Technology is supposed to make life easier, but it doesn't seem that way when you're struggling to wrangle 289 new e-mail messages, dealing with a hard-drive crash, or suddenly realizing that you left an important file on the office computer. Thankfully, plenty of tools can help. We'll tell you which ones are worth trying, and we'll also suggest some practices that you can incorporate into your workday to use tech tools more effectively and efficiently.
1. Telecommute by Remotely Controlling Your Office Computer
You can work from home--but use the computer in your office--through remote control software such as LogMeIn (free version available) or TightVNC (free). You can view the remote computer full screen, launch and close programs, read e-mail, copy and paste text between PCs, and access any files you left behind. Save money on gas, claim home equipment on your taxes, and convince your boss that you'll be more productive without leaving your house. Even the iPhone has some VNC clients, such as Mocha VNC and Teleport.
If you don't need full remote control but you do require access to your office or home files, set up Microsoft's free file-syncing tool, FolderShare. Your files will always be up-to-date, no matter where you're working or where you last updated them.
2. Schedule Automatic Hard-Drive Backups, Locally and Remotely
Backing up your critical files is as exciting as purchasing home insurance, but just as important, too. Don't risk losing your irreplaceable digital photos by making empty promises to yourself to burn a couple of DVDs every few months. Instead, set up software and services to do the job for you while you concentrate on more-exciting projects. First, save yourself from an "OMG my hard drive crashed!" catastrophe with a top backup program. Or get started now with a free copy of SyncBackSE, and schedule regular backup jobs to your external FireWire drive, thumb drive, or network drive. (If you have FTP-server access, SyncBack can back up to that as well.)
Of course, local backup isn't enough. To protect your data against fire, lightning, theft, or other disasters, you want to back up your data to a remote server over the Internet. Both Carbonite and Mozy Home offer affordable unlimited server space and utilities that quietly back up your data in the background while you work.
3. Work Faster and More Efficiently Without a Mouse
Streamline your computer work by teaching yourself keyboard shortcuts for your common actions, such as Ctrl-S to save, Ctrl-T to open a new tab in Firefox, and Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V to copy and paste (see our list of additional shortcuts). Then, become a keyboard master with the help of a keyboard launcher such as the free Launchy (Windows) or Quicksilver (Mac). You can start programs, open documents, and even do advanced actions such as resizing images and moving files without moving your hands from the keyboard.
You can also assign key combinations that automatically type out common phrases--such as user names, passwords, addresses, and e-mail signatures--with utilities like TypeItIn (Windows) or TypeIt4Me (Mac OS X).
4. Lose Weight, Get Fit, Save Money, and Increase Your Mileage Online
A new crop of social self-improvement sites help you monitor how much you've eaten, exercised, and spent, to motivate you and keep you on track.
If Quicken or Microsoft Money has become too complicated to update, you can track your spending, balance your checkbook, and run charts on expenditures versus income at personal-finance sites Mint.com and Wesabe.
As for your car, avoid online gas scams. Additionally, you can squeeze the last bit of mileage out of every expensive tank of gas with a miles-per-gallon tracker like Fuelly or MyMileMarker. Entering your information into such sites gets you personalized suggestions, comparisons, and a community of like-minded people who can offer support and suggestions.
5. Clear Out Your Inbox Every Day
Beat e-mail overload once and for all by emptying your inbox completely--and keeping it that way. The "Inbox Zero" philosophy says that e-mail messages are just calls to action--not clutter that we need to hang on to. Create three folders or labels in your e-mail client: Action, Later, and Archive. Each day when you check your e-mail, make a decision and do something with every new message you've received until you've moved them all out of your inbox and reduced your message count down to zero. Ruthlessly delete the messages you don't need, on the spot. Respond to the ones that will take under 2 minutes. File messages that you want to keep for future reference in the Archive folder, those that will take longer than 2 minutes to reply to in Action (and add those to-do items to your list), and messages you need to follow up on at a subsequent date (such as Amazon shipment notifications) in Later. Then breathe a sigh of relief when you see that glorious declaration: 'You have no new mail.'