Work Smarter In Windows: 55 Great Productivity Tricks

With an ever-growing number of distractions that are fighting for your attention throughout the day, it’s more important than ever to be as productive as possible when you’re actually on the job. With that in mind, we’ve dug up the best Windows tricks in our arsenal and talked to some of the best minds in productivity to find 55 tips sure to help you get more work done with your PC in less time.

(Please note: These tips apply primarily to Windows 7, though most also work in Vista and many apply to XP as well.)

Let’s get down to it.

Minimize all windows (except the one that you’re working on). When your desktop becomes so cluttered that you can’t find anything, this step is a good way to re­­gain focus. Grab the title bar of the window you want, and shake your mouse a little. All other windows will vanish into the taskbar. Repeat to undo and restore all of your hidden windows.

Cut down on distractions by limiting the frequency with which your e-mail client checks for new messages.
Use folders in your e-mail client. Letting your e-mail accumulate in a monolithic inbox makes it nearly impossible for you to find important messages without a la­­borious hunt, as well as greatly increasing the odds that you’ll forget or simply overlook e-mail that re­­quires urgent attention. Delete the junk, and file nonactionable e-mail messages into clearly defined folders. Getting into the habit of sorting incoming mail in this way is critical for most users looking to enhance their productivity.

Be judicious with e-mail folders. An e-mail folder should not be so narrow of purpose that it’s never used, but neither should it be so broad that it be­­comes overstuffed with messages, unless you use that folder strictly for archiving and don’t need to refer to its contents regularly. Use a descriptive name for each folder and keep it short enough that it doesn’t require scrolling within the Mail Folders pane. Remember that folders can usually be nested, too.

Use e-mail rules to automatically route incoming messages to specific folders, so you can work through your e-mail inbox in a more organized way.
Use rules to route messages automatically. When your personal involvement isn’t necessary, e-mail rules can save lots of time. For example, do corporate newsletters from the same address arrive ten times a day? Stuff them into a folder for “later review.” In Outlook, look for a simple rules wizard that walks you through creating your rules; to find it, select Tools•Rules and Alerts. Most other e-mail clients have a similar option for establishing automated rules.

Remap the Windows key. Don’t ever use the Windows key? Or dislike where it’s located and want to swap it with or ? Download a keyboard remapper. Many cheap or free apps for this purpose are readily available, but Keyboard Re­­mapper ($10) works well. Remap to your heart’s content, but keep in mind that there’s no way to change or disable a laptop’s Fn key, since it bypasses Windows. (You can also check your computer’s BIOS for any potential tweakability.)

Customize your browser’s default search engine. Your PC builder has likely preset Internet Explorer’s default search en­­gine to the one that’s paying it the most. Otherwise, it’ll be set to Microsoft’s liking: Bing. Change this setting by clicking the drop-down arrow in the top right corner of the IE window (within the search box), and click Find More Providers. You won’t find Google without a hunt, so type Google into the ‘Find add-ons…’ search box, and select the first result, Google Search Suggestions. Click Add to Internet Explorer, and at the pop-up, click Make this my default search provider.

Improve Windows Search. If Windows Search isn’t finding everything that you know you’ve saved, check the Windows Indexing Options (type indexing options into the Windows 7 Start Menu search bar), and then check the locations that are in­­cluded in the search index. Click Modify, and navigate through the C: drive to add more locations to index.

Rename files fast. Renaming lots of files in Windows Explorer? Select the first file in your list, press F2, and type the new name. When finished, press Tab instead of Enter. Explorer will jump you to the next file in the list and automatically select the entire file name so you can rename it without having to press the Backspace key. Continue pressing Tab, and you’ll zip through the list one file at a time.

Drag in Outlook. In Outlook, you can drag any item to any other area of the program, and it will create a new item there, with the dragged information as part of the new item or event. Drag an e-mail to the Contacts button, and it will create a new contact for the sender, automatically populating the Name and E-mail fields, and putting the body of the message in the Notes field. Drag a contact to the Calendar, and you’ll create a Meeting Invitation ready to be sent to that person, and so on.

Don’t constantly check your e-mail. Frequent checking breaks your concentration and interrupts what you’re doing, wasting time as you return your focus to the task at hand. Reduce how often your e-mail client checks for new messages to something less distracting: Every 10 or 15 minutes should give you time enough to focus without keeping people waiting overly long for a response. In Outlook, click Ctrl-Alt-S and tweak the digits for ‘Schedule an automatic send/receive every __ minutes’.

Make important e-mail more findable. Just change the subject lines. Few things are more annoying than receiving an important e-mail message that carries a clueless subject like “hey” (or worse, an empty subject line). A more meaningful subject line improves your search index and makes your e-mail thread more valuable in general. In Outlook, open the message (this tactic doesn’t work with just a preview), se­­lect the subject line, and type over it with the more-useful text you want.

