Free Your Mind

Nearly a century ago, engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor conducted time-and-motion studies of factory workers to determine the most efficient way to work. In the 21st century, fewer Americans toil in factories—and many of us sit in front of computer screens, trying desperately to break away from answering e-mails to get our real work done. In this quest, Gina Trapani stands ready to help. Trapani, a computer programmer, edits the blog Lifehacker.com. Each day the site offers readers tips on ways to be more productive and otherwise improve their lives, whether it's creating a smarter To Do list or sticking to New Year's diet resolutions. Trapani recently compiled some of the site's greatest hits into a book: "Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tips to Turbocharge Your Day" (Wiley). She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel McGinn. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Isn't there an irony to publishing a blog about productivity when blogs are, for most of us, a huge obstacle to being productive?

Gina Trapani: I think about that all the time, but at least with a productivity blog, you might gain back the time you lose reading it by using the tips you pick up. I hope it's a wash in the end, and that you do save some time. You're going to earn back a few more minutes or hours of your life learning something new on Lifehacker than reading about Paris Hilton on Gawker. But I do feel a little guilty about distracting my readers.

Your tips range from extremely technical computer tricks to very unwired advice—such as Hack #59, in which you advocate using a paper day planner instead of computerized schedules. How do you decide what pieces of your life to manage electronically, and which deserve to stay on paper?

It's really a very personal decision. I'm on my computer so many hours a day it's a relief to me to feel a pen against a piece of paper. It's just a very aesthetic, nice feeling. It's not a harsh, glowing screen. But I know a lot of people who want to move more of their life online, because they travel around a lot. But I don't have a PDA, and I don't browse the Web in a car or a restaurant. I keep index cards and I write things down with a pen.

Several of your tips are aimed at reducing people's need to use their mouse, to keep their fingers on the keyboard as much as possible. Is there a tension between computer innovations that make devices easier to use—graphical interfaces, mice—and productivity?

There really is a tension between making user interfaces easier and more obvious and making them the most efficient. I use this metaphor in the book: if you're going to give your friend directions to drive across town, the easiest and most obvious way isn't necessarily the fastest way, which might use out-of-the-way shortcuts or back roads. For somebody who's doing the same thing over and over on their computer, using a shortcut means they don't have to move their hand to the mouse, move the mouse, click the button twice, move their hand back to the keyboard. It seems like that movement only takes milliseconds, but it adds up over time.

Trapani: 'You have to be buried under a huge inbox of e-mails to say: This isn't working—I don't know what I've responded to, what I need to do.

I've started using some of your tips, such as #47—"Empty your e-mail and keep it empty." I've also tried to turn off my e-mail and only check it a few times a day. When I've been able to do it, it really does help me focus. Why don't more people do this?

In order to change your behavior, you need to be aware of the fact that your current system—or lack thereof—isn't working for you. You have to be buried under a huge inbox of e-mails to say 'This isn't working—I don't know what I've responded to, what I need to do.' I imagine the people who are coming to the Lifehacker book know they need better systems. They're already saying 'I'm drowning under digital stuff every day, I want to keep up but I just don't want to go insane.' It's also just not an individual decision—organizational culture is a huge part of it. Sadly, a lot of companies do want their employees on a chain, they do want them to jump when the boss sends an e-mail. The ones that are concerned about long-term vision want their people to be able to focus and get done what they set out to get done, and not get interrupted by the next fire that comes up. But there is definitely a huge need for a larger organizational cultural change about what the expectations are when an e-mail is sent, and what the expectations are when somebody is deep in work and you stand by their desk and wait for them to look up.

Like a lot of people, I have too many passwords for different accounts and spend too much time forgetting and resetting them. How did you come up with Hack #56, about using a "master password," and how does it work?

Basically I had the same problem—I had all these passwords, none of them were related, I didn't want them all to be the same because then if someone finds out one password, they've got the keys to the kingdom. The scheme I use, which I've seen elsewhere, is this idea that you have a single master password scheme that only you know, in which you come up with some sort of a pattern that doesn't change but results in different passwords. Here's a very simple example. Say your favorite color is blue, and you need a password for Amazon.com. Your password could be the first three letters of Amazon and blue, so the password is "amablue." Using the same pattern, your password for eBay would be "ebablue." This is just an example—good passwords use numbers, letters and special characters like punctuation, too.

A lot of your "hacks" involve using Google functions in novel ways. Why has Google become so central to people's efforts to work more efficiently?

It's because Google is the best Web search engine out there, and so much of what we do is Web-based. Google also features heavily in Lifehacker because their services are very deep—they're very powerful and they have lots of hidden features you can unlock if you know how to, but the interface isn't complicated—the search box has only one input field. You can do so much with it, like currency conversion, mathematical calculations and complex queries, especially if you know some of those advanced operators—like using plus or minus signs, or quote marks.

Besides readers, where do you get most of your tips? Which blogs, other than Lifehacker, should people interested in this topic be reading?

Merlin Mann's blog www.43folders.com is excellent. Some of my other favorites are www.tradetricks.org , www.lifedev.net and www.kk.org/cooltools . There have actually been quite a few new productivity bloggers who do a lot of self-improvement-type stuff. I subscribe to 250 Web site feeds that I check out every day. But my focus is on taking a programmer's approach to productivity—to automate tasks to make things easier, to free up your head to think about important things, instead of worrying about whether or not you forgot to respond to a critical e-mail you received last week.