How to tune Windows 10 for laser-focused productivity

These tips make working from home less distracting, and a whole lot easier.

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Find yourself suddenly needing to be more productive? Good news! Windows 10 comes loaded with all sorts of tools designed to help you Get Things Done, along with deeper tweaks that can optimize the operating system for productivity even more. Now for the bad news: All those excellent productivity-boosting Windows tools and tweaks aren’t immediately obvious, with many of the most useful settings buried deep inside a maze of options menus.

We can help. Taking five or ten minutes to tinker with Windows 10 can supercharge your setup, regardless of whether you’re trying to keep at work while stuck at home or setting up something more permanent. Let’s dig in.

Get rid of interruptions

If you want to stay focused on a task, reducing your interruptions is key. That can be as simple as checking your email and social media only at designated times, but Windows 10 can still pop up notifications that can kick you out of a productive headspace, be it from apps or the OS itself. Let’s eradicate those first.

notifications Brad Chacos/IDG

Windows 10’s notifications options

Open the Start menu, click the Settings cog icon, and head to System > Notifications and actions. You have a few different options here. To nuke all notifications from orbit, eradicating them completely, move the Get notifications from apps and other senders item to Off. Boom.

For a more nuanced approach, you can click the tiny Focus assist settings link underneath that option, which allows you to set up rules for when and how you’ll receive OS notifications.

focus assist Brad Chacos/IDG

Windows 10’s Focus Assist options.

If you want to receive some notifications—say, Mail and Calendar events—but not others, head back to the main Notifications and actions screen. At the bottom, you’ll see a big list of all the apps that can potentially send you notifications. Slide the ones that aren’t critical to off. I like to disable the Razer Synapse and Discord system notifications, for example, because even though I’m a gamer they’re prone to interrupting me during work hours. I also avoid Mail notifications, preferring to check my inbox on my own schedule.

Notifications aren’t even the worst offender when it comes to interruptions. Nothing is worse than Windows 10's forced restarts your PC to install updates. Fortunately, Microsoft’s worked in lots of tools over the years that make that scenario much less likely to occur—if you know they exist, that is.

windows update Brad Chacos/IDG

Windows Update options.

Head to Start > Settings> Update & Security > Windows Update to tinker with your options. Particularly, check on your Change Active Hours settings. These let you tell Windows when you’re working, and it won’t automatically reset your PC during that time. The ability to pause all updates for a week is handy, too; if you dig into the Advanced options menu you can push them out for just over a month.

Organize your workflow

Instilling some order over your workflow can make a big difference. Sure, Alt-Tab-bing through all your open programs can work, but taking the time to set up some sort of organization can help keep things running as smoothly as possible. Windows 10 includes several tools that can make multi-tasking even more productive.

First off: Multi-monitor setups rock for productivity, and I highly recommend using more than one monitor if possible. Our guides on how to set up two monitors and Windows 10’s individual display scaling can help you out in that case. In a pinch, you can even use a TV as a computer monitor, though they work better as auxiliary displays. That said, not everyone wants (or can afford) more than one display, and the Windows 10 tools below help even if you’re stuck on a single screen.

windows snap Brad Chacos/IDG

When you Snap a window to one half of the screen, Windows pulls back all your other open windows to let you choose one to fill the other side.

Don’t underestimate the power of Windows Snap, a native way to easily divvy up your monitor into multiple segments devoted to separate apps. Grab an open window by its title bar—the horizontal bar at the top that says its name—and drag it all the way to the left or right of the screen, until your mouse cursor touches the edge of the display. You’ll see a transparent outline flow out from your cursor to fill half the screen. Let go, and the chosen program will expand, taking up that space. Any other programs open on that monitor will appear on the other half of the screen, and if you select one, it’ll expand to fill that space. Boom! Now you’ve got two programs on the screen at the same time, split right down the middle.

If you’ve got a large monitor, or a pixel-dense 1440p or 4K display, you can use Snap to divide your screen even more. Dragging open windows to a corner of your display will Snap them into that quarter of the screen, though using this method won’t trigger a prompt asking you what to fill the rest of the screen with. You’ll need to Snap the windows you want manually to each corner.

windows snap quadrants Brad Chacos/IDG

Four windows Snapped into four quadrants of the screen can put a lot of info at your fingertips at once.

It’s worth it, though. Having, say, a document, a spreadsheet, your work’s chat software, and Outlook open and visible all at the same time can help you get a lot of stuff done faster, especially if you’re transferring data from one of the apps to another.

