Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

How I Run My Day from the Keyboard

Every day, when I sit down at my computer monkey job, I log into my workstation and click a single button. Within about 5 seconds, all my necessary programs are running and I'm ready to get to work with single-minded focus, freed-up brainpower, and confidence that all my tools are at my fingertips. Here's how.

And stick with me, will ya?

I've spent a lot of time here, between tumbls, discussing the bigger picture view. The reason for that is simple: if you're not approaching the work you do from the right angle, no matter the details in the weeds, you're going to have a more difficult time recognizing and solving your problems.

On the other hand, if you understand why you're doing the work you do, it's easier to decide what is--and isn't--worth your time. And it's that much easier to decide what belongs at the top of your to-do list. When you know which work matters to your sanity, you know what your next action ought to be.

With all that out of the way: I do think it can be worthwhile to zoom in and look at the finer points: looking at how other people get things done can help you learn how to smooth the rough edges off your own workflows, and keep your momentum when you need it most. I do a whole podcast about it, for crying out loud.

What I've learned from those great discussions with Robin is that when you've got a solid set of processes in place, even if your energy is flagging, you can trust your process to carry you through. So--let me tell you a little something about my tools, and my rationale.

As I use Windows in my work environment, I'll be discussing the software I use in that context--but the open source & Mac alternatives I'll point you to, coupled with the principles I'll be laying out along with the tips, should allow you to implement the ideas you like without any trouble.

The Quicklaunch Workspace

A batch file is a simple program--don't let that word scare you. All we're talking about here is a few lines of text that your computer--and you!--can understand.

I've created a small batch file--artisanal, if you will--that's linked to shortcuts for all 8 of the programs I need to get my work done. Then, I've created a shortcut to the batch file itself, and added it to my quicklaunch bar--this lets me launch all 8 programs I need just by clicking the icon. To walk you through this, briefly:

  1. Create shortcuts to each of the programs you intend to include in your batch file, and move the shortcuts to a single folder.
  2. Rename your program shortcuts to simple, one-word names. (I use the boring abbreviations RE, Exc, proj, ffx, genjourn, lny, apx, otk, and RPT)
  3. Open a text editor. On one line each, for each of your necessary programs, write:

    start [your program name]

  4. Save your text file as something like 'workspace.bat' in the directory where you've saved your shortcuts. Be sure to select 'all files' from the file type dropdown menu when saving.

Et voila: clicking on your new batch file should launch your little workspace suite. As I mentioned, to bring friction even closer to zero I like to create a shortcut to the workspace file and drop it in the Quicklaunch bar, just to the right of the Start button. Because double-clicking is for chumps.

There's a lot more you can do with batch scripts, from the simple to the advanced.

Why does this work for me?

As goofy as it might sound, going straight from login to having all my necessary programs running with the click of a button is indispensible to my productivity. Clicking that workspace button amounts to a moment of undivided intention, a decision that I'm diving into my day in earnest and without distraction or hestitation.

Though (as you know) I'm not a Merlin, the Mann himself might say that approaching your work in this kind of self-conscious fighting stance is transitive--it's a decision that prepares you to put the verb back into work.

The Keyboard Launcher [Launchy]

A keyboard launcher is an app that lets you do work with just a couple of taps on the keyb. Ostensibly they're there to help you quickly start programs, but once you know your way around a powerful launcher you'll be able to do much more robust work within your launcher--open documents, modulate preferences, alter & append to files, and more.

I use Launchy. If you're a Mac person maybe you like Quicksilver, or maybe you're a weirdo who uses Ubuntu, in which case I'd point you to Gnome-Do the wonderful keyboard launcher I use on my home computer.

With a quick Alt+space and Launchy's rapidly learning autocomplete, I can easily navigate to files nested deep in network folders that would be a drag to click and scan for once, let alone the dozens of times a day I need to call on buried documents.

Together with batch scripts to tweak Launchy, it easily becomes a competitor with the best keyboard launchers out there. And when you pair it with the last tool in my toolbox--Auspex--it's a golden ticket to faster work with smooth & unbroken focus.

Why does this work for me?

If the quicklaunch workspace is all about the decision to get down to work, then the keyboard launcher is about the decision to keep your focus tight. When you're using alt+space to move between programs and files there's no space available for the distraction of "ok start menu...oh look Firefox...I wonder what's on Twitter?"

It's about decreasing friction between your work tasks, and increasing the friction to your distracting timesucks--so you can make it easier to do what you need to, and harder to waste your time.

The Text Expansion App [Auspex]

I use Auspex, an open-source text expansion app for Windows. If you're not familiar with this sorta thing, essentially what it does is recognize a custom (short) string (say, 'sig') and replaces it with your custom (longer) string (say, 'Cordially Yours Now and Forever, Englebert Humperdink VIII'). When you start thinking about the possibilities here for essentially automating a lot of the text you write, this starts to get compelling.

Rather than resting your eyes while you autopilot through yet another customer e-mail answering the same question for the 20th time today, you can tap in "thx;", hit tab, and watch with glee as Auspex does the work for you.

One of my secret geeky joys is using Auspex snippets within Launchy. For example, I keep "gtfm" (or "Google That For Me") as a snippet that expands to the url for Google search results for [xyz]. Alt+space brings up Launchy, gtfm-->tab drops in the url with the cursor in position for my search terms, and a tap of my search terms takes me straight to my search results. It's 4 seconds typing time vs. a lot of cursoring and opportunity for distraction.

There are other options out there--maybe you've already heard of TextExpander. Lifehacker likes PhraseExpress. Fair warning: stay away from Lifehacker's own Texter which is great in some respects, but full of issues that the terrific writer/coder Adam Pash doesn't appear to have the time to address alone. He's helpfully passed it on to folks at Github, but at last run it still didn't do great things for me. Auspex gets my reco.

Why does this work for me?

Ultimately text expansion is a useful tool for me because it lets me save brain cycles for the work that matters instead of the work I can rely on a simple program to do for me.

What's especially wonderful about text replacement apps is that they dramatically decrease the cognitive load of repetitive tasks. Rather than wasting your time or your brain power, letting the expansion app handle it for you helps keep you free of stress & ego depletion a little longer, so that you can use that brainpower on decisions instead of another piece of reporting markup.

And so,

I'm hoping, if you've made it this far into the weeds with me, that you can still see the principles underlying the particular suggestions I'm making. These are the tools I use to get things done at my desk--but maybe you need different tools. The tools, as I suspect you know, matter far less than how you use them. Michaelangelo might have had to work at it, but I have a feeling he coulda done the Sistine Chapel with some uncooked spaghetti if the Medicis had gotten stingy on him.

Do you use these tools too? Something else--better? How do you approach your day?