12 Productivity Hacks for Computer Users

typing faster

After twenty years using a computer, it's high time I made a record of the best efficiency techniques that I have discovered so far. In short, I think think we can have better input, better output, better storage and less time-wasted. If you want to be more productive and spend significant chunks of time on a computer, then read on...

Why Expect Efficiency Gains?

When I first used the computer, it was to play educational games for under an hour a day. I now spend 4 hours per day just in Google Chrome and live much of my intellectual and social life through it. I probably spend another six hours in other programs and on my phone. Now most of my friends and colleagues are doing the same - it's common knowledge. Computers are ubiquitous. And the emergence of smartphones has made it harder than ever to envisage a future where this is no-longer the case. The way I use a computer has changed significantly along the way, but this has been largely unintentional. I have learned to touch-type through long-nights on MSN messenger, or I have picked up a keyboard shortcut from MS Word there.

However, we have not intentionally pursued and shared these techniques as I would hope. If change breeds innovation, then we ought to be overflowing with digital life-hacks by now. Yet the lifehacks that we share are the slight productivity gains from hanging our clothes or tying our shoes differently! I think we should come to terms with the fact that our future lives will be increasingly digital, and so I will now try to set a precedent among my friends that we will share tips on how to live them more productively.

I've ordered my favourite tricks logically, to make them easier to remember, into better outputs, better inputs, better memory and less time-wasted.

Better Output Interfaces

1. Speed Read

One thing that makes the digital era unusual is that a large number of people have a lot of time to read for study and leisure, and lots of materials allowing them to do so. So learning to read fast is super-important. This can be done by prioritizing the first sentence of each paragraph and skipping the rest when it is unimportant. It can also be done by classical speed-reading techniques such as increasing the width and rapidity of one's gaze. Readline is a Google Chrome Extension that can often deliver increased reading speeds in some contexts.

2. Get a Portrait Monitor

Vertical Monitor

Having a second screen is good; having a portrait screen is better. For using word, chrome, acrobat, and many other purposes, it simply shows you more at a time. Less page-downs means less keypresses and greater immersion in one's material.

3. Watch Videos on Double-speed

This is the third excellent way of ensuring that you get information from your computer more rapidly. Listening is overall slower than reading, but it is more relaxing and can be memorable. This can be done with Youtube's html5 trial (most videos from other sites, like Vimeo and TED, and duplicated on Youtube). For downloaded video and audio files, watch them at double-speed in VLC.

Better Input Interfaces

4. Increase Your Mouse Sensitivity

It is possible to perform more actions in different parts of the screen when you increase your mouse sensitivity. This is truer when you are more proficient, such as for professional gamers. If you rarely have problems with accuracy and have not increased your mouse sensitivity recently, then consider doing so!

5. Get a Mechanical Keyboard

Mechanical keyboards can help you type faster. For instance, my burst speed is 100 with a regular keyboard, and 110 with a mechanical keyboard with greater comfort. This is apparent from professional gaming, where they also use a mouse-bungee that holds the mouse cord, but I think this is less important. If you are in a shared work environment, then make sure to get the quietest design, MX Red, or else the mechanical keys will click loudly.

6. Use Shortcuts

Learning keyboard shortcuts is a classic trade-off between time now and time later. Learning new shortcuts is slow - the immediate cost feels like it ranges from seconds to minutes. Once you know the shortcuts, they do make you faster - it takes around 1.6s to activate a keyboard shortcut compared to 2.2s to click an icon and 3s to click through a menu. Moving your hand between the keyboard and mouse wastes 0.4s. As one becomes more proficient, this should become more of an issue - professional gamers report that cursor movements are much slower than keypresses. Moreover, keypresses can more easily be parallelized with each other and with mouse commands. The proficient user will minimize mouse travel in general, but most straightforwardly, they will offload actions to the keyboard.