Another potent tool for organization: The criminally underutilized Virtual Desktops feature, which debuted in Windows 10. Virtual desktops let you separate “virtual” versions of your desktop, each running its own instances of software, that you can hop between. I work from home, so I sometimes run separate virtual desktops devoted to work time and play time, for instance—Office, Slack, and a browser dedicated to work tasks in one, and “fun” apps like Steam, Discord, and a browser with Reddit or Twitter open in another. When it’s break time (or beer o’ clock), I can just hop over to the “play” virtual desktop and pick up where I left off.

virtual desktop bar Brad Chacos/IDG

You can see your various virtual desktops at the top of Windows 10’s Task View, above your activity Timeline.

Alternatively, you could set up multiple virtual desktops, each dedicated to its own complicated work task, with all the relevant programs, browser tabs, and documents/spreadsheets open to that particular project. Your only limit is your imagination!

To start using virtual desktops, click the Task View icon in Windows 10’s taskbar to summon your Timeline. Select the tiny +New desktop text at the top-left of the screen.

windows 10 taskbar task view icon 2 Melissa Riofrio/IDG

In Windows 10, the Task View icon (a small stack of rectangles with a slider on the right side) can be found to the right of the search bar and the Cortana icon.

Once you’re set up, use the same Task View interface to swap among open virtual desktops in the bar that appears at the top of the screen.

You can also use these keyboard shortcuts to control your virtual desktops:

  • Windows+Ctrl+DCreate and open a new virtual desktop
  • Windows+Ctrl+F4: Close the current virtual desktop.
  • Windows+Ctrl+Left/Right: Switch to the virtual desktop on the left or right.
  • Windows+Tab: Open Task View/Virtual desktop interface
groupy tabs Brad Chacos/IDG

Stardock’s Groupy lets you combine several programs into one window like browser tabs, and jump among them. If you look at the title bar at the top of the screen, you’ll see this window includes File Explorer, Chrome, Spotify, and Slack.

Finally, while this guide is dedicated to Windows tips, if you tend to juggle multiple programs simultaneously for complicated tasks, consider paying up for Stardock’s excellent Groupy software. Groupy essentially lets you organize several programs into a single window, letting you hop between each like so many browser tabs. It’s great, and only costs $10 direct from Stardock. Microsoft was working on a native tabbed interface for Windows 10, dubbed Sets, but alas, it’s dead. Groupy earns our highest recommendation.

Odds and ends

Getting rid of distractions and organizing your workflow will go a long way toward making you more productive, but a handful of other Windows 10 tweaks can make your life easier, too.

night light Brad Chacos/IDG

Night light’s options are basic, but it’s a handy tool.

Night light restricts blue light emanating from your display by changing its hue, similar to the popular f.lux app. “Studies have shown that blue light at night suppresses melatonin production more than other colors and shifts the body’s circadian timing, thereby disrupting the sleep-wake cycle,” we said in our Night Light primer. Head to Start > Settings > System > Display and activate the Night Light slider to turn it on, then click the Night light settings link to adjust how it works.

timeline Brad Chacos/IDG

Windows 10's Timeline shows you what you've worked on recently, letting you hop back in where you left off with a single click.

Windows Timeline shows you a history of your recent activity in Microsoft apps, including individual Office files and Edge browser tabs, making it easy to jump back into something you were working on before. If you’re a Chrome user, grab the official Web Activities browser extension by Microsoft to enable the same functionality.

You summon Timeline by opening the Task View icon on the Windows 10 toolbar, or pressing Windows+Tab. Your recent activity appears underneath the virtual desktop view. Better yet, Timeline’s tied to your Microsoft Account, so it can travel with you from PC to PC. You can disable Microsoft’s synchronization options by heading to Start > Settings > Privacy > Activity History and disabling everything. I find the feature incredibly useful, however, as I often switch from my laptop to my desktop.

Cloud clipboard further leverages the connectivity of your Microsoft Account by letting you copy text on one PC, then paste it on another. It’s wonderful. Head to Settings > System > Clipboard to turn it on and configure its behavior.

backup4 IDG

File History makes it easy to manage which folders you're backing up.

If you have external storage connected to your PC, File History is a godsend, taking snapshots of your files as you go and storing the different versions, so you can recover older saves if need be. “Say, for example, you really liked a paragraph from the first draft of an essay, but you deleted it long ago and are now battling regret,” we explained in our primer. “You can dip into File History, retrieve the right version of your document, and copy the paragraph.” Our File History guide can set you up if it sounds interesting, while our roundup of the best external drives can point you toward the best hardware for the task. (You don’t need a fast external SSD for File History; a slower—and thus more affordable—hard drive performs the job just fine.)

That about does it. If you want to finish your day sooner, be sure to check out 10 time-saving Windows tricks that help you get stuff done faster. Those simple tips aren’t glamorous, and most aren’t even new to be honest, but when you use them together, they can seriously streamline your workflow.

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