Over the years I have been something of a productivity tool junky. Like many programmers I love trying out new productivity tools and utilities, but 90% of them don’t stand the test of time. I will generally try something out, fail to be impressed, and cast it aside to make way for something more interesting. However, there are three tools in particular which have stood the test of time, and which I have been using on an almost daily basis for years. These are ‘secondary’ tools – they are not essential to my performing my work, but they really make my work easier and help me to get things done more quickly. Each of them is lightweight, minimalist in terms of functionality and free of charge. I have found that paid-for tools are often overloaded with complexities which aren’t needed, perhaps in an effort to justify the price tag. There are so many great free utilities available now that I very rarely find the need to pay for any productivity tool.
Without further ado, here are my three favourite software productivity tools, in no particular order.
I hate having to use the mouse. It’s a lot easier to achieve a state of flow by using the keyboard exclusively, and it can really breaks your stride when you have to move your hand over to the mouse and move the cursor or click. Maybe it utilises a different part of the brain. In any case, any tool which helps me to avoid using the mouse is likely to win my approval, and SlickRun does just that.
SlickRun allows you to define commands for common tasks, in particular for opening applications. For example, I have defined a command ‘sql’, which opens up Oracle Sql Developer (as I am working with Oracle databases at present). A small command prompt floats on your desktop, by default just above the date and time in your Windows taskbar.
It it is small enough to be barely noticeable, but large enough to let you see what you are typing. To focus your cursor in this command prompt you just hit Win+Q.
To manage your shortcuts you simply type ‘setup’.
In addition to this primary function, allowing you to quickly and easily open applications and run commands, SlickRun includes a couple of other very useful features which I use regularly.
When your cursor is not focused on the command prompt, SlickRun displays the percentage of RAM on your machine which is currently available.
I know that when this figure falls below 10% my machine will start to run slowly, and I need to close some applications down or end some processes. If my system is grinding to a halt, I will often see that I have only 3% or 4% of RAM available.
The final feature of SlickRun which I find immensely useful is something called SlickJot. Hitting Win+J opens up a ‘JOT’ where you can store notes and other useful bits of random text. Whatever you type here is automatically saved, and you can quickly close the ‘JOT’ by hitting Escape. It is roughly equivalent to having a Notepad text file which you can open and close with keyboard shortcuts, and which saves automatically.
An even simpler utility is Ditto, which does one thing but does it well.
Ditto is an extension to the Windows clipboard, which simply allows you to not only paste the last thing you copied, but also to paste anything you have copied prior to that, looking back as long as you want. This is a particularly useful utility for programmers, which you may not realise until you try it. Again it requires no mouse interaction. You cut and copy stuff as normal, but when you then want to paste something which you have previously copied, you hit CTRL+’ which opens a list of things which you have placed on the clipboard, with the most recent first. This list is quickly filtered as you type, and unless you clear it, will store items that were placed on your clipboard days or weeks ago.
A far more popular tool than SlickRun and Ditto, but equally simple and effective, is Workflowy. It is a web-based application which allows you to write and store notes in a hierarchical structure. We all make lists containing items and sub-items, and workflowy is the most usable system for doing so that I have come across. The beauty of workflowy is the speed with which you can use it. Its keyboard shortcuts allow you to instantly expand, collapse, traverse, delete or move items. If you have a mind which can move quite quickly like mine, you will love it. Mindmaps are undoubtedly an effective tool for brainstorming and organizing your ideas, but there is no mindmapping tool which allows you to capture, process and organize your thoughts anywhere near as quickly as workflowy. I still sometimes use mindmaps with a pen and paper, but once you’ve drawn a branch on paper, you obviously can’t instantly move, edit or delete it.
Like my other favourite tools, workflowy has a very minimalist feel about it, favouring simplicity over bells and whistles. You can’t write text in different colors or fonts, which I think is great. I use it on a daily basis, whether I am outlining a blog, writing a to-do list, or brainstorming. Workflowy is free for up to 500 list items per month, but you can gain additional items by referring friends. I currently have 1500 items per month available per month, free of charge, and this is more than enough for my needs.
I sporadically use the Getting Things Done methodology for organising my tasks and ideas, and I find workflowy is a great tool for helping me to do this.
Using the right software tools and utilities can have a huge impact on your productivity. As a general rule, anything which allows you to use keyboard shortcuts to perform common tasks is probably going to help you a lot. The three tools I have described here do just that. They are all free to use, lightweight and are either web-based or can be downloaded and installed in seconds. If you haven’t tried them already, I urge you to do so. I would also love to hear of any lightweight and free tools and utilities which you find invaluable in your work.