Select multiple files easily. Using the Ctrl or Shift keys to select multiple files in Windows Explorer can be difficult and an invitation to commit errors. If, however, you frequently need to open or manipulate multiple files at once, turn on Windows’ check-box system—it lets you select files more easily. In Windows Explorer, you can find this setting under Or­­ganize•Folder and search options•View. Scroll down and select Use check boxes to select items; then click OK.

Use Outlook’s categorization system. Outlook lets you color-code messages, task-list items, calendar entries, and even contacts into as many as six categories. Figure out a system and stick to it: red for business, for example, and blue for personal items. Or color-code items by level of urgency: green for “must do today,” blue for “to do this week,” and yellow for “to do this month.”

Power up the ‘Send To’ feature. When right-clicking a file in Windows Explorer, hold down Shift before you click, and then select the Send To command. Windows will reveal a whole host of additional options, such as one to move the file to an often-used folder.

Use Outlook’s Search Folders. Though it has somewhat less utility now that PC indexing and document search are commonplace, the Search Folders feature in Outlook still has a function. Essentially, these folders store copies of messages on the basis of predefined rules that you set—such as messages that have a keyword in the subject line or that are sent to or from a certain contact—and the folders update themselves as new messages arrive. If you need to constantly refer to a topic or to a particular person’s messages (such as those from your boss or a key client), but organizing them individually into folders doesn’t work for you, Search Folders can be a great time-saver. You can set one up under New•Search Folder.

Alter Windows Explorer’s ‘Favorites’. Drag folders to the top left of the screen from within Explorer and then organize them however you like. Right-click and select Remove to get rid of anything you don’t want. (Click here for more on folders in Ex­­plorer.)

Install a good spam filter. If your e-mail client doesn’t already have one, you can find many spam filters in PCWorld.com’s Downloads library. One good choice is Cloudmark DesktopOne.

Use the Windows 7 Calculator. You don’t need to hunt for a special Website or a pocket gadget to do complicated math. The Calculator utility in Windows 7 is far more powerful than it appears at first glance. Click the View button to pull up Scientific, Programmer, and Statistics calculators as well as a date calculator, a unit converter, and even a mortgage calculator. Useful, non?

Ratchet down User Account Control’s intrusiveness. This is an instant way to save time. In the ‘User Accounts and Family Safety’ control panel, first click User Accounts, followed by Change User Account Control settings. If you’re paranoid (and a power user), you can probably safely turn UAC down either to Never notify me, or to the option that’s one notch above that, Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer (do not dim my desktop).

Turn your iPad into a second monitor. All it takes is Air Display, a utility now available for the PC. It’s $10 from the iTunes Store.

De fault to the Documents Library. In Windows 7, when you launch Windows Explorer, the view automatically de­­faults to the Libraries Folder, which for many users is not very useful. Busy types will typically drill straight to the Documents Library from there. Save a click by instructing Explorer to default to the Documents Library. To do this, right-click on the Windows Explorer shortcut (the taskbar shortcut won’t work). In the Target field, type or paste:

%windir%\explorer.exe ::{450D8FBA-AD25-11D0-98A8-0800361B1103}

Finally, replace the icon in the taskbar with your tweaked shortcut.

Windows 7’s Jump Lists are packed with useful shortcuts to common actions. Getting to know them can save you hundreds of clicks per day.
Liberally use Windows 7’s Jump Lists. You can access the Jump Lists by right-clicking on any icon in the taskbar. You’ll find recently used documents, along with certain app-specific functions (such as setting your IM client to ‘Away’). One little time-saver: You can pin a Web URL to your browser’s Jump List by dragging that URL to the browser icon in the taskbar (do this by clicking on the mini icon in the URL bar).

Use Outlook 2010’s Conversations view. This view can make your inbox much more manageable by compressing related messages into groups and showing only the most recent message in the thread—similar to the way that Gmail works. To give this view a try, click the Arrange By tab in the message list pane and then select Conversation. Outlook will display only the most recent message in a thread. Use the spinner next to each headline to see previous messages in the thread.

Use Outlook’s Clean Up button. Is your inbox still out of control? In Outlook 2010, click the Clean Up button (it’s in the ribbon), and Outlook will sweep the inbox’s redundant messages into the trash for you with a single click.

Shorten your tech support calls by using Windows’ Problem Steps Recorder to capture each step of a PC problem as it happens.
Use Windows’ Problem Steps Recorder. Tech support calls are a pain. If you’re having computer problems, don’t get stuck on an endless phone call trying to explain the difficulty. Run Windows’ Problem Steps Recorder to save a step-by-step history of what you’re doing so you can share it with a friend or tech support pro. Type PSR in the Start menu search box to find and run the recorder. Then go through the steps that lead to your problem; PSR will record a screenshot of each step, logging everything you type and click. When you’re finished, click the Stop button and save the file. E-mail the archive to someone who’s better informed for a solution. (Note: This resource can also be used to make quick-and-dirty tutorials.)

