How to get back 14 hours of your life (every month)

Ian Lurie

14 hours saved, every month

I’m a life optimization addict. So I work really hard to be more efficient at my computer. I focus on four activities:

  • Writing
  • Selecting text, switching apps/tabs
  • Starting applications, opening folders
  • Menu navigation

It may be a teeny-weeny bit utterly compulsive, but last month I measured the total time saved based on average time per activity. The result: Using an app launcher, a text snippets tool and keyboard shortcuts saves me 14 hours per month. That’s 14 episodes of House of Cards!

Here’s the math:

Action Time Saved
Writing 4:30
Selecting text, switching apps/tabs 3:00
Starting applications, opening folders 4:40
Menu navigation 2:00
Total time saved 14:10

No wizardry necessary. Here’s how you do it:

Learn your keyboard shortcuts

If you’re not a geek and just play one on the internet, you can learn a nice long list of shortcuts in this Lifehacker article. Here are my favorites:

Action Mac keystroke Windows keystroke
Switch applications commandtab alttab
Switch browser tabs optioncommand-arrow key ctrltab
Select word shiftoption-arrow key ctrlshift-arrow key
Select character shift-arrow key shift-arrow key
Select from cursor to end of line shiftcommand-arrow key shifthome/end
Change windows in an application commandtilde (~) key varies

If you ever want to move your cursor without selecting text, leave off the shift key.

Learn the keyboard shortcuts for gmail [pdf] or your e-mail client, too. If you spend as much time as I do sifting through e-mail, this is a monster timesaver.

Use the utilities

Add a few simple utilities to your computer and you can reduce typing, eliminate mouse use and otherwise exercise your geek glands:

Text shortcuts

A text shortcuts utility will let you convert often-used, longer chunks of text to short snippets. For example: On my laptop, the code to run a simple web server is python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000. I’ve got limited mental storage space, so instead of memorizing that long string, I set a TextExpander snippet: .psh. If I type that, it expands automatically to the full command.

I do the same thing with HTML code. I can type <a href="blah blah" target="_blank">portent</a>. Or, I can type ,a and get this:

TextExpander doing an A HREF

TextExpander doing an A HREF

When I click ‘OK’ (or press enter, no mousing here!) TextExpander inserts the snippet and places the cursor in the href element, so I can quickly type in the URL.

There are sooo many possible timesavers here. You can dig as deep as you want.

Find TextExpander here (ignore the horrifying stock image).

On Windows, check this LifeHacker article for a list of apps.

Here’s a video of TextExpander in action:

App launcher

An app launcher lets you start applications from the keyboard. My favorite on the Mac is Alfred. I use it to open folders, start applications, run web searches and all sorts of other fun stuff, like open the clipboard viewer and select a clip:

Clipboard viewer via Alfred

Clipboard viewer via Alfred

Launchy is my favorite for Windows, but it’s been a while. Leave a comment if you know a better one.

Here’s a video of me using Alfred:

Keyboard navigator

A keyboard navigator lets you execute menu commands within any application without the mouse.

I know this is controversial. If you learn all of the hotkeys within an app, you can execute most commands without touching the mouse. But I like being able to use the same tool from one application to the next. Plus, I have the memory of a goldfish.

On the Mac, I use ShortCat. I use one keystroke to activate the app, then click the letter of the top-level menu, then enter/arrow keys to find the command. Centering an image in Powerpoint is a 2-4 mouse click operation. It’s a 2-4 keystroke operation, too. Which do you think is faster? That’s a rhetorical question: The keystrokes.

Here’s an example video for ShortCat:

Learn once, save often

Setting up a snippet in TextExpander or learning to use ShortCat take time. But those two minutes can save you hours. Since becoming proficient at TextExpander, I’ve saved 9 minutes per day. That’s time to go and get a life-saving portion of chocolate. And it adds up to 4.5 hours/month.

Take the time to save the time. It’s more than worth it.

And that, folks, is how I save 14 hours/month.

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  1. Great tips, thanks Ian. There are so many of these shortcuts that I have not taken the time to try or learn since converting from PC to Mac. Simple laziness and procrastination… thinking I’m too busy to take the time right now (consultant heal thyself). Thanks for the ‘shortcut’ to learning the shortcuts!
    By the way, I love my Mac – but hate the keyboard! Whatever it is (my hands to big, key spacing, who knows) – I consistently hit wrong keys – have to backspace, etc. (wonder how much time I’ve lost with that…) Of course I have to attribute a portion to skill level – but this wasn’t a big problem when I was a PC guy. Is it just me? Any recommended alternative keyboards (that work well with Mac and hopefully the above apps)?

    1. Hmmm. Keyboards. I love the Mac keyboard, but this might help: I’ve tried the Kensington keyboards – the layout’s sufficiently different that I ended up pressing all the wrong keys. So it might be perfect 🙂

  2. I can beat this. I can show you 10 ways I waste 40* hours a month!
    1) Playing fantasy sports.
    2) Falling asleep to Game of Thrones every night missing vital pieces of dialog so you must rewind at least 10 minutes prior to falling asleep the next day.
    3) Losing my phone. This one can really suck up a lot of time.
    4) Looking for my keys.
    5) Looking for my “good jeans.”
    6) Arguing over what’s for dinner.
    7) Not working out.
    8) Watching the Mariners continue to disappoint me.
    9) Arguing with phone companies.
    10) Leaving somewhat humorous comments on your boss’s blog posts.

    1. I have to either point out that Tracy works really hard here, and he’s joking, or lie and say he no longer works here.
      Also, his phone was stolen, really, not lost.

    2. Tracy, we can add time spent looking for your wallet and time spent hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock in the morning.
      I love the keyboard shortcuts Ian, thank you. I think we all forget to utilize them.

  3. My Mom worked as a medical transcriptionist for about 15 years. The robots now do her work (Dragon NaturallySpeaking).
    But back when she WAS working, she heavily relied on keyboard shortcuts. Having those were the only way she could get away with being able to keep up with fast-talking doctors and ensuring she was spelling long-winded medical terminology correctly.
    So yes, keyboard shortcuts are definitely key and is something I’ve also incorporated into my work life. Though, be careful; she one time accidentally did a keystroke for “breast” instead of “brain”… and had she not double-checked before sending the report, that would have been one weird reading report 🙂

    1. Yep. That’s exactly why I avoid the automated stuff. I typed in “What I learned from ducks and pigeons” on my phone and let’s just say ‘ducks’ turned into something entirely different.

  4. Smile makes great stuff. Auto TextExpander is the best Windozey-version I have found.
    Gmail’s Canned Responses is a great time-saver.
    Best gmail plugin by far has to be Bomerang, turning gmail into a PM tool.
    When will Outlook catch up?!

    1. I don’t know about Outlook. But try Google Inbox. It incorporates a lot of features from Boomerang and a few other interesting things. My only problem with it is it has a nasty habit of bundling important e-mails. You have to train it. But once you do, it’s pretty slick.

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