Top 10 time saving tips

By Iain Thomson on Aug 24, 2009 7:56 AM
Filed under Technology
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Handy tools for increasing workplace efficiency.

Last week's list caused a certain amount of comment to the effect that we shouldn't be encouraging time-wasting in the office. In the interest of balance we've decided to provide the antidote.

Technology has been superb at saving time for companies. This has had some downsides – word processing software put a generation of secretaries out of a job and the printing unions were shocked to find most of their jobs were out of date – but the advantages have outweighed the losses.

This was a tough list to come to. Shaun and I had some serious disagreements but thankfully we maintained a professional demeanour and didn't get chucked out of our favourite local Thai restaurant. Kudos to our ever-forgiving bar manager who understands that arguments are par for the course when we work out the lists each week.

Like any list it isn't perfect, but if you have better tips please use the comment feature to let us know.

Honourable mention: Wikipedia

Shaun Nichols: I had a tough sell getting Iain to agree with this one. After all, last week we put the online encyclopaedia site on our list of the ten worst time wasters.

When used in small doses, however, Wikipedia can be a very useful tool. When looking up small bits of information such as dates, ages, or definitions, Wikipedia can be a quick way to get information that would otherwise be rather tedious to track down.

That's not to say Wikipedia is an absolute authority. With the wisdom of many comes the squabbles of a few, and sometimes Wikipedia entries can contain information that is less than reliable, and occasionally outright wrong.

Still, if you're not writing a term paper or news article, Wikipedia can be a nice reference for looking up specifics.

Iain Thomson: OK, so I agreed to have Wikipedia as an honourable mention, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

I'm glad you added that last sentence otherwise I would have had to wield the pointy stick of editorial justice to remind you that Wikipedia is not fact. You have to check each snippet against an unimpeachable source before dedicating it to print.

Wikipedia is a damn good source of information, but like any source it can't be taken on face value. You have to check and double check and for that reason I'm still not sure it's a time saver for anything other than pub arguments.

Honourable Mention: Remote working



Iain Thomson: Personally I would have liked to see this higher on the list but, as Shaun pointed out, it's not a specific technology but an amalgam of techniques.

But a time saver it certainly is. The average commute time is around 45 minutes, so that's an hour and a half a day spent travelling. This isn't to say that commuting time is wasted – you can nap, read or listen to music - but it's still time spent doing something you don't need to do.

Now that broadband in the home is commonplace and laptops make working almost anywhere an odd reality there's little need to go into work every day. Many jobs can be performed from home and the worker only needs to pop into the office for meetings and to consult files. Of course, this doesn't work for every job, but you'd be amazed at the amount of people in the service professions who can do it.

Home working doesn't only save time, but money also. Companies biggest fixed cost is usually the building they work in, and with fewer people in the office less expensive space is needed. Workers save on travel costs, can cook their own lunches rather than rely on the local sandwich shop and don't need heating or air-conditioning at work. All in all it saves time, space and money, so home working is a winner in my book.

Shaun Nichols: With gas prices and train fares rising steadily, telecommuting is not only a time saver, it's also a money saver. Add to that the money saved from not having to buy lunch and drycleaning costs for work clothes, and you've got a pretty good way to pretty significant amount over the long haul.

Many people also claim that working from home will decrease efficiency because there are so many distractions at home. In small doses, however, telecommuting is actually more efficient. It's easier to focus when you're relaxed, and it's hard to be any more relaxed then while one is at home. Additionally, when at home you tend to be less likely to waste away the hours on many of the online vices from our previous list.

After a few days it does become a bit difficult to work from home, however. When one lives and works in the same place the two can often overlap and focusing on the job gets tough. Additionally, sitting at home alone all day can get pretty lonely. After a while you actually do start to crave the social interaction of working within an office.

10. Instant Messaging

Iain Thomson: I only agreed to have this on the list after some special pleading from Shaun. Personally I find IM wastes more time than it saves but he did raise an interesting point on its occasional utility.

Instant messaging (IM) does let you have impromptu chats, in a way that takes less time than finding a phone number, making a call, finding they are not there and then playing a seemingly endless round of telephone tag while you both try to talk.

The ability to see remotely that the person you want to chat to is there can be very useful. As a case in point a fellow journalist in the UK IMed me out of the blue yesterday, seeking a specific response to a question. He was up late, saw I was online and thought I may be able to help. It's that kind of time saving that gets IM (barely) on the list.

Shaun Nichols: I think it has been a while since Iain attempted to have a conversation with a person that did not have an IM client.

My dad has yet to discover instant messaging and it's more than a bit frustrating to get emails whose entire contents are "Are we still on for dinner Tuesday?" and "okay sounds good." We all know how frustrating it is when it takes longer to set up and send the message than it actually took to type the body of the mail itself. You wouldn't think that opening and composing an email is so tedious until you've done it to conduct an exchange that would take all of fifteen seconds in an IM.

And you Iain, of all people, should understand the value of an IM platform. In the course of a day we exchange multiple messages with story links, contact information, possible leads, etc. If we had to do that through email I would imagine that we'd each get an extra two dozen messages or so in our inboxes over the course of a day. Add to that the delay that occurs between sending and receiving the messages over the email server and you have a significant time d rain.

Yes, it becomes a pretty serious time waster when you start conducting conversations with people that have nothing to do with work, but when used properly IM can be a good way to save time.

