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TURN YOUR DEVICES FROM DISTRACTIONS INTO TIME SAVERS

Declutter your digital workspace, save time with shortcuts and leverage an AI helper

By NICOLE NGUYEN
Mon, Jan 22, 2024 9:45amGrey Clock 4 min

Every January, I usually purge old snail mail, clothes and unwanted knickknacks to start the year anew. This time, I focused on my digital spaces instead.

My virtual Marie Kondo-ing forced me to think about the indispensable apps and features on my devices—and on the flip side, the time thieves that make it hard to leave the couch. (Looking at you, YouTube.)

What did I learn? The most important thing we can do to improve our digital spaces is kill the wormholes. After culling apps on my devices, deleting Instagram from my iPad made the biggest impact. But there were many more.

I also learned that small tweaks—such as adding helpful shortcuts and setting up your screen only around essential apps—can make a difference. I’ve been spending less time on my devices, and I’m now more efficient at work. Here are some takeaways from the exercise that can help you turn distracting devices into time savers.

Digital decluttering
Cal Newport’s book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” inspired me to get rid of the junk on my phone and laptop. Clutter, even in digital form, is stressful, Newport writes. I could relate: I felt overwhelmed every time I turned on my devices.

Digital clutter includes unnecessary files on your computer desktop, promotional emails clogging your inbox and unused apps on your phone. I found that the most satisfying cleanse was clearing my phone’s default home screen—what I see as soon as I unlock the device.

An iPhone app called Blank Spaces (one-week free trial, then $14 annually or a $23 one-time fee) enabled the transformation. I picked my five most-important apps—Kindle, Signal, Messages, Maps and Docs—and let the app do its work. Blank Spaces replaced the usual grid of icons with an empty white background and large tappable text that can launch my chosen apps. I love the new Zen vibes and find myself mindlessly using my phone less often. If needed, I can still get back to my old layout by swiping left.

I spend most of my laptop time in a web browser, which is my most disorganized digital space. I am a terrible tab hoarder, and often have dozens open at once—something that makes my laptop slower.

One Tab, a free browser extension for Chrome, Safari and Firefox, has changed my hoarding habits. With one click, the extension closes all the tabs in an open window and saves the sites as a list of links on a dedicated page. It frees up memory needed for faster computer performance, and makes sure you don’t lose your links.

Timesaving shortcuts
Smartphone widgets are amazing. Instead of the tiny icons with the service’s logo, they’re bigger tiles that show you information like the current weather or what’s next on your calendar without having to open the apps.

My favorites include a multi-city world clock for managing colleagues in different time zones, a quick link to Google Translate’s camera function and a list of my tasks via the to-do app Twos.

On iOS, you can touch and hold any area on the home screen until your app icons jiggle. Tap the + button to look at all apps that have widgets available. You can also add a few to your lock screen to access information without opening your phone. And widgets can now be added to desktops on Macs running the latest software. On Android, touch and hold an empty space on the home screen, then tap Widgets.

You can take this timesaving even further with automations. Shortcuts is a powerful built-in app on iOS and Mac for creating custom workflows. For example, the Start Pomodoro shortcut triggers a 25-minute timer and enables Do Not Disturb for that period. I use the automation for short periods of focus. If you find the Shortcuts interface too intimidating, there’s a gallery with pre-made options.

Android users can set up automated routines with Google Assistant. Tasker ($3.49) is a more advanced—though more complex—Android alternative.

A souped-up clipboard
There are two benefits to having a clipboard manager. It saves everything you copy—that is, command + C on a Mac—so you don’t lose anything to copy-and-paste heaven if you accidentally use the shortcut on something else. It’s also a handy tool for quickly accessing often-repeated text.

The Copy ’Em Mac app costs a $15 one-time fee, and it’s worth every penny. It saves clipboard text and images on your device, and can create keyboard shortcuts for frequently pasted text, such as the short introductory paragraph I email people when reaching out for the first time.

If you’re on Windows, ClipClip is a good alternative. Chromebooks already save the last five copied items. Select the search or “Everything Button” + V to access copy history.

Apple’s Universal Clipboard is fantastic for copying-and-pasting between its devices, such as entering a code from your iPhone’s authentication app on your Mac. Enable Handoff in settings, then make sure the devices are signed in with the same Apple ID and have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi turned on.

Between Android and Windows machines, you can use Nearby Share (soon to be renamed Quick Share) to share text across those devices.

An AI helper
Some workplaces may be banning AI-powered chatbots, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, but they can shave hours off dreaded personal tasks.

The key to coaxing a high-quality response is starting with a specific, detailed prompt. Try: “Plan a three-course dinner for six people with easy gluten-free and vegetarian recipes. Identify any steps that can be prepared in advance and create a timeline for cooking the recipes. Arrange the ingredients in a list, organized by grocery store aisles.”

I love using chatbots for mixing up my workouts: “Create a five-day exercise plan for someone who is just getting back into shape,” and add any available equipment or necessary modifications.

Just remember, these systems can be wrong, so you may need to double check their work. Still, you’ll have plenty of freed-up time to ask ChatGPT what to binge-watch next.



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