Boosting Ubuntu's Productivity: 20 Tips

Tuesday Oct 19th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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Make the Ubuntu desktop more efficient and faster by eliminating keystrokes, data loss, and workstation downtime. Plus: help downloads for Ubuntu.

Much like anything in life, what works for one individual might be seen as unneeded by another. Yet when it comes to making the Ubuntu Linux desktop more productive to use, there are some clear cut help tips. They lessen unneeded keystrokes, data loss, and workstation downtime.

In this article, I'll share twenty tips that have saved me countless hours of wasted time, while making my life with Ubuntu easier in general. Some among you may have different variations of the same ideas presented here already. Despite this possibility, I believe it's probable that there’ll be tips included that you might not have thought of yet.

1) Keeping your data safe – What about when we go to upgrade our Ubuntu installations? How many times do we read forum post after forum post about the person who upgraded Ubuntu to version x.xx only to find that something went wrong along the way?

In other instances, the desktop is working fine except for some X factor that the affected user who upgraded didn't take into account. It happens all the time.

So what do I personally do about these types of issues? Three things: I use a dedicated Home partition, JungleDisk off-site backup and two external hard drives. Yes, I actually use all three sources to backup my files.

Obviously, the dedicated partition is a static kind of situation where no additional action is needed after initial setup, however the backing up of my data is done daily by JungleDisk and weekly to my external hard drives. Using this approach, I haven't experienced data loss – of any kind.

Even if I do lose access to the Internet for data recovery on any given day and my Home partition is lost somehow, I still have my Home partition backed up safely on external drives as a final option. I recommend this for small home offices and home users not ready to go to a more traditional thin client/server type of configuration.

2) Clone the drive before updating – I have found that the best way for myself to avoid the upgrade blues is to do two things. Use a clean Ubuntu install and clone my hard drive with CloneZilla.

Why clone the hard drive at all if other backup methods have already been used? Simple: if you should hose an Ubuntu installation for some reason, cloning the drive allows you to roll back to a vanilla working installation with all of your settings intact. From there, restore the latest Home directory backup and you are back to work with plenty of time to spare.

3) Update your Ubuntu on non-work days – I realize this should seem painfully obvious, but the fact is there are entirely too many people who try to make system wide changes on their Ubuntu installs during the work week. This is always a bad idea. Not because upgrading is the wrong thing to do, rather the selected time is inefficient. Wait for a non-work period like the weekend, which will allow for recovery time, should things go poorly. 4) Arrange your panels to meet your needs – Too many people feel that the Ubuntu panel(s) provided by the GNOME desktop are some invisible force that should not be messed with at any cost. This is nonsense. There is no reason why one can't arrange things in such a way as to ensure you can launch common applications, find the volume controls and have the ability to kill rogue applications without needing to take the time to open up a terminal and begin typing.

Don't misunderstand me, I love being able to get things done quickly in the terminal when I need to. But I happen to prefer killing off rogue applications and keeping an eye on system resources through the panel applets provided.

Others may prefer different widgets that do the same, while others will always live by the command line. There is no wrong choice here, but from a visual monitoring standpoint, using applets like the system monitor are difficult to compete with, as it's always visible.

5) Getting it done with GNOME Do – When it comes down to being productive, there is something to be said about minimizing use of the mouse. Sure, like using a GUI menu built into a desktop manager, it's considered easier to simply browse, slide the mouse around and locate what we are looking for. But is this really the most effective use of our time?

I would say it's not for me. I choose to save my time by using GNOME Do instead of my mouse. It's perfect for people who prefer the mouse avoidance of the CLI, yet yearn for visual verification that what they’re typing up is what they are looking for. In short, if the path to an application is wrong, you will see it before ever executing it. Sending email, locating documents, whatever you are doing -- this application could help you make it happen faster.

6) Central access for commonly used software and files – The enterprise environment has its take on thin clients and server resource access for business needs. So what about the small or single-person business working from a home office? Since I work from a number of different Ubuntu computers throughout my day, I need to make sure I have access to commonly used documents, spreadsheets and email while doing so free of the "cloud."

The solution that has worked out well for me is using SFTP for file access while accessing email on a server using Evolution via SSH X forwarding. Now the SFTP access is great for secure remote file access regardless of my current location. On my LAN or away, I can securely edit and save my documents without any concerns due to data loss.