Give yourself more screen real estate. You can shrink Windows 7’s oversize taskbar icons by right-clicking the taskbar, choosing Properties, and selecting Use small icons. This option shrinks the size of the taskbar by half, giving you a few extra millimeters of vertical screen space.

Turn off Aero Snap. By now you certainly know that in Windows 7, dragging a window to the side of the screen will autoresize it to fill exactly half of your available space, and dragging it to the top will cause it to fill the entire display. This is great for some people; but if you don’t like Aero Snap, you’re stuck with having to undo the resizing, often dozens of times per day. You can turn off this behavior with a Registry hack: Run Regedit, and then browse to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop; there, set Window­ArrangementActive to 0. After completing this step, you’ll have to reboot.

Snap windows faster. But what if you like Aero Snap? Here is a faster way to snap windows right or left by using keyboard shortcuts instead of the mouse. Windows Key-Left Arrow snaps left, and Windows Key-Right Arrow snaps right. While we’re at it, Windows Key-Up Arrow will maximize your window, while Windows Key-Down Arrow will minimize it. (Note, however, that if you have done the Registry hack described in the preceding tip to turn off Aero Snap, that hack will have disabled these particular shortcuts, too.)

Lowercase all-capitals text in a trice. In Microsoft Office apps, convert the text to lowercase by selecting it and pressing Shift-F3. Press Shift-F3 a second time to convert the text to title case (Which Looks Like This).

Customize your system tray. Windows 7 helpfully decreases the amount of space dedicated to the Notification Area by putting all but the most essential notifications within a drop-down (or, in this case, drop-up) box. It looks nice, but you can burn lots of time with wasted clicks as you hunt for what you need. If you want regular, click-free access to some of these notifications, change the default layout. It’s easy to do. Just open the tray’s spillover window and drag the icons you want to the taskbar area. You can rearrange icons within the added window, too.

Pin almost anything to the taskbar. There is practically no limit to the things you can pin to the taskbar: often-used folders, the Control Panel, even a button to shut down your PC. (For the last option, find shutdown.exe in the System/Windows32 directory, create a shortcut to it, and then append this text to the target in Properties: /s /f /t 00).

Use the Manage Add-ons menu in Internet Explorer to eliminate browser plug-ins that are slowing down your launch times.
Make Internet Explorer load faster. When IE loads very slowly for no clear reason, it’s usually due to an add-on clogging the pipes. Fortunately, one of IE’s best features is that it allows you to see how long each add-on is taking to load. You can find this under Tools•Manage Add-ons. Check the ‘Load time’ column to see what has been weighing you down.

Work around a Jump List limitation. Jump Lists are great, but Windows 7 no longer offers a way for you to open a new instance of an application—a new Word document or a new browser window, for example—by right-clicking on the application’s icon in the taskbar. Instead of resorting to the File menu, hold down Shift and then left-click normally on the taskbar icon to open a new instance of the application, leaving your other open windows in place.

Get a quick peek at the desktop. Simply click Windows Key-Spacebar to hide all open windows. Keep the Windows Key held down, and then release that key to return to your former environment with all its open windows in place.

Save downloads to a different directory. The Windows 7 Downloads directory sounds convenient, but since few users ever go browsing there, downloaded files may be forgotten for days. Most browsers will default to downloading into this directory. Firefox and Chrome users can change this relatively easily, though, to something more convenient. In Firefox, click Tools•Options. Under the General tab, change the ‘Save files to’ setting to the directory of your choice. In Google Chrome, click the Tools icon (it looks like a wrench), then Options. Click the Minor Tweaks tab and change the ‘Download location’ setting there. IE users unfortunately have to hack the Registry to make this change (a step that only power users should consider taking).

Zoom faster. In Windows 7 and Vista, Ctrl-Mouse Wheel lets you zoom in and out in most applications. In Windows Explorer, this combo makes icons and thumbnails larger or smaller. In Web browsers and most graphics programs, it changes the font size or the zoom level up and down.

Control your postvacation time. Never schedule anything for the day after you come back from a long trip or vacation, since you’ll need this day to catch up on everything you’ve missed while you were out. If you use a shared calendar system, book the entire day of your re­­turn with “meetings” before you leave.

Save time with VoIP. You can save significant time—and possibly money, too—by using a VoIP system that allows you to click phone numbers in Web pages and in e-mail messages and dial them directly via your PC. Skype offers such an option, which works broadly in e-mail and on most Websites, and Google recently integrated its own VoIP offering, Google Voice, into Gmail. In addition, Google Voice saves call histories as they take place, integrating them into the Gmail contact management system.

