Playing a Computer like an Instrument

Playing a Computer like an Instrument

Most everyone uses a computer.  But a few of us, well, we play a computer like an instrument.

If you're on a computer for 10+ hours per day, this blog is for you.

By "instrument" I mean we know the in's & out's of the device.  We know how to eek out maximum performance from it.  We're the people who others just look at in wonder when our keys fly across the keyboard.

If you've ever found it excruciatingly painful watching others use a computer because of how slow the person is, then you know what I'm talking about.

These are just my tips, but really, I'm writing this because I want to know about your tips.  I want to know what saves you time and makes you more productive.  So please post comments below.

Knowing how to play a computer like an instrument is a real, tangible skill.  All these little tricks add up to big time savings - or more likely, to massive productivity gains.

Most everything here is geared towards Mac users, but many will have PC equivalents.

Keyboard Shortcuts:  If you're not using these, then you might as well not bother with the rest of this post.  Being a keyboard maverick and treating the mouse like the devil is a foundational step you need to learn first.  I've written about the importance of keyboard shortcuts before.  They're kinda like flossing - if you're not in the habit, it's hard to get in the habit, but once you do it, you wonder how anyone gets along without doing it, and you get kinda grossed out when others don't.

Text Expander: This tool allows me to save snippets of text, and reuse them anywhere on my computer.  It's invaluable.

Mail Act-On: If you're a Mac Mail user, Act-On lets you get through your mail much faster.  Instead of manually dragging each mail message into a folder, you can assign keyboard shortcuts to automatically place messages into folders.  For example, I've set CTRL+V to put mail in my inbox into a non-inbox folder.  I don't have to manually drag any email over, and I can select multiple messages at once.  It's great.

Quicksilver: Quicksilver is sick.  It's my constant companion on my mac.  People often ask me "why not just use spotlight?"

Here are a few reasons:

1) I find it's usually faster.

2) It learns my most common searches.

3) It offers a cut & paste history of the last 20 items via a plugin, which I use  constantly.

4) Quick resizing of images.

Update: There is a NEW APP called Alfred that I really like - it might replace Quicksilver for me.

If you really want to become a Quicksilver maverick, watch these videos:

  1. QS Video 1
  2. QS Video 2.0
  3. QS Video 3.0

Here's a video showing off not only Quicksilver, but many shortcuts I use:

iShowU:  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a thousand pictures.  This program is a screencast program.  I use iShowU many times daily to clearly explain issues, problems, suggestions, ideas and more.  I can then email or post these videos on Vimeo.  In fact, here's a screencast I sent to 37 Signals about a problem I was having in Highrise.   It's so much easier to show a video than to have to explain something with words.

Here's a video showing how I use iShowu:

Widemail:  If you're a Mac Mail user who migrated over from Outlook, you might miss having the message reading pane on the right side instead of below the email.  And with the Mac's wide screen, I find it's a much better use of screen real estate to have the reading pane on the right.  Enter Widemail, a free plugin that allows for this (surprisingly, Mac doesn't have an option for a reading screen on the right.  Below is a screenshot showing what mail looks like with Widemail installed (not not my mailbox, just one I randomly found on Google Images)

All Controls:  The Mac, by default, doesn't let you tab between all control boxes, so you have to enable "all controls" in order to be able to really use the keyboard.   For you keyboard mavericks out there, this'll be basic, but many of you probably didn't even know this setting existed:

And here's a video showing the difference between having this selected or not:

Witch:  This plugin is a required add-on for any power users.  It allows you to switch only only between applications (like ALT+TAB does) but between open windows within the same application.

Cinch:  This little utility will automatically resize my active window to fit the entire screen.  There's not much I miss about Windows, but the Mac's squirrly behavior in maximizing windows was one of them.  Cinch fixes that for me.

Dropbox:  This is a great tool to host files in a way that they're accessible across multiple computers.  Many people know this, and if you've never heard of Dropbox, you can watch a video of how it works.  But many who use Dropbox don't know about its public folder option.  Check this video, and then here's the file I referenced in the video.

Video of Dropbox in use:

Honorable Mentions: Other tools I love:  PDF Pen, a way better pdf manipulation tool, Highrise and Basecamp by 37 Signals, Unfuddle for bugs & tickets, the Vimeo Desktop Uploader, Omnifocus for task management (syncs very well with the iPhone), Yammer, a business-grade Twitter client for internal company communication, SplashID for password management, WhatSize for freeing space up on a computer,GoToAssist for screen sharing & support, and Carbon Copy Cloner to make exact clones of your hard drive, which are bootable.  Even if you back up using TimeMachine or similar, I'd still highly recommend cloning your drive once a month as a failsafe.

This is just my list; I'd love to see yours.  Please provide comments below!  What helps you play your computer like an instrument?