24 Oct 2012 - Münster (by James)

How to be more productive on Windows

A couple of days ago, we took a good look at how to be more productive on your Android device, with some tips and recommended applications to help save you time and generally become a better worker.

Now, we turn to Windows, which is often neglected in the world of productivity (in my opinion, anyway). There isn't a huge range of productivity software out there for Windows (at least when compared to the Mac) and although I am primarily a Mac user, I still do retain a Windows computer to run software that my MacBook won't run (mostly specialist software).

Having said that, I've still managed to pick out my top 5 tips for being more productive on a Windows computer. I am using Windows 7 as my primary operating system of reference, however some of these tips will apply to previous versions of Windows (such as XP and Vista). Note that if you're already running Windows 8, some tips (such as keyboard shortcuts) may not work properly!

Know the useful tricks in Windows

Although you may not realise it, there are hundreds of little tricks buried away within Windows. I could spend a whole article just covering all the keyboard shortcuts there are, but I'm sure both you (and I) will get bored very quickly. Instead, I've picked out 4 of the less well-known (and my personal favourites) that I use often:

  • Ctrl + Shift + N: this shortcut creates a new folder instantly – no more hunting around on the taskbar for the button!
  • Ctrl + Shift + Left Click: run a program as an Administrator, without having to right-click and find the relevant option.
  • Win Key + Space: if you hit these two keys at the same time, you'll get an "Aero" peek of the desktop without having to go down into the bottom right hand corner to click on "Show Desktop".
  • Win Key + T: this shortcut lets you flip through apps that are pinned to your taskbar.

Another great feature about Windows 7 (and, to my joy, also works in Windows 8) is the easy way to compare two apps side-by-side. Simply grab an app by the title bar and drag it into the top-left hand side of your screen. The app automatically resizes to fill half of your screen (the left-hand side to be precise). Do the same with another program on the top-right hand side of your screen and hey presto! You've got an easy way of comparing two programs side-by-side. This really is one of my favourite features about Windows and I cannot for the life of me understand why Apple hasn't followed suit as well (presumably because Microsoft have it patented).

Another really useful tip is if you grab a program's title bar and give it a shake (so waggle your mouse back and forth a couple of times), it'll minimise all other apps apart from the active one. Again Apple: why haven't you implemented this yet?

Cloud-based services are your friend

OK, so we've already covered this in the Android post but I think it's worth mentioning here as well as it's so relevant. Cloud-based services really are a fantastic way to keep everything in sync - and the old favourites, such as Evernote and Dropbox, never cease to amaze. There's no more e-mailing documents and files back and forth say, if you have work to finish off at home, and with generous storage allowances (the free version of Evernote will see you through 30,000 notes and 400 web pages a month whilst Dropbox provides you with 2 GB of storage, with more if you entice people to sign up for it!), you'd be a fool not to use these!

Get those productivity apps!

One advantage about Windows, being the world's most popular operating system, is that there is a huge range of applications out there for it in a tonne of different categories. Sifting through them all would take absolutely ages, but there are a couple that are highly worth recommending to increase your productivity.

Alternative browsers

We'll start with alternative browsers. Almost every Windows user will realise that Internet Explorer is, pretty much, a stinking pile of horse crap that's riddled with bugs and security loopholes. I personally avoid Internet Explorer like the plague and go for one of the many alternative browsers on the market. There's nothing worse to decrease your productivity than a virus-filled computer (whilst we're on this point - make sure you've got a decent one installed. Surfing the internet without a firewall and virus scanner is a quick invitation for your computer to slow down and, sometimes, stop working all together).

Thankfully, there are several great options out there. My personal favourite is Chrome (and it seems like everyone else's too: in June 2012 Chrome overtook IE as the world's most popular browser). What I really like about it is that it keeps everything in sync - sign in with your Google Account and your bookmarks, passwords and settings are synchronised with all your devices (Chrome is available on most other devices, such as Mac, Android and iOS). Even if you only have one device, Chrome is one of the fastest browsers out there and that integrated search and address bar, along with the browser's overall simplicity makes it a winner for me.

If you're not a fan of Chrome then there are plenty of other alternative browsers out there, such as Firefox, Opera and SeaMonkey - the latter also features a built-in e-mail and newsgroup client.

Keeping you focused

Next, FocusBooster. As a full-time student, I know the advantages of taking regular breaks from your computer screen. It helps you keep 100% focused and you'll find that in the long-run, your work will benefit from it! FocusBooster is a free app that runs discreetly in the background and runs off the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks down periods of work into bitesize 25-minute intervals (which are called "pomodoros"), with a 5-minute break in between. After 4 pomodoros you take a longer break (which is often between 15 and 20 minutes) and this helps you reset your mind, before starting again.

FocusBooster runs either via Adobe AIR or natively and is available from their website. Although the last update was way back in 2010, it does seem that the developer is still active so don't worry - it won't be going away anytime soon.

Multiple desktops

I use multiple desktops a lot on both my Mac and Windows computers, as it saves having horrible cluttered desktops with about 20 applications running in the background. The best way to do this on Windows is a program called Dexpot, made by a small German software company not too far away from Münster, fruux's hometown! DexPot supports Windows 8 and allows you to create virtual desktops which help you overcome desktop clutter and organize applications into various areas (for example, you can have one desktop for personal stuff and one for work-related stuff).

Dexpot is really simple to use for beginners and highly customisable for experts and one of the nice touches is the ability to simply switch virtual desktops with either a keystroke or a click of the mouse. What's more, it's free for private use and the app receives regular updates from the developers. Go ahead and download it here.

