How to Be Fast at Computers

This is a quick guide on how to maximize your human-computer interaction for productivity, without needing to wait for highly expensive and dubiously useful technology.

Why?

Most technology enthusiasts who obsess about trends like brain-computer interfaces and augmented humanity are advertising the latest and greatest that computers have to offer. This can include the idea of living in a fantasy VR environment, having human-like conversations with AI, prosthetic robotics, and other theoretically-attainable-but-not-yet domains.

What they don’t see is that computers are currently fast enough to dramatically enhance a person’s activities, especially in the domains of thought and language.

Now that most computer technology has matured, buying faster computers generally does not give the greatest gains on improving your computer experience:

  1. In any chain, the slowest-acting component gives the greatest returns on improvement. The slowest point in the computer-human chain is the human brain’s capacity for tactile response, so even little improvements are enough to make someone dramatically faster.
  2. While it’s easy to throw money at faster computers, being slow with the computers has a compounding effect because the secondary tasks tied to what you’re doing (e.g., researching, break-fix) are also slower as well.
  3. Well-trained habits have a holistic effect, and learning how to operate a computer better will also make you a better vehicle operator and generally better at manipulating objects (including other implementations of computers like ATMs and tablets).

Doing Things Quicker

Meditate on the fastest way to do things.

  • Watch for anything you do more than 10 times a day.
  • The fastest way as a user is often not the most straightforward (e.g., right arrow many times vs. the “End” key and left arrow a few times).
  • Ask online if there are any faster solutions to anything.
  • Make a habit of asking questions.
  • Intentionally experiment with permutations occasionally, just to see what’s faster.

Try to move all your tasks to PCs and laptops.

  • Phones are conveniently portable, but can’t rival a keyboard and mouse setup.
    • The touchscreen of any mobile device is a sufficient replacement for a mouse, so buying a keyboard for your mobile device (e.g., Bluetooth) can make you more efficient while traveling.
  • However, the entire design of most mobile device operating systems tends to make viewing information from multiple programs at once very cumbersome.
  • The primary downside about laptops is that they can’t be upgraded or modified, so only get them over PCs if you care for the portability.

Learn touch typing. You’ll learn it by intuition if you use computers all the time, but it helps dramatically to use a typing tutor.

Get gaming-grade input peripherals like your mouse and keyboard. It may be a tiny bit pricier, but the investment pays off in an office or hobby capacity the same as buying good-quality shoes.

If the computer is performing other tasks (e.g., compiling software, downloading), have a second computer available to still perform other tasks.

  • Feel free to unplug and migrate your high-quality peripherals as you go.
  • If you’re swapping frequently, get a USB extension to keep the peripheral within quick access.
  • If you want, get an input switch to alternate inputs between the two computers.

Move around and group icons and shortcuts better.

  • Delete any shortcuts you don’t use, since they may be distracting.
  • Take the extra time to set up quick-access shortcuts or bookmarks that quickly go to where you need to go.
  • Remove any distracting items from the visual interface, which may mean changing your wallpaper or theme as well.
  • If you must frequently access something within multiple layers of subfolders, try to flatten the subfolder tree to reduce typing/selecting to get where you want.

Shortcuts

The only way to learn keyboard shortcuts reliably is to commit them to muscle memory, which requires two possible approaches:

  1. Learn the shortcuts on your own and try committing them to memory. This is the harder way.
  2. Perform shortcuts for tasks you typically would be performing the longer way anyway.

Pay attention to any quick-reference recent history within any software.

Therefore, learn to stay vigilant for any task you perform on a repeat basis, since it’s almost always worth spending a little time researching to get it done faster.

  • If you do a task more than 5 times in a row, it can be automated.
  • If you perform any rhythmic set of tasks (e.g., open 3 programs every morning), it can be automated to one command or a scheduled task.
  • When you have to type a string of commands, it can be automated.

Try to reduce the distance your hands travel.

Learn to work with the mouse better:

  • Play mouse-based games for at least a month or two (e.g., first-person shooters) to develop muscle memory for fine movements.
  • Turn the DPI setting as high as it goes, then work backward from there.
  • When you have tasks that require the mouse, try to keep the mouse immobilized in a preferred region and click on it as you go.

Specifically try to maximize your copy-paste effectiveness:

  • When you can, grab larger sets you can modulate after pasting instead of one-at-a-time smaller sets that are more accurate.
  • Learn to copy-paste as text-only within the office software (which is often all you want), or have a quick shortcut to open a generic text editor to quickly paste-and-copy again.
  • When you need specific symbols, you’ll more quickly find them by web searching than consulting a character chart.
    • However, if you frequently use a character, learn the keyboard code for it (e.g., on Windows ALT+0167 with 10-key produces ยง, which is constantly part of legal documentation).
  • Web search for any repetitive things you’ll frequently use (e.g., standard computer code).

Remap and supplement your standard keys:

  • Caps Lock takes up a prime location next to the pinky, so one of the quickest remaps is to swap the left CTRL key with it.
  • Get a secondary keypad with mappable keys (e.g., Razer Tartarus).
  • Get a mouse with mappable buttons on it.

OS Tweaks

Play with accessibility and system settings:

  • To spot the cursor more quickly, set the cursor size larger, with the color preferably set as a transparent inversion (to avoid blocking other information).
  • Deactivate scroll bars automatically hiding.
  • Set the screen resolution lower or increase screen magnification if you have a hard time reading everything.
  • Set the system font to a spread-out spacing you’re familiar with (which may be serif or sans serif).
  • Turn the brightness settings as high as they can go.

Explore customization within your current operating system:

  1. Mac is, by far, the least customizable. You will need to spend a few hundred dollars in productivity-enhancing software just to get more efficient with it.
  2. Windows is somewhat customizable, and there is plenty of free software to do it. However, it has some hard limits, and later iterations of the software have been somewhat hostile to independent developers making changes to the interface (though PowerToys is a great Microsoft-supported improvement).
  3. Unix-likes are, by far, the most customizable, to the point that you can literally design your own interface if you feel inclined to. Most of the improvements will be through the bash command line.

New OS

At some point, if you’re reaching maximum productivity, consider migrating to a Unix-like.

  • Depending on the distro, the learning curve is steeper than Windows or Mac, but its productivity boosts are worth the effort once you get used to it.
  • Even if you prefer Windows or Mac, there’s a distro built to accommodate your preferences.

At some point, if you’re involved in a very computer-intensive role (such as software development), you should learn basic scripting.

  • Create makefiles to quickly spin up new information.
  • Become intimately familiar with searching for text with regular expression and find-and-replace, which will likely use software like grep, sed, and awk.

If you’re creating code, maximize your IDE, which may mean changing it out for another one:

  • Vim is highly portable, so setting it up means you can effectively transfer your configuration to any computer and keep it on a flash drive.
  • Emacs is more involved and less portable, but it also has more you can do with it.