Here are my keyboard shortcuts for PC (there will be Mac equivalents):

  • Word-processing shortcuts
    • Ctrl-S, Ctrl-N, Ctrl-A
  • Text cursor movement:
    • Home, End, Ctrl-Left, Ctrl-Right, Ctrl-Up and Ctrl-Down
    • Ctrl-shift-right, Ctrl-shift-left, Ctrl-delete, Ctrl-backspace and so on for selection and deletion
  • More Google Chrome shortcuts
    • Ctrl-T to open a new tab, Ctrl-W to close the active tab, Ctrl-Tab to move one tab to the right, Ctrl-Shift-Tab to move one tab to the left
    • Middle click to open a tab in a new window or close a tab
    • Ctrl-F for Find
    • Space to scroll down and Shift-Space to scroll up
    • Tab, Shift-Tab to jump between input boxes in a form
  • Omnibox use in Google Chrome:
    • F6 or Alt-D to open the Omnibox. Type then Enter for a Google Search or Alt-Enter to open the search in a new tab
    • Using Manage Search Engines, one can install highly useful shortcuts: D then Space to use the Omnibar to search "I'm feeling lucky" - I never used I'm feeling lucky previously, but I have now found this increasingly useful. S then space to open a Google Scholar search
    • Using "define X" for a dictionary. Using "D define X Alt-Enter Ctrl-W" to look up a dictionary from the Omnibar in a new tab, and then close it again.
    • With the I'm feeling lucky shortcut, "d synonym X" works for a thesaurus. "d wiki X" generally brings up a wikipedia article, and so on...
  • Other:
    • Ctrl-1 to open the first application from the taskbar, Windows Explorer
    • Ctrl-2 to open the second application from the taskbar - Google Chrome
    • Alt-tab to move between applications

It is tempting to learn multi-step menu shortcuts using Alt but these are much slower. Mine are more idiosyncratic and I get less value out of them: Alt-T-W to spell-check, and Alt-Space-N to minimise. I have also recently installed KeyRocket, a Chrome extension that teaches you Gmail shortcuts, and will report back on its usefulness. These are the best tips I've learnt so far for rapidly communicating with your computer.

Better Memory

7. Make a Backup

Your computer knows a lot of the work that you did over the past month. And if you've ever lost all of the data on a computer, you know that you'd be crazy not to use this capacity.

8. Get a Clipboard Manager

You can easy to set up your computer to automatically remember more: Ditto Clipboard Management remembers everything you cut or copy. Rather than each item overwriting the old stuff, it all stays on the system. When you copy a link, or an image, or print a screen, there is no need to use it immediately. When you type information into a form, instead of saving it in a Word document, you can copy it. With Ditto, Ctrl-Shift-1 pastes the most recent item in the clipboard, Ctrl-2 pastes the second most recent, and so on. So when reflowing a report or a letter, all of the pieces are at hand all of the time.

9. Get To-do List Software

Another way to delegate memorization tasks to your computer is with Google Tasks or Asana. You can use these to remember all the jobs you need to do, to relieve the associated cognitive workload. I also find Google Calendar very useful for this. Anki is different, because it teaches you to remember better: it presents you with flashcards at appropriate intervals so that you can learn a new fact or habit.

Less Time Wasted

10. Get Rescuetime

It would be really useful to have someone to watch you all day in order to measure how you spend your time. This is too boring an expensive. However, this task is easily delegated to a computer. Rescuetime has been widely recommended to me for this purpose, and is so far superior to other competitors in this domain because it works on both computer and smartphone.

11. Install Productivity Extensions for Chrome

Internet browsing is particularly big time-sink, and you can empower yourself to control your browser usage with Google Chrome Extensions:

12. Deactivate Interruptions

Interruptions are common and costly. In a study of program managers, administrators, researchers and software developers at Microsoft, they are interrupted by email or IM 3.7 times per hour for about 9 minutes on each occasion. If you are engaging in a complex intellectual problem-solving task, then the cost of a small interruption to your productivity exceeds the amount of time spent on the task. So consider deactivating:

  • Skype notifications (if Skype is open at all)
  • Instant Messager Services
  • Antivirus notifications
  • Email Notifications on your computer and phone
  • Facebook notifications on your phone (i.e. uninstall the Messenger app)


If you have any suggestions or experiences of your own, then feel free to add them to the comments section.