A better word processor

Forget shelling out on Word. Unless you can get it at a discount (or it comes free with your PC) I really don't think it's worth the money, especially when there are plenty of alternative word processors out there on the market that do just as good a job, such as OpenOffice and LibreOffice (which are extremely similar to one another). But even they aren't as great as the one I'm thinking about, and that is LyX.

Haven't heard of it? Didn't think so. It's not really that common but it really is, in my opinion, the best word processor out there for Windows (and even better, it's free). LyX works off the principle of WYSIWYM (which stands for what you see is what you mean; unlike others which work off the principle of "what you see is what you get") and allows you simply type away without worrying about formatting as this is done when you render the document.

All your documents are rendered using TeX and it is one of the lesser known ways of creating documents as it has mostly extremely specialized uses. The typesetting system was designed and written (mostly) by Donald Knuth during the late 1970′s and is a popular choice for typing documents for two main reasons. The first is that documents are standardized across all computers and the results do not change with time. Despite the fact TeX is an old system, the documents still look (relatively) up-to-date, albeit a little lacking in color and design.

TeX is extremely popular in the academic world given the way it renders maths and mathematical formulas. However it doesn't just stop there. With LyX, all you have to worry about is the content of your document. The moment you click on the render button, it is transformed into a neat, professional-looking document. Although the interface may seem quite complicated at first, it is a breeze to learn and LyX supports plenty of features that you'd expect in your standard word processor, such as picture formatting, tables, headers and footers and referencing.

To get LyX to work, though, you'll need to download a TeX typesetting system for your computer before you install it. My personal favourite is MiKTeX, which is written specifically for Windows and is completely free as well! You can also grab LyX by heading over to their website - it's completely free and open-source, too.

Windows 8 ain't all that bad...

When it was first announced, Windows 8 got an enormous "Oh my God!" from quite a few Windows users due to its radical new interface but Microsoft really seem to have stepped up the mark in this new version of Windows, as it seems to be filled up with loads of little features that make productivity on Windows a whole lot better.

Firstly, the Metro apps. I'm quite a fan of these full-screen apps (Apple introduced them in Lion and they seem to be quite popular) as they allow you to focus solely on that app without getting distracted. From the new tiled Start menu you've got quick and easy access to things like your photos, the latest happenings around the world, the stock exchange and Bing Maps.

Although the apps are designed more with a touchscreen in mind rather than a simple desktop computer or laptop, they do make browsing through the news or stock market happenings a lot easier. A particular favourite of mine is the fullscreen weather app (again, why haven't Apple done this?!) which, like all the others, is easily accessible from the Start menu.

There are also lots of other little shortcuts and tips embedded into the operating system, although they take some getting used to. You'll notice that the Start button, present in Windows ever since 1995, has disappeared - hitting the Windows key now brings up that full-screen Start menu. You can bring up a very condensed version of the Start menu (with easy access to things such as Programs and Features, Task Manager and the Control Panel) by hitting Win + X, but I find it much easier to hover over the top right-hand corner of the screen, clicking on Search and finding things that way.

It's a bit like Apple's Spotlight and, until Alfred comes along for Windows (pretty please), it's one of the fastest ways of searching your computer for applications or files as everything is indexed, so your computer doesn't have to hunt through everything on your hard disk drive to find exactly what you're looking for. If, after all this you're still hankering after the good old days, then you can grab Start8 from customizing legends Stardock, which brings back the Start Menu.

There are also plenty of fancy keyboard shortcuts in Windows 8, some of which will come in very handy for some users. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most useful:

  • Win + C: displays the "Charms" menu, i.e. the Settings, Devices, Share and Search options on the right hand side.
  • Win + D: displays the desktop.
  • Win + E: launches Windows Explorer.
  • Win + I: displays the pop-out Settings menu.
  • Win + L: locks your computer instantly.
  • Win + Q: opens the App Search bar.
  • Win + R: displays the "Run" dialog.
  • Win + Prt Sc: takes a screenshot and saves it a folder Screenshots in your My Pictures folder (as supposed to just copying it to the Clipboard).

If you fancy a different approach to keyboard shortcuts, then why not check out Keyrocket? Whilst you're working away, the app will suggest useful shortcuts in a small notification window based on your mouse clicks and movements. Currently it only supports Windows XP, Vista and 7 (no word on Windows 8 support, yet) and Office 2003-2013, however the program is free for basic use and saves you the trouble of trying to remember a load of different keyboard shortcuts!

Until next time!

That's it for our roundup of productivity tips for Windows! I hope it has helped you realise that Windows can be a productivity platform and that there are some great apps out there that can really help. Remember, fruux supports Windows to keep your contacts and calendars in sync, as long as you've got a CardDAV or CalDAV-compatible client (Mozilla Thunderbird is a popular and free option for example). Currently we only support calendar subscriptions through Outlook, as Microsoft didn't jump on the open standards track toward CardDAV and CalDAV yet, however we are currently looking at ways around this! We'll keep you posted on this.

In the next article, we're going to be looking at how to be more productive on the Mac. Until then, if you have any comments, thoughts or questions about this article then please e-mail me directly: james [at] fruux [dot] com or tweet us @fruux.

About James

Nothing pleases James more than the smell of the countryside and the atmosphere of his university city of Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter.

fruux is a free service that looks after your contacts, calendars and tasks so you don't have to. It makes sure that they are always in sync, no matter which device or operating system you're using. If you've not tried it yet, then why not check us out and let us know what you think! And if you're already using fruux, then we'd love to hear your thoughts and comments. You can also suggest a feature for any upcoming releases or tweet us: @fruux.