For the use of Evolution over SSH, this comes down to the fact that I need a usable Microsoft Exchange software client that was not going to be working in one Ubuntu release only to break with the next. As you likely know, Exchange access in Evolution in Ubuntu 10.10 is broken. There are some very ineffective work-a-rounds available, but in the end, it's still a problem yet to be solved.

My solution was to keep Ubuntu 10.04 on a dedicated "email box" that I access using SSH with X forwarding. This means I am able to literally use the actual Evolution client from the working box, through SSH. Surprisingly, it works very well with low latency.

7) Keeping your email under control – My point about using email from one central location had an unexpected advantage. I found myself fooling around with email less throughout my day. Because I would otherwise need to keep it open all of the time to see email as it came in, I found that I only check email during specific times of the day.

The result has – surprisingly – been that more work is getting done in a day. Along with social networking, email can become a huge waste of time. Avoiding this can best be done by keeping your central email client off of your work machines, available via SSH only.

To keep things even more streamlined, I personally use POPFile on the same machine as I run my Evolution client from. Once trained, POPFile not only provides Bayesian Spam filtering, you can also train it to learn what you consider important email and what is of lesser importance, thus being sent to another folder in Evolution.

8) Less music, more working – There are exceptions to this of course, but I have found that with the exception of classical music or the like, enjoying your tunes while working can become a very big distraction. If you are a developer and find that music helps the day pass along easier, then you would be best served by using Rhythmbox to play a preselected playlist.

This means you need to setup the playlist when you have some extra free time. Assuming you're able to leave the music alone and allow the playlist to provide you with the day's musical selection, then this could be an arrangement that works without too much distraction. Speaking exclusively for myself, it really depends on the task at hand whether I can handle music playing in the background.

9) USB Headset over speakers – Speakers attached to a PC can be great. Listening to the sound from a video tutorial, music, or whatever you happen to be working on at the time means that having sound is rather important on your system. But speakers can also be a distraction when you have incoming calls to your VoIP client or with various system sounds that might otherwise be a pain to have to disable.

This is why I prefer a decent set of USB headphones. Not only do they address the issues above, you also are able to tune out the world around you to focus on your work. It's a great productivity feature for telecommuters, students and even those of us who are self-employed at our home offices.

10) Use Parcellite clipboard manager – One of the things I love about the GNOME desktop environment with Ubuntu is using the clipboard manager called Parcellite. This little applet sits quietly next to my other applets in the top panel, saving what I copy and paste throughout my day. But unlike the standard copy and paste functionality, Parcellite can store many items at once. This allows you to recall them later if you should need them.

Using Parcellite in the real world makes a lot of sense for developers and coders. Instead of bouncing back and forth when pasting code, you can have a few different lines copied into Parcellite already. This would mean less time spent finding the previous line of code to paste and more time spent on your project of the day.

11) Lock your screen for lunch – Instead of going into sleep or standby mode, this allows you to get back to work faster. Now I realize that Ubuntu has been sped up to a point where coming out of sleep mode isn't that big of a deal to most. But have you ever compared this to how quickly you can get back to work from a simple screen lock? There is simply no contest.

On my own computers, I use a blank screen saver with a screen lock option. On my notebooks, I often use the same as I am usually connected to a power strip. Putting the laptop into sleep mode with power attached is kind of pointless if you are merely coming back to work in an hour.

12) Use GTK-RecordMyDesktop – Using GTK-RecordMyDesktop can save you from duplicating the same how-to assistance type tasks for co-workers over and over by doing it once and recording it. This tool is also invaluable when the help needed is off-site, where you cannot be in person.

I have found GTK-RecordMyDesktop to be an invaluable tool for showing people how to accomplish simple tasks with Ubuntu. As an added bonus the video then can be passed around to others, which frees you up for other activities. It also is fantastic for creating and sharing presentations where using Open Office Impress is simply not enough. The ease of use along with its ability to duplicate your efforts allows you to do more without stressing yourself out.

13) Communicate with Empathy – Communicating with your co-workers is a necessary evil throughout the day, but it doesn't need to turn into a lengthy trip to the water cooler. Using a messenger client like Empathy allows you to alert your co-workers should you need them for something, without the hassle of getting out of your work-space.

It’s perfect for creative types who might be working under a specific train of thought during a task who don't want to lose focus by leaving their work area. Using Empathy allows you to remain in contact with the rest of the office, without resorting to spending unneeded time outside of workspace.

14) Use Google Chrome (or Chromium) instead of Firefox – In my home office I have completely stopped using Firefox. In its place, Google Chrome has become my browser of choice. The reason is rather simple – Chrome doesn't run like maple syrup on a cold winter morning.

Firefox for Linux has become nearly unusable on all of my PCs, many of which are running with dual core CPUs, boasting at least 2 gigabytes of RAM. Yes, it will "run." Yet the stability and speed has completely gone right out the window in comparison to Chrome.

Chrome just works better for me. It has faster load times, less crashing with Flash media, and less bugs in general. Perhaps best of all, many of the same extensions I had used with Firefox are available for the Chrome browser. Using Chrome saves me time and frustration, while leaving me wondering why Firefox hasn't paid more attention to their Linux users.

15) Let the "Hamster" handle your time tracking – There are a lot of time tracking applications out there. But there aren't quite as many that "award you" for a job well done upon completion of a task. Project hamster is such an application. Project Hamster allows you to feel rewarded with about 67 different "trophies" in addition to helping you schedule your time more effectively.

Setup into workspaces, projects, categories, tags and tasks, the Hamster Project is actually a very powerful time tracking tool once you spend a little time exploring the help documentation included with the software. I found that the Hamster Project makes me more productive because I can set it and forget it. The app is designed so you’re spending your time working, not playing with the software designed for time management. Because it's a panel applet application, the software will run in the background until you need it.

16) Voice calls on Ekiga go to Asterisk voicemail – Most of you are familiar with Ekiga. However how many of you know that you can use Asterisk to handle voicemail for your Ekiga needs? Do you have folks calling you at the worst possible times? Let Asterisk handle the incoming call with voicemail so you can keep working.

Once you get Ekiga moved to port 5061 and Asterisk to SIP port 5060, you are ready to get to work and allow Asterisk to handle your incoming calls. It essentially acts as a personal assistant. If instead, you are using something like PC-To-Phone and Phone-To-PC calls, then you may be able to gain an already setup voicemail for your Ekiga client without needing to bother with Asterisk at all.

17) Use different user accounts – One Ubuntu user account for work, another for home use. Why? Because it's a fantastic way to keep your work life and non-work life completely separate. Not saying this is practical for everyone, however those using their computers both for work and play might find this helpful.

So how does this allow you to be more productive? By keeping a thick line between your home and work life online. Best of all, if you maintain multiple social media accounts, this will help you keep them separate. It is even worth pointing out that by keeping both a work and personal user account, you are adding a symbolic divide between the two spaces in your life. It allows people to still use the computer without being sucked into work at every turn on the weekends as well.

18) Run two LCD monitors – Outside of my laptop or netbook, the idea of using a desktop computer with a single monitor is just foreign to me. Some have questioned whether my apparent "need" for two monitors is a matter of enhanced productivity or, instead, pride in having a desktop with two monitors attached. I think it comes down to enhanced productivity. Allow me to explain.

When I’m working on a project, I need to be able to have certain websites open to me while I write. This means I can either bounce back and forth from one window to another, or simply look to the right of my left monitor for the same information. Clearly, using two monitors properly can do wonders for enhancing your productivity.

19) Virtual Box instead of dual-booting – I apologize ahead of time if this seems too obvious. That said, it still blows my mind how many people dual-boot their computers into Windows to access legacy Windows software that doesn't run in WINE.

Like many of you, I use desktop Linux full time. And my most used distro of choice is Ubuntu. Now for other projects, there are times where I need to access the occasional Windows application. But instead of booting into Windows after logging out of Ubuntu, I already have it running in the background in seamless mode through Virtual Box.

By taking this approach, I save tremendous time as I can stay within my Ubuntu desktop while still accessing the needed legacy application that forced me to boot into Windows in the first place.

20) Let crontab do that for you – At its core, crontab is awesome, there is no question about it. But unless more of us start becoming familiar with it, using it effectively means constantly having to translate the strings into something that makes sense to those of us running it.

I have found that I am good with simply setting up my scheduled tasks the old fashioned way as it's clear that things will get done without fail. And there is clearly a timesaving element to having crontab handle certain backup routines and other tasks so I’m free to not deal with them.

For those wanting the same productivity benefit, perhaps using GNOME Schedule is just what you've been looking for instead of entering crontab data in manually. Either way, crontab is a huge time saver once you have it setup to handle those little things you'd rather leave to an automatic schedule.

ALSO SEE: Why Does Everyone Hate Ubuntu?

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