If you ran DOS with WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3, you could solve 98 percent of the world's productivity-tools needs at less cost and with less crashing.
Scott McNealy, CEO Sun Microsystems Inc.
Computers have promised many benefits. Faster access to information, the ability for everyone to perform tasks once relegated to specialists, and more. But computers have also failed to deliver on a number of those promises. One of the most striking failures is in the realm of productivity. Instead of helping us do our jobs faster and more efficiently, computers have in fact slowed us down. We're not getting the most out of computers and software; they're getting the better of us.
How bad is the problem? A 1997 study by the Center for the Study of Living Standards stated that between 1992 and 1995 investment in office computers rose 64.2 percent, but productivity only increased 1.2 percent. Not exactly
While productivity in the information age seems like an oxymoron, it isn't. You can increase yours with a little discipline and some subtle changes to the way you work. But before you can become truly productive, you must shatter the many barriers to productivity put up by both people and their software.
Everyone wants to be an artist, whether they are administrative assistants, programmers, or writers. And modern software has given everyone the opportunity to realize that dream. Most major applications, many Web sites, and every software store stocks more clip art and fonts than anyone could ever hope to use. This isn't a bad thing. Problems arise when graphics and type fall into the hands of those who think they can assemble good-looking documents, but who fail to realize that effective design involves more than indiscriminately using all the tools at one's disposal. What results can often be gently described as a cluttered mess. Changing typefaces, graphics put on a page (printed or Web) without any thought to their impact.
In many cases, this goes to the extreme of gratuitously adding animation, sound, and other multimedia elements to documents, presentations, and online content. While doing work for a software company, I attended a quarterly meeting. During this meeting, various executives made presentations backed by PowerPoint slides. Things went smoothly until it came time for the president and CEO to speak. His assistant had created a PowerPoint presentation that combined gaudy colours, animation, and music. This may have seemed "dynamic" and "cutting edge" to those involved, but the effect was tacky and detracted from what the president had to say. The time spent being clever, and searching for the multimedia components of the presentation, could have been better spent crafting meaningful content. This would have used less time and the result would have been more effective.
The user friendliness of operating systems like Windows and the Mac OS is highly overrated. Sure, users get a pretty interface and point and click access to programs and functions. I agree that in many ways a GUI is far easier to use than the command line. And, an average person can quickly master basic mouse skills. That is only part of the game. Far too many people don't know how to perfrom fundamental operations, like safely removing programs or simple file manipulations. I am constantly amazed to see an intelligent Windows user who doesn't know how to select multiple files or even do a drag and drop. Often, this ignorance is the result of a lack of training. Workers are often cut loose with little or no idea of how to use an operating system or an application. Many who do have some knowledge haven't a clue about time-saving features, or even about keyboard shortcuts and using button bars. Far too many are expected to learn by doing. But few take the time to even read manuals or Help files.
The bloat and crashiness of modern operating systems and software compound the frustration users experience. Take the 32-bit versions of Windows, which are a bug-riddled mess. There is the well-documented need for frequent reboots, and crashes are hardly rare. The time you spend waiting for Windows to perform tasks or to recover from crashes is essentially lost. And how often have you had a word processor and spreadsheet die on you, causing a loss of work? And how many hours have you spent re-doing work that has vanished into the digital ether? More often than you care to admit, I'm sure.
The icing on the cake is a phenomenon known as "creeping featurism". This is the tendency to load more features into a program than anyone will ever use. The whiz bang of the new comes at the expense of speed and elegance. The more features an application contains the more resources it uses. And this means it takes the program more time to carry out a task. In the end, this means wasted minutes while you wait for software to save, open, or modify a file.
So the question now is "How do I increase my productivity?" Here are a few suggestions.
If you embrace any rule, it should be "Keep It Simple". Think about the most effective documents and presentations you've seen. It's a safe bet that they were clean and functional, and didn't look like the latest issue of WIRED. If the company you work for has corporate templates and a style guide, use them. With any luck, they were created by someone with training, or skills, in document design. If your employer doesn't have templates or a style guide, press for their creation and use. Doing this will require some time and expense, but in the end it will be worth it. You will have a unified corporate image and, more importantly, people in your organization will spend less time experimenting and more time doing their jobs.
Use your software in the way it was meant to be used. One of the surest ways of wasting time and increasing your frustration is to try to do something an application isn't designed to do. It's a lot like trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver. You can do it, but it isn't easy. A good example is a word processor. No matter how many neat features, functions, and templates the developers have added to these programs, they're for writing not publishing. A word processor isn't designed to create newsletters, brochures, flyers, etc. Anyone who has to do any kind of publishing work should get the boss to spring for an application like PageMaker. The software and training will quickly pay for itself.
Get training in the software and operating system your company uses. On the job isn't the place to learn about them. You need to be in a classroom with an instructor. If your employer won't pay for the courses, you can find inexpensive ones at a community college or a local board of education.
If you follow these suggestions, you will be able to trim the fat from your working habits. Before you know it, the once lofty dream of increased productivity will be within your grasp.