Hate staring at splash screens while your programs load? Use GNag to kill splash screens and other annoying pop-ups.
Get rid of splash screens and daily nag pop-ups. Splash screens do nothing for productivity. GNag will get rid of many of them for you with a simple install. The application focuses on eliminating the vanity videos that play when you launch many video games, but it also suppresses, for example, the annoying pop-up message that you get daily with the free version of the popular Avira AntiVir Personal Edition Classic antivirus software.

Don’t get involved with FarmVille. This advice is obvious but crucial.

TIPS: Pro David Allen

David Allen
Tips from productivity expert David Allen, author of Making It All Work, now in paperback. Find more advice at www.davidco.com.

1. Allen is a Lotus Notes enthusiast, through and through, but he enhances the spartan Notes interface with the eProductivity add-on, which adds next-generation features to the software. One of these features, for ex­­ample, enables the user to drag an e-mail message to a "call" button in order to place an immediate phone call to the person who sent the message. eproductivity.com

2. Allen syncs his Notes database with his BlackBerry, which he considers the best handheld for agenda mavens.

3. Though Notes is a great application for day-to-day activities, Allen uses Mindjet's MindManager to keep tabs on long-term projects and brainstorming notes. He re­­fers to it as "kind of a weekly review of what's going on... the big things coming toward me that I need to keep at top of mind."

4. Keyboard shortcuts are critical for helping a busy person get through a queue of tasks quickly. Allen employs ActiveWords to create simple macros, to open frequently used documents, and even to insert the current date on command into any document or application.

5. Pamela Professional for Skype--a call management tool--makes it easy to record VoIP phone calls of any length.

TIPS: Pro Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss
Tips from Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. Go to www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog for his blog.

1. In Ferriss's words, "Self-discipline is overrated. Technology tools will help you focus and be productive where you yourself fail." Still, Ferriss is a "tool minimalist" who uses only a few applications every day to manage his workload, primarily focusing on e-mail and social media.

2. Ferriss says the trick with e-mail is to have data about who's messaging you so you don't waste time re­­searching them to figure out if they're worth responding to. So Ferriss uses Rapportive, a Firefox plug-in (versions are available for Chrome, Mailplane, and Safari, as well) that replaces the ads in Gmail with detailed, Web-sourced information about the sender of each message in your inbox. "I get a 15 to 20 percent time savings from this one plug-in alone," he says. rapportive.com

3. To force himself to focus on the tasks at hand, Ferriss uses RescueTime, a Web-based tool that lets the user shut off access to certain Websites--Facebook and Twitter, for example--after a set amount of use. "It's easier to use tools like this than to rely on discipline," he explains. rescuetime.com

4. Ferriss has gone virtually paperless through the use of Evernote, a free downloadable app that lets him clip to the cloud Web pages, photos, business cards, and even printed matter, which he scans into the system with a portable scanner that he takes with him just about everywhere. Evernote has enabled Ferriss to remove 90 percent of the paper in his house, he says, and since it's searchable, he no longer has to rely on folders and data management.

5. Ferriss's one piece of advice for improving self-discipline: Spend the first two hours of every workday working on outstanding projects, before you check your e-mail.

TIPS: Adam Pash

Adam Pash
Tips from Adam Pash, editor-in-chief of the insanely useful Lifehacker.com.

1. Pash's approach to computing is to "do everything in as few keystrokes as possible, or have your computer do them automatically for you." One tool he uses is Launchy, which lets you type the first few letters of an application's name to launch it. While Windows 7's integrated search features make Launchy somewhat less critical, it's still a useful application. launchy.net

2. Pash himself developed Belvedere (direct download), an automated file manager for Windows that lets you apply rules to folders and take action on them as certain criteria are met. For example, you can specify that folders that go untouched for extended periods of time be deleted, or that files with a .jpg extension be automatically routed to a pictures folder. (Note: Some security software may flag Belvedere, but we believe this is a false positive.)

3. Dropbox is invaluable not just for backing up a PC but for syncing its data with multiple computers, which is key if you use more than one PC. It also works with the iPhone, the iPad, and Android devices.

4. Simplenote is a plain-text note-taking system that, like Dropbox, can sync among multiple desktops, the Web, and an iPhone (iPhone version here). This no-frills alternative to Evernote ensures that notes never get lost.

Instapaper ($5) is a tool, also for the iPhone, that simplifies Web pages and lets users read them later. A free version is also available.

5. Finally, Pash says that Gmail's new Priority Inbox feature is a "pretty good attempt at helping you deal with the glut of things that arrive in your Gmail inbox that you're faced with every day."

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments