Clickin' It Old School

Wednesday May 30th 2007 by Mike Elgan
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Want your own personal computing Renaissance? The power is (and always has been) right at your fingertips.

The slowest part of any PC is always the user -- and as Moore's Law continues to drive faster processors, memory and disks, the performance gap between us and our machines grows ever wider.

What we need is a Renaissance in how we use PCs.

The real -- as in the Italian or European -- Renaissance, which ran from the 14th through the 17th centuries, ushered in the modern world and transformed human life, politics, culture and consciousness.

The movement was triggered by the discovery of new things – new science, new techniques in art, America, etc. But it was also brought about by the re-discovery of something old: the culture of ancient Greece and Rome.

If you want to bring about your own personal Renaissance, you'll no doubt look to Web 2.0 sites and the blogosphere -- the new agents of cultural transmission -- to learn new tricks and find out about new sites and resources that help you get more out of the time you spend on your computer.

But for a real Renaissance, you also should look to the past -- to the lost computing arts of yesteryear.

Three of these lost arts are especially powerful: 1) keyboard shortcuts; 2) macros; and 3) the command line interface.

I'm going to give you some tips for mastering these forgotten secrets from the dawn of personal computing (the 1980s).

Keyboard Shortcuts

You already know that nearly everything you can do with a mouse, you can do with keystrokes -- and that keystrokes are usually faster.

Keyboard shortcuts work only if you use them, obviously, and you're only going to use them if you build the habit. It’s not about knowledge, but muscle memory.

Here's how to develop the habit. Go to Microsoft's keystrokes page and look for others you might make use of, print out the relevant pages and hang them on your monitor or nearby where you can look quickly.

Now take a deep breath, unplug your mouse and put it away somewhere. Yeah, I said it: Get rid of your mouse.

Go “cold turkey” for one month. By the end of that month, you'll master all the major keystrokes, and will be able to execute them instantly. When you plug your mouse back in, you'll be able to do everything faster by using your new keyboarding skills.

Macros

Macros are tiny programs that can be created by non-programmers and are useful for automating repetitive and time-consuming tasks. Creating macros is not only a huge time saver, but it's also fun and challenging. Think of it as a hobby.

I'm a huge Macro Express fan, but there are other macro utilities out there you might like.

The hardest thing about boosting your computing speed with macros is not the creation of macros, but figuring out what to automate. Once you pick your macro utility, spend some quality time with the software maker’s Web site and help programs, which will spark plenty of ideas.

The Command Line Interface

Before the graphical user interface, all computing was done via a command line -- a single place where you typed in commands to be executed by the system.

Modern operating systems still support command-line interfaces. The advantage is speed. Rather than drilling through layers of nested folders or menus, and hunting for an icon associated with an executable, you can just use your new-found keyboarding skills to instantly launch the very same program.

In Windows, you can use the Run command on the Start menu, or Windows' command-line interface (type cmd in the Run dialog box and press the Enter key). Here are the major commands.

Each of these three lost arts can dramatically boost your speed when computing. As a bonus, they cut the risk of repetitive stress injury associated with using a mouse. But used together, and combined with new hardware, software, services and techniques, these old school techniques can launch your own personal Renaissance in computing.

To boost your productivity and performance, by all means learn the many new ideas and master the new technologies and services out there.

But also don’t forget to learn from the past.

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