By Andy Coulson
In keeping with the theme of ‘Practical tools to boost your business’, I’ve come up with a list of 21 tech tips for 2021. These are all things I’ve tried and tested myself.
1. Have a system
This is the single most important tip of the lot. Find a system to organise and manage your work that works for you, and use it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a notebook and pen or a complex program. Keeping good records and knowing what you have done and what you still have to do saves you time and effort (and stress!). Some of the tools below will help with that.
2. Learn Word
I suspect that for most of us, Word is our most-used tool. Within this there are lots of really useful smaller tools that can help you edit faster and more efficiently. Tools like styles, templates and wildcard Find and Replace can all help. Take some time to learn how to use these – the CIEP offers a ‘Word for Practical Editing’ course that covers them. Also, look into customising Word’s various autocorrect and autoformat options, which can save you a lot of time and heartache.
While we’re on the subject of Word, macros are another timesaver. These allow you to automate certain actions, so a couple of keystrokes can run a series of actions that would normally take multiple keystrokes. Karen Cox and Paul Beverley both gave excellent presentations on the subject at this year’s CIEP conference. Paul’s ‘Starting Macros but Slowly’ video on YouTube is a good place to start.
Staying with Word, PerfectIt is an add-on that allows you to check consistency and apply style rules to documents. It comes with a number of good style files, but you will benefit from investing time in learning how to edit and customise these. Daniel Heuman also gave a useful presentation on customising PerfectIt at the CIEP conference. Intelligent Editing’s website, the PerfectIt Users Facebook group and the CIEP forums are also good resources.
5. Learn Excel
I’m guessing you bought Microsoft Office to get Word? But it also means you have access to other programs that you may not be using to their full extent. Take Excel – it lets you do lots of things involving numbers or data. You can manage your accounts, keep lists of jobs and record the time and quantity of work involved. Maya Berger’s presentation at this year’s CIEP conference was a great introduction to this. Excel’s in-built help with formulas walks you through using them, allowing you to experiment.
With Office you also get access to Microsoft’s OneDrive online cloud storage. Some of my clients have expressed concerns about the terms and conditions on other cloud storage services, but so far OneDrive seems to be a broadly accepted solution. I use this to back up all my files, and it has an easy-to-use share feature that allows you to share a folder with a client. This is a reliable way to return finished files – simply right-click on the file or folder, click ‘Share’ and then send the file or copy a link and send that via email.
7. Windows App Explorer/Mac App Store
Just as on your phone or tablet, the major computer operating systems now tend to have an App Store. It is well worth having a poke around in these, as there are often some little gems available.
One such gem (although it can be a real Marmite application!) is OneNote. This is available as an app or as part of the Microsoft 365 subscription. It is a digital note-taking app that allows you to capture freeform notes. On a tablet it supports freehand drawings, too. I’ve used it as an alternative to a pad for making notes as I work.
Clipboard tools and text expanders
ClipX is a small, free clipboard expander. It lets you access a list of your most recent clipboard entries and reuse them. It also supports add-ins, one such being Stickies, which is an editable list of sticky items that you can paste in. I use that for common tags or comments when I have to tag a file.
Text expanders take a short key sequence and expand them into a longer piece of text, eg typing ‘\pfa’ might expand into ‘please find attached the requested file’. TextExpander works across the programs on your computer and allows you to build a library of replacements and retain formatting.
11. Phrase Express
Phrase Express is an alternative to TextExpander. It seems to be aimed at corporates with multiple users, but is still very usable on a single machine.
12. toggl track
The recently rebranded toggl track is probably the best-known time tracker. The website, browser plug-in and app allow quick and easy time tracking. You can group these by project and customer, and break projects into smaller steps (eg by chapter). The free version is very usable, and the paid plans can also handle billing.
Harvest is another time-tracking app, but is more focused on billing. It has a free trial period, but after that it is paid for.
RescueTime tracks your time in the background and allows you to see where you have spent the time on your computer and your phone. It is intended to help you manage your computer time and see where your time-wasters are. I find it helpful as a back-up to toggl track. If I forget to start a timer, RescueTime can tell me I spent five hours on Word, for example.
Pomodoro is a productivity technique that involves breaking your work up into chunks (typically 25 minutes) with short breaks between. This is supposed to help with focus, but I use it from time to time just to remind myself to get up and move. There are many good apps to support this, but look out for ones where you can adjust the times to suit you. Search for Pomodoro timers in your search engine or app store.
16. Break timers
Break timers encourage you to step away from the screen for a bit. There are many options available. I like Workrave, which is free, configurable and features sheep.
We all need a dictionary, and the OED recently created a free version called Lexico. It uses the same interface as the full subscription product, so it remains easy to use. (The full product is often available through your local library.) You can also access other dictionaries online for free, such as Collins and Merriam-Webster.
I’ve talked about PDFCandy before. I think it creates the cleanest, most accurate Word files from a PDF of any of the tools I’ve tried, even with multi-column magazine layouts. The web-based tool is free to use.
If you like using to-do lists to organise yourself, then Todoist is my favourite tool to manage these. It will work on a computer or on a phone or tablet (and will sync across platforms) and has both free and paid for versions.
ClickUp is my organisation tool of choice. It has quite a steep learning curve because it is very flexible. It enables you to capture information about your jobs and organise and present that in a lot of different ways. I use it mainly for tracking progress, record keeping and planning my availability.
Many of the tools mentioned are free, have a free version or allow a trial period. It is worth experimenting with tools to see if they can improve your system. Always try and run them together with your existing, tried-and-trusted system while you test them out.
Andy Coulson is a reformed engineer and primary teacher, and a Professional Member of CIEP. He is a copyeditor and proofreader specialising In STEM subjects and odd formats like LaTeX.
‘What’s e-new?’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.
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Photo credits: partially open laptop by Tianyi Ma; hourglass by NeONBRAND, both on Unsplash
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.