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It only looks like magic

When it comes to working more efficiently, anyone can look like a magical expert. Here are some tips for you, Harry Potter.

The scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously declared that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. For the past 15 years, I’ve been proving a slightly different axiom: Any technologist with sufficient tricks up his sleeve is indistinguishable from a magician.

When people ask me for computer help, they often look baffled as my fingers skid over the keyboard and stuff rapidly changes on the screen. “How did you do that?” they’ll ask. The fact is that I have a repertoire of about dozen tricks that help me work more quickly with Windows computers. Many insecure technologists guard their knowledge of this information–like modern-day stage conjurers, they like to hold the mysteries of their trade as a kind of employment insurance. I take a different tack: Like Penn and Teller, I like to show people how the magic is done.

So, first observe that there’s nothing up my sleeve. Now…voila! Watch the magic unfold.

How to be efficient

The trouble with a Windows desktop is that other people designed it to work their way. Here are a few tricks for working at peak efficiency.

Switch programs. Have a few programs running and want to switch to another one? Hold down Alt and press the Tab key. Keep pressing it until the program you’re looking for is highlighted, then release. That program will appear on top.

Click to resize windows. Programs (especially Web browsers) often open in small windows. To make them grow, double-click anywhere in the title bar (the blue strip at the top of the window with the program and document name in it). Shazam! The program will fill the screen. Repeat the process to shrink it down again.

Close programs fast. To quit a program, hold down the Alt key and press F4 (start at the E, go up past 4, and there it is). Poof! The active program disappears. Keep pressing F4 and each successive program closes down. When no more remain, one last Alt+F4 closes down Windows.

Shrink everything. Running five programs and want to see your Windows desktop fast? Hold down the Windows logo key on your keyboard (usually wedged between Ctrl and Alt) and press D. Everything shrinks at once. To restore them all, press the same combination again.

Use Explorer windows. Don’t hunt for My Computer when you want to open a file. Hold down the Windows logo key on your keyboard (again, it’s usually between Ctrl and Alt) and press E. Use the same combination twice when you want to copy files from one drive or folder to another (see relying on floppy disks, below).

Make a folder for each project. My Documents is the place to store your documents…but don’t just dump them all there. Segregate projects into themes (Marketing, Letters, Press Releases, Budget, and so on) and make a folder for each one. How? Right-click on a blank part of the folder you’re working in, click on New, then click on the Folder option that pops up. When the new folder appears, type in a new name. If the new name doesn’t take, right-click on the new folder and select Rename, then type in the new name. As your set of files increases, make new subfolders inside your folders with the same right-click trick. Either set up a folder for each year, or just create a folder called Old or Archive for stuff you don’t read anymore.

Select multiple files. Want to move or delete or work some other magic on several files? There are four ways to select multiple files. To select a big block of files, click on the first, hold down the Shift key, and click on the last. All the files in between will be selected. To select a few random files, click on one, hold down Ctrl, and click on all the others in sequence. To select everything, click on one item, then hold down Ctrl and press A. Every file in the folder will be selected. (Ctrl+A works in other programs too, including word processors, Web browsers, and spreadsheets).

Sort your documents. So you have a folder with 500 documents in it. How do you find the one you care about? Easy! Go to the View menu, and select Details. You’ll see a list of files. If you’re looking for the most recent document, click on the column heading Modified. This re-sorts the documents in date order. Click it a second time to reverse the order. Or click on Name or Size or Type to re-order the documents by those criteria.

Take shortcuts. The best thing Microsoft ever did was to introduce the idea of Shortcuts to Windows. If you work with particular folders every day (say, a removable disk or sub-folder in My Documents), put shortcuts to them on your Desktop where you can get at them quickly. Open the drive or folder that contains the folder you work with, then use the right mouse button to drag the item to the desktop. When you release the right mouse button, you’ll see a menu asking whether you want to move, copy, or create a shortcut to the folder in question. Select Create a Shortcut. Whenever you click on your shortcut, you’ll open the real folder. This tip works well for copying items to removable disks.

Narrow your search. Anyone can use the Start menu’s Search or Find option to trawl an entire hard disk, but to focus your search where you files are (say, My Documents), open an Explorer window (the Windows icon+E, remember?), then right-click on the folder and select Search. Here’s another tip: If you can’t remember the document title, pick a unique word or phrase from the document and enter it in the Containing Text field.

Common mistakes to avoid

Placing bets on pool games with strangers and trying to fill an inside straight are two things no right-minded person should do. Here are some others.

Relying on floppy disks. Floppy disks fail all the time, yet people use them to shuttle files around, and (horrors!) even edit files on them. This is an insane risk that actually hastens the failure of the disk. If you must use floppy disks, drag files from them to My Documents or some other hard drive. Work on them there. Then drag them back to the floppy disk. Better yet, don’t use floppies. E-mail yourself the file, or use a USB storage key like those from Disk On Key to shuttle data.

Of course, if you have a floppy disk that contains your reason for living but you can’t open it anymore, you need Norton’s Disk Doctor (part of the SystemWorks package). You can run the program directly from the installation CD-ROM (something I do a couple trillion times a year with clients who still use floppies for everything).

Forgetting to defragment your hard disk. People know vaguely that it’s a good idea to defragment or optimize their hard disks…but like flossing, washing windows, and tuning up the car, they often skip it. Yet disk fragmentation slows PCs down, introduces disk errors, and even causes system crashes and data loss. But fixing fragmentation can take an hour or more–so just before lunch or a long meeting, open My Computer (why not try Windows icon+E, just for practice?) and right-click on your hard drive. Select Properties, and then click on the Tools tab. Click on Defragment Now, and go away for a while. Alternatively, get a more efficient defragmenter such as Executive Software’s Diskeeper, which is four times faster and features a “set it and forget it” scheduler so you can forget about this tip altogether. Isn’t that worth 30 bucks?

Using your word processor like a typewriter. When I was learning to type, the ancient teacher taught us to hit the Tab key to indent a line and make columns, and crank the carriage return (think Enter key) twice to space paragraphs. For some, these habits remain today–and for the rest of us, they make word processing documents a nightmare to format and edit.

When you open your document, set the page layout right away: In Microsoft Word, press Ctrl+A to select the entire document, then pick Format, Paragraph. In the Indentation section, under Special, select First Line. Under Spacing, select the Auto option under Before. Presto! If you need to double-space, select that here too.

When you want to make two or more columns, don’t use tabs. Instead, create a table with the right number of columns. In Word, select Table and Insert, and make the columns right. Then when the table appears, drag to highlight the whole thing, and select Borders and Shading. Click on None to ensure you won’t see the lines on the table when you print it out.

No big deal

The final and most common mistake in computing is to assume that it’s magic. You don’t need to dress up in a tux or tame some white tigers for any of this stuff. Carry this column around in your pocket protector and try out a tip or two.

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