Technology is supposed to make life easier, but it doesn't seem that way when you're struggling to wrangle 289 new e-mail messages, dealing with a hard-drive crash, or suddenly realizing that you left an important file on the office computer. Thankfully, plenty of tools can help. We'll tell you which ones are worth trying, and we'll also suggest some practices that you can incorporate into your workday to use tech tools more effectively and efficiently.
1. Telecommute by Remotely Controlling Your Office Computer
You can work from home--but use the computer in your office--through remote control software such as LogMeIn (free version available) or TightVNC (free). You can view the remote computer full screen, launch and close programs, read e-mail, copy and paste text between PCs, and access any files you left behind. Save money on gas, claim home equipment on your taxes, and convince your boss that you'll be more productive without leaving your house. Even the iPhone has some VNC clients, such as Mocha VNC and Teleport.
If you don't need full remote control but you do require access to your office or home files, set up Microsoft's free file-syncing tool, FolderShare. Your files will always be up-to-date, no matter where you're working or where you last updated them.
2. Schedule Automatic Hard-Drive Backups, Locally and Remotely
Backing up your critical files is as exciting as purchasing home insurance, but just as important, too. Don't risk losing your irreplaceable digital photos by making empty promises to yourself to burn a couple of DVDs every few months. Instead, set up software and services to do the job for you while you concentrate on more-exciting projects. First, save yourself from an "OMG my hard drive crashed!" catastrophe with a top backup program. Or get started now with a free copy of SyncBackSE, and schedule regular backup jobs to your external FireWire drive, thumb drive, or network drive. (If you have FTP-server access, SyncBack can back up to that as well.)
Of course, local backup isn't enough. To protect your data against fire, lightning, theft, or other disasters, you want to back up your data to a remote server over the Internet. Both Carbonite and Mozy Home offer affordable unlimited server space and utilities that quietly back up your data in the background while you work.
3. Work Faster and More Efficiently Without a Mouse
Streamline your computer work by teaching yourself keyboard shortcuts for your common actions, such as Ctrl-S to save, Ctrl-T to open a new tab in Firefox, and Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V to copy and paste (see our list of additional shortcuts). Then, become a keyboard master with the help of a keyboard launcher such as the free Launchy (Windows) or Quicksilver (Mac). You can start programs, open documents, and even do advanced actions such as resizing images and moving files without moving your hands from the keyboard.
You can also assign key combinations that automatically type out common phrases--such as user names, passwords, addresses, and e-mail signatures--with utilities like TypeItIn (Windows) or TypeIt4Me (Mac OS X).
4. Lose Weight, Get Fit, Save Money, and Increase Your Mileage Online
A new crop of social self-improvement sites help you monitor how much you've eaten, exercised, and spent, to motivate you and keep you on track.
Web services such as FitDay and Weight Watchers log and guide your diet and fitness regimen.
If Quicken or Microsoft Money has become too complicated to update, you can track your spending, balance your checkbook, and run charts on expenditures versus income at personal-finance sites Mint.com and Wesabe.
As for your car, avoid online gas scams. Additionally, you can squeeze the last bit of mileage out of every expensive tank of gas with a miles-per-gallon tracker like Fuelly or MyMileMarker. Entering your information into such sites gets you personalized suggestions, comparisons, and a community of like-minded people who can offer support and suggestions.
5. Clear Out Your Inbox Every Day
Beat e-mail overload once and for all by emptying your inbox completely--and keeping it that way. The "Inbox Zero" philosophy says that e-mail messages are just calls to action--not clutter that we need to hang on to. Create three folders or labels in your e-mail client: Action, Later, and Archive. Each day when you check your e-mail, make a decision and do something with every new message you've received until you've moved them all out of your inbox and reduced your message count down to zero. Ruthlessly delete the messages you don't need, on the spot. Respond to the ones that will take under 2 minutes. File messages that you want to keep for future reference in the Archive folder, those that will take longer than 2 minutes to reply to in Action (and add those to-do items to your list), and messages you need to follow up on at a subsequent date (such as Amazon shipment notifications) in Later. Then breathe a sigh of relief when you see that glorious declaration: 'You have no new mail.'
6. Get Your Cables Under Control
When you have a tangled mess of dust-coated cords knotted into a bundle under your desk, disconnecting a laptop or setting up a new printer can be impossible. The cords for power, USB, speakers, and FireWire all look the same. Simple labels can help you avoid accidentally killing your entire rig by pulling one wrong plug. Print out your own with a label maker, or buy a prefab pack of Pilot ID labels to stick on your home-office or living-room plugs. When the cat knocks one out or it's time to rearrange, you'll be glad you did. Then, get cords up off the dusty floor with an under-the-desk cable tray such as this $10 Ikea model. To keep gadget and laptop cords from falling off the back of your desk when they're not plugged in, affix a simple cable catcher (or a binder clip) to the edge of your desk to hold them. Finally, plug your workstation and your collection of peripherals into a single power strip or UPS to shut down the energy hogs with a single switch when you're not using them.
7. Stay on Task With the Right To-Do List
The key to staying on track with the stuff you need to get done is writing it down and checking it off--whether you do so online, on your desktop, on your smart phone, or in a plain text file. PC World has tried a number of online task manager sites, and our pick is Remember the Milk. It provides all the bells and whistles you'll ever need in a to-do list online, on your desktop, and on your phone. RTM offers task categories (such as Work and Home), file attachments, notes, priorities, tags, due dates, and even "honey do" items (you can send tasks to other RTM users, such as your spouse or assistant). RTM also offers a Firefox extension that integrates the service with your Gmail inbox, so you can turn e-mail into tasks. Of course, no matter how good your software is, nothing can replace the visceral satisfaction of crossing off a line on your paper to-do list with the stroke of a regular old ballpoint pen.
8. Replace Your Laptop With a Thumb Drive or iPod
Instead of lugging a laptop on your next trip, save your aching back by taking your computer's desktop with you on a thumb drive or iPod. Portable Windows software offerings such as MojoPac and U3 put a full desktop on your USB thumb drive (or disk-use-enabled iPod), letting you run applications like Microsoft Outlook and save documents all on that drive. All you need is a host computer: You can plug the MojoPac drive into your in-laws' PC or a coffee-shop workstation, for instance, to access your documents and applications without leaving a trace behind. Alternatively, you can save and run free portable applications--like the Firefox browser, Pidgin IM client, and Sumatra PDF reader--from your thumb drive. Download those and other programs for free at PortableApps.com.
9. Use Your Camera Phone as Your Digital Photographic Memory
Almost every cell phone model now includes a built-in camera, and they're good for more than just snapping pics of your buddies' bar shenanigans to blackmail them with later. Use your phone's camera and memory card to capture the spot where you parked, the label on a bottle of wine your spouse loved, the price on a new gadget to look up online, or an amazing meal you'd like to try to cook at home. A new crop of Web services can turn digital photos of whiteboards and documents into searchable PDF documents, too. E-mail your camera-phone shot of a whiteboard or document to Qipit, and the service will recognize the text and e-mail you the resulting searchable PDF.