I enjoy the regular updates on interesting work environments posted by LifeHacker.com, where you can see all manner of screen and desk layouts, often with multiple monitors (even 6!) for enhanced productivity. We are not all going to have multiple monitors, and perhaps shouldn’t even if we can in light of concerns about multi-tasking and how terrible we really are at it. We may not even be able to choose an alternative to the dominant law office operating system, Microsoft Windows. But whether you have more than one monitor or not, here are a couple of simple utilities that may have a positive impact on your productivity.
Your Windows Shell’s usability is often compared to other operating systems, like Apple Macintosh or Linux distributions like Ubuntu. For example, Mac users tend to have a line of icons along the bottom of the screen showing open or commonly used programs but no task bar. Ubuntu users often have their equivalent of the Windows task bar, called a panel, at the top of the screen rather than the bottom. You can move them around, but that’s mostly window dressing. Bah dum, ching!
Key In On Your Hidden Apps
One utility that I have come to rely on heavily is a keystroke launcher called Launchy. Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, it indexes the names of the applications on your computer. Rather than having to navigate the Windows program menu or keeping icons on your desktop, you call up Launchy with a hot key combination (often ALT and your space bar). You start to type in the name of the program that you are looking for and it first shows you the best match. If there is more than one choice, it will display a short list of matches.
Launchy can be useful in a number of ways. First, it means that if you are using the keyboard, you can keep your hands on it to start another application. You do not need to shift to your mouse, and then start to navigate your program menu. Second, it means you can declutter your environment by limiting the number of icons that you keep visible on your desktop or quick launch toolbar.
The uniqueness of the program’s name will reduce how many keystrokes it takes to bring it up. For example, when I want to access my Google Chrome Web browser, I can type ch and hit ENTER to start it.
In contrast, if I type in word, Launchy shows me WordPad before Microsoft Word 2007. But I can end run that issue if I type in d 2, which is the last letter in Word, a space, and the first number in 2007. Then Microsoft Word 2007 pops up first.
You may find it easier to start your most commonly used applications manually, but Launchy is great for everything else. It will remember the last program you accessed as well, so that you can call up Launchy and hit ENTER to execute a program a second time.
I find that I start my most common applications from the Windows quick launch toolbar, and I have about 8 icons there. In most cases, I use other applications much less frequently, often less than once a day. For all of those programs, I can use Launchy to quickly call up the application, use it, and then close it.
Even when you are working off multiple monitors, it can be helpful to have this quick access utility. In fact, it can mean that you autohide your task bar or start panels, so that every pixel is occupied by your application windows. This is especially valuable when you are on a smaller screen, like a netbook, where you really need to maximize your view.
Got Windows? Roll Up Your Blinds
One feature I like on Mac and Ubuntu is the ability to roll up programs like window blinds. Take a look at Winroll (free), Active Captions or Actual Window Rollup to get the same type of functionality on Windows. Winroll does not work with the Microsoft Office 2007 suite. Windows 7 users have some other alternatives built-in, including Peek, Shake, and Snap.
Rather than stacking up buttons on my task bar for each open application, I can leave the windows in place but hide their contents. A mouse right click rolls up the window; another right click reopens it. That way, when I look at my screen, I can see where the program I want to use is, even if it is rolled up. If you are like me, your mouse tends to be at the top of a screen (near all the menus) so using rolled up windows is faster than mousing down to icons on a task bar or switching to the keyboard to ALT-TAB between programs.
Separate Your Work Spaces
One thing I miss on Windows is the ability to group my applications like I do on Ubuntu into a work space. Every application in a given work space is related. For those who do not want, or do not have, multiple monitors, this can give you a virtualized extension of your desktop.
On Ubuntu and other Linux distributions, you can have multiple work spaces open at the same time. This means that you can open Microsoft Word 2007 and your Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail on one work space, then create a second work space and open your Web browser and research tools.
When you are working strictly on research, and your note taking is happening in your electronic notebooks in Evernote or Microsoft Onenote, you switch to that workspace. All other open windows are hidden; no icons on the task bar, no ability to toggle to them by pressing ALT and hitting TAB. When you are finished, you can move back to a different workspace. Using work spaces is a great way to hide disruptive software, like e-mail, placing it out of sight, out of mind. But if you need to get to it quickly, you can jump back to that work space.
I use Virtual Win, a free utility that adds this functionality to Windows. You can have up to 4 work spaces, with different software on each and switch among them using hot keys or your mouse. You can have some software run in all work spaces, if you need to have clock gadget or e-mail always visible. On Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6, you can use Spaces to create up to 16 work spaces.
Each of these utilities provide a little way to tweak how you use your Windows environment. Hopefully, they can save you a bit of time and improve how your work.