9. The fax machine

Shaun Nichols: So it's a little dated at this point; most fax machines in the office are collecting dust these days. But there was a point in time where the fax machine was a very big deal.

Consider that sending a document used to involve the use of the postal service or, in the case of an urgent delivery, a messenger service. Then the fax machine came along and the process of sending a document anywhere in the world was as easy as making a copy.

One can argue that in the 90s the fax machine had an impact on the workplace second only to internet-connected workstations. Email and online collaboration tools have eliminated most of the uses for a fax, but there's no denying the effect it had on the workplace in its heyday.

Iain Thomson: The fax machine was so revolutionary that at first the technology industry didn't really know what to do with it.

Xerox set up offices in major US cities, thinking that companies would come to them to send their documents and messenger boys would carry them offices just as they had for the past 70 years. But the price of fax machines fell so fast that that business model crashed and before you knew it everyone had one.

And I'm sorry Shaun, but we weren't just at the mercy of the postal system back in the day, we had the telex machine, which was kind of an advanced telegraph system. But text still had to be typed in – you couldn't send over original documents.

What the fax machine did that was so revolutionary was to make an exact copy of a document and send it anywhere in the world. It saved more time than you could shake a stick at and changed the way we do business forever.

8. Object-oriented programming

Iain Thomson: We've had object-oriented programming (OOP) for around 50 years in some form or another but it has only had a major impact in the last 20 years.

Put simply OOP is about building chunks of code for common tasks so that they can be used in a variety of application and save you the time of writing a new system for individual applications. It's a more advanced version of a technique most code hackers use as a matter of course, taking little chunks of code and reusing them.

Now OOP is a part of many coder's lives. It's an essential part of really useful programming languages like Python and later versions of Perl. Given the enormous amount of coding needed these days it's a top class time saver.

Shaun Nichols: The first suggestion for this was that we use the term "high level programming" languages, but felt that was a bit too generic, so we decided that OOP would be a bit better.

As Iain pointed out, being able to manage code as groups and modules is a huge time saver. Admittedly my experience in coding is limited to a summer spent messing around with REALBasic in high school, but even my with a small amount of programming knowledge one can understand the value of object-oriented languages.

Given the complexity of most applications these days, OOP is pretty important. The growth of many object-oriented languages over the last 20 years reflects this.

That's not to say object-oriented programming is not without its critics. Some within the computer science world, most notably software pioneer Richard Stallman, have criticised the idea in one form or another. Still, for the majority of developers out there, object-oriented languages have been a big advantage.

7. Videoconferencing

Shaun Nichols: This is a technology whose full use is still on the horizon, in my opinion. Videoconferencing requires a combination of high-resolution cameras and high-bandwidth connections to be at all useful. Though technology has progressed rapidly, it's still a poor excuse for being face-to-face and not much better than a conference call.

That could be changing, however. Anyone who has ever experienced high-end systems such as Cisco's telepresence up close knows that such setups offer an experience pretty close to a face-to-face. When such technology no longer requires a huge investment and infrastructure overhaul to put in place, videoconferencing could further cut down on the frequent-flyer miles many businesses still rack up.

Iain Thomson: 15 years ago I was writing articles about videoconferencing and how it could be the next best thing. I'm still waiting, but it's looking a lot better than it was.

Back then videoconferencing was the equivalent of a face to face meeting only if you factored a bottle of tequila into the occasion. Quaffing a bottle of Mescal would give you the same effect as those early systems; the slowmo visuals, lousy sound quality and sense of disconnection.

These days things are much better. Some of the so-called 'telepresence' units give you the nearest thing you can get to being there in the room with the person you're speaking to. Add in the collaborative tools that are now being included and you've got the tool that could kill the biggest waste of time for many people – travel.

Ask any professional roadwarrior and you'll get the same response to the subject of business travel. It's not glamorous, not fun and not healthy. You get to an airport, get strapped into a fragile tube and flown aloft in an environment where everyone shares the same germs and then arrive at a hotel room to conduct your business before moving onto the same thing again. Anything that can cut the amount of time people have to spend doing that can only be a good thing.

6. Podcasts



Iain Thomson: Podcasting is a recent phenomenon and it's a very useful thing indeed for saving time.

What is does is frees you from the tyranny of scheduled programming. You can listen to useful stuff whenever and wherever you are. On my morning walk to work I can listen to the latest from the BBC, Dan Savage or even our own podcast, so I can get ideas about how to make it better.

Our kids are going to be slightly amused by this generation's love of the radio. Trying to explain to them that you had to listen at a specific time and frequency to hear something, and if you were late getting to the radio you missed it, will sound like a very odd way of doing things.

Shaun Nichols: I wasn't quite sold on this idea when Iain first suggested it, but eventually he convinced me. The idea of a radio show which one can download really is a time saver. Particularly when educational and instructional lectures are offered in podcast form, those after-hours periods spent listening at the desk can instead be translated into time already spent while riding on the train or driving home.

Podcasts can also cut down on the time one has to listen to the radio. Say you just wanted to listen to a ten minute interview with a politician or athlete. If that segment is available for download, you can cut through hours of time spent listening to commercials and all the programme filler which you had not interest in.

Perhaps the best time saver of all is when a regular weekly podcast can take the biggest stories of the week and compress them into a single, shortened format. Coincidentally, I would like to remind readers that our latest Views from the Valley podcast is now available for download. In the meantime I will be in a hot shower attempting to scrub away the guilt from that last shameless plug.


 
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