10 Technology Tips to Improve Digital Productivity

Sep 22, 2010

By Robert S. Miller, MD

October 2010 Issue: Most of us are not going to make major changes in our workflow or style for the elusive goal of efficiency despite spending far too much time with our “gadgets.” However, these tips might help busy oncologists improve digital productivity and reclaim some of that lost time.

The old way to get updated content from the web was to visit individual sites of interest using a browser to view pages passively. A much more efficient way is to use Really Simple Syndication (RSS) technology. RSS allows frequently updated content, such as blogs and news stories, to be pushed to the user automatically. Aggregators include many modern browsers such as Firefox or Internet Explorer, desktop or mobile applications, or free web-based tools such as Google Reader (google.com/reader). Some RSS feeds send subscriptions directly to e-mail services such as Outlook.

Save PubMed searches
Sign up for a free account with the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the National Library of Medicine, by searching “sign in NCBI.” Then, after running any query in PubMed, click “Save Search” to configure daily, weekly, or monthly e-mailed updates of the search.

Use Skype for free video conference calls
Instead of spending mind-numbing hours on conference calls, knowing everyone else is checking e-mail and not paying attention, use video. Skype (skype.com) uses a proprietary Voice Over IP (VOIP) protocol, and there is little start-up cost or effort because webcams and microphones are built into most modern laptops. The software is free, as are computer-to-computer calls. International computer-to-landline/mobile calls are extremely inexpensive, and the quality—both video and audio—is usually excellent.

Don’t retype, use Undo
To quickly zap Microsoft Office’s maddening habit of automatically generating numbered or bulleted lists, unwanted capitalizations, or hyperlinks while you type, use Control-Z for Windows and Command-Z for Macs as soon as the action occurs. This eliminates retyping and allows you to keep automatic formatting in the preferences for when you really need it.

Step up security
We all waste time looking up user names and passwords for the multiple logins, web forms, and sites we use daily; or, worse yet, we use the same password for everything or store our passwords in unencrypted text files on our hard drives. A secure and efficient way to manage passwords is to use a software solution, such as 1Password for the Mac or Splash ID for Mac or PC.

Do more with Google
Your browser’s Google search box can be used for far more than web searches. By typing a phrase or question, you can perform an amazing variety of functions from getting quick unit conversions, to calculating equations, to finding the weather anywhere in the world, to name just a few. For more examples, search “search features Google.

Buy a smartphone
If you are one of the few professionals not using a smartphone, it is time to consider a Black- Berry, iPhone, or Android device. Having access to the Internet and your e-mail while you are away from your desktop is essential for managing your digital life, as long as you can achieve the necessary level of discipline and control.

Use the IMAP protocol for e-mail instead of POP
Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) and Post Office Protocol (POP) are the two most widely used protocols for retrieving e-mail from the Internet, and most modern e-mail services and programs support both. In IMAP, mail is stored on the server, which allows you to synchronize your messages across multiple computers and mobile devices. If you label, file, or delete a message on one device, the change is made across devices. An additional advantage is that IMAP is more secure because e-mail is stored remotely. Unless a POP account is configured differently, once an e-mail is retrieved, it is deleted from the server, which means a message is permanently lost if a hard drive problem occurs. As an example, Gmail can be configured for either IMAP or POP, although POP use is diminishing.

Use Inbox Zero or similar technique to manage your e-mail
We all seem to be drowning in e-mail these days, but a variety of methods can help you manage the onslaught. One popular method is sometimes referred to as “Inbox Zero” (search “Inbox Zero slideshow abridged”). The goals are to keep your Inbox empty at all times, to touch each e-mail only once, and to perform an immediate action once you’re prepared to commit time to e-mail.

  1. When you open an e-mail, immediately decide which of these actions you are going to perform on the message:
    • Delete or File/Archive
    • Delegate for action
    • Respond (if you can do so in two minutes or less)
    • Defer (if the action will take more than two minutes)
    • Do whatever action the e-mail requires (if it takes less than two minutes)
  2. Move all messages into one of four folders, which correspond to the actions above:
    • Trash
    • Filed/Archive
    • Action Required—for messages requiring deferred action (but don’t let this folder get too big)
    • Waiting For—to store delegated messages
  3. Save messages in a single Filed folder (or an offline Archive folder if there are server space constraints) to eliminate wasted time dealing with multiple nested folders. To retrieve a filed message, use the Search function.

Use the keyboard more and the mouse or trackpad less
Few things will make you more productive at a computer than learning to type faster and more accurately. Make a conscious effort to use keyboard shortcuts for common actions such as minimizing windows and tabbing to fields on a page. Consider using a keyboard application launcher such as Launchy (launchy. net) for Windows or LaunchBar for Mac. Using these, you can open an application, MP3 file, or other specialized item by activating a specified hot-key combination, typing the first few letters of the name of the item or other abbreviation, and hitting Return, all without lifting your hands off the keyboard to dig through folders or directories.

Robert S. Miller, MD, is a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer and medical informatics at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. This article is for information purposes only and does not represent an endorsement or warranty.

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