On Productivity:

Ages and ages ago, I worked for a software development company that used BRIEF as their standard text editor.

If you’re not familiar with BRIEF – and I don’t blame you, honestly, considering that this was over 15 years ago – it was a text editor, quite possibly the best ever made for DOS.  It allowed you to open files of unlimited size, have multiple buffers open with easy copy and past between them, delete columns of text – a feature I still don’t see replicated in modern editors – and it did all of this with startling speed.

The “R” in “BRIEF” stood for Reconfigurable and it wasn’t a lie or marketing exaggeration; you could configure the program with all sorts of custom hotkeys and commands and so on and so forth.  It also had a C-like programming language built in for writing macros.

This is why, after learning BRIEF – it was a fairly non-user-friendly editor, its only failing, really – and then changing jobs to another company that also used BRIEF, I was completely lost.  See, the developers at the first company had created all sorts of tools using the built-in language, and I had never realized that they were custom tweaks.  In my new job, which used the application with its default settings, I wound up having to re-learn, from scratch, a tool I’d been using daily for years.

This had a somewhat powerful effect on the way I configured my home machines after that.  That is to say, I pretty much avoided “productivity tools” that changed the way I used the base OS, because I took the position that, by doing so, I avoided handicapping myself on occasions when I had to use a machine that wasn’t loaded up with all sorts of tweaks and settings to make things easier.  If I was condemned to using a vanilla OS at work, my reasoning went, I might as well stick to vanilla at home.

It’s only recently that I’ve softened this position a bit.  My current job allows me to configure my desktop however I see fit, and the reaction to seeing a new piece of software installed is “hey, that’s neat, what is it?” and not “that software isn’t part of our standard desktop environment, remove it.”

So I have actually taken to trying OS tweaks and tools out at work and evaluating them there before moving them home.  Ones that actually make me more productive during the day make the cut, ones that don’t die on the vine.

These are the recent survivors:

First, though, a comment on something that’s not a custom tweak at all but a recognition of something really rather nice that I think was added in Vista: Hotkeys for the Quick Launch bar.

I don’t like application icons on my desktop, so I have Windows set to hide them.  Everything I use on a regular basis goes in the Quick Launch bar, stuff I use periodically goes on the Start Menu, stuff I use irregularly stays in the “All Programs” group.

With Vista, I found that I could launch things from the Quick Launch bar with WinKey+#, obviously only for the first ten items in the Quick Launch bar, but a nice timesaver nonetheless.

There’s a bunch of other WinKey+ hotkeys; I’ve been using WinKey+E to open Explorer windows for ages but I hadn’t really explored beyond that.

Anyway, on to the add-ons:

VirtuaWin
(and VirtuaPlus plug-in)

We only have one machine here running OSX, and it’s used as a media center only, so I didn’t delve into Spaces until I was visiting a friend (and rabid Mac zealot), and watched him work.  It was something of a – apologies to Kiki Stockhammer – paradigm shift, and something I can’t believe Microsoft hasn’t stolen yet for Windows 7.

To achieve something of the same effect, I use VirtuaWin.

It isn’t as good as Spaces – you can’t assign applications to their own desktops – but it lets me have six desktops open at work, with one for email and our HR portal, one for doing builds, one for our bug tracking system, and the last three for whatever projects I’m working on, one project per desktop.  Since I often have three projects running at once, it probably saves me an hour a day of state switching.

I also use the VirtuaPlus plug-in so I can have individual wallpapers per desktop.

Another application I’ve added to speed things up is RocketDock, though I don’t use it for its intended purpose as an application launcher.  I’m one of those people who have documents and media scattered throughout multiple drives and network volumes, in a way that makes perfect sense to me – though probably not to anyone else – and so I have all the folders I most commonly use on a dock.

One of the problems with RocketDock is that, well, its usefulness goes down pretty fast if you can’t access the dock.  While you can set it to always-on-top, it interprets that very literally and it will bleed-through full screen applications like media players or games.  You can set it to autohide, which prevents that particular problem, but it’s a little twitchy when un-hiding; I used it a few months ago and I was constantly, and accidentally, launching stuff when I tried to click on objects near the top of the screen.

This was solved by the last of my recent additions, a little app called MaxTo.  Simply enough, it lets me change the size of the desktop used by applications when maximizing, but doesn’t limit full screen applications.  I set RocketDock to allow itself to be covered by other programs, use MaxTo to tell Windows that the RocketDock area is off-limits to maximized applications, and get the benefits of quick folder access whenever I want it, while not interfering with games and so forth.

I still have trouble breaking with my vanilla-OS habits, but these three have persuaded me to allow a few sprinkles.

Yeah, I’m going to hell for using that as a closing sentence.

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