom.