Are you ready for a shock? According to a study from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, computers actually make you less productive. By the time you’ve finished stumbling around your software and fiddling with your formatting, you’ve spent more time than you would have, had you just typed the thing on a typewriter.
Okay, that study came out in 1986. Still, its conclusions ring true for plenty of people even today. Computers have come a long way in the last 20 years, but it’s also amazing how far they haven’t come.
Here we are, in 2007, and Windows has no single keyboard short cut for its New Folder or Empty Recycle Bin commands. Some useful menu commands still have no keyboard equivalents. And neither Mac nor Windows lets you set up a keystroke of your choice to open any program or document—a feature that would speed up your work dozens of times a day.
There is a solution: macro programs that memorize steps, which are then replayed with the touch of a keystroke or a click on a toolbar.
Watching a macro playback might freak you out at first: Menus flash down, the cursor zips around and windows open and close as though operated by a caffeine-crazed ghost. But if you’re willing to invest a little time up-front setting things up, you wind up saving a heck of a lot of time, effort and mousing later.
Dozens of macro programs are available for Mac OS X and Windows. Most are try-before-you-buy shareware, with name such as QuicKeys, Quick Macro, Macro Expert and Macro Mania. You can start by assigning keystrokes to open the programs you use the most—F2 for your Web browser and F3 for Word, for example. Thereafter, you can switch into your programs directly, without having to fumble around with the Start menu, the Dock or the Alt-Tab program switcher.
Windows lets you assign a keystroke to open something, but only if it’s a short cut, only if it’s on the desktop or the Start menu, and only if the keystroke includes two modifier keys such as Ctrl+Alt. Macro programs are far more flexible.
Then you can create one macro that types out your return address, another that types today’s date, and yet another that closes all open desktop windows at once. And how about one that drags the highlighted icon to the Trash or Recycle Bin and then empties it?
As you gain proficiency, you can start automating longer multistep sequences, such as cleaning up text from an email message (removing all the funny line breaks and brackets), changing default printers and reformatting databases.
In general, you have two ways to create a macro. First, you can build a sequence one step at a time, using menus of tasks: mouse-click here, choose this menu command, close that window, and so on.
Second, a watch-me mode records the macro as you perform the steps yourself. Unfortunately, these macros often derail on playback—because, for example, a window isn’t in the same position it was when you made the recording. Debugging such macros is aheadache.
Most macro programs also let you segregate your macros by program, so that Ctrl-T performs one task in your Web browser, but a different task in your email program.
The trick is finding a macro program that you can understand. Creating a macro is a relative of programming, and these macro programs can be numbingly complex. After slogging through 15 candidates, I’ve found six for Mac and Windows that are worth your money.
If macro software sounds intimidating, this super-simple one for Windows lets you dip your toe in the water.
It’s nothing more than a list of ready-to-use macros, mostly in three categories: opening things (favourite programs, documents and Web pages) and on your PC (such as Documents or Control Panel).
All you have to do is choose a keystroke for each one, and it’s ready to use. There is no programming, guesswork or praying to the gods of technology. The downside, of course, is that these are all single-step actions; you can’t string them together into more complicated tasks. The same firm also makes a good mid-range program called Workspace Macro Pro ($40), which offers multistep macros, scheduled macros, ready-made macros for complex network and maintenance tasks and much more.
You can assemble a macro either manually or using a guide that asks for a macro name, how you’ll want to trigger the macro (keystroke, schedule, toolbar) and finally the macro’s purpose. The software design of this Windows program needs some work, and a Vista version is due in two weeks, but otherwise this program offers a satisfying introduction.
This Windows program strikes an excellent balance between power and usability. It lets you build your macro by choosing from a categorized list of steps: CD-ROM Eject, Clipboard Empty, Desktop Minimize All, Open Folder, Network Disconnect, and so on. You can create macros that work only in one program, password protection is available and you can annotate work in a handy Notes box.
One really annoying quirk: To create a macro that opens a favourite program—an essential macro task—you have to type in the name of the program’s window, which you may not know offhand.
This Mac program can do just about everything: click, type, restart or shut down the computer, operate iTunes in the background, and so on. It would be even better if it didn’t confront you with so many dialogue boxes and pop-up menus, and if it adopted more familiar terminology; for example, the Hide All Programs step lurks in a pop-up menu called Process Control.
Now we’re talking. To create a macro in this Mac macro master, you make selections from only three pop-up menus. One specifies the action, one specifies the program you want it to work in, and one specifies the trigger, such as a keystroke or a toolbar button. It’s all in a brushed-metal look, neatly organized iTunes-like window.
You can set up conditional pauses (“wait until the window has appeared”), see a master list of the keyboard short cuts you’ve used so far, and more. It’s a lot to learn, but the company hired an actual computer-book author to write the user’s guide. Imagine that.
The Mac version of this program is awesome in its power. It offers voice-triggered macros, variables, and “subscopes”, in which a macro’s effect differs depending on what you’re doing in a single program. It’s the only Mac program with a watch-me mode. (There’s also a Windows version of QuicKeys, but it’s not as powerful and isn’t yet available for Vista.)
QuicKeys is also the only macro program I found that can perform my favourite stunt—it can turn the tilde key (~) next to the No. 1 key on the keyboard into a left-handed Delete key, so you can leave your right hand on the mouse when editing documents. The Windows macro programs, by contrast, don’t let you use alphabet or punctuation keys as trigger keystroke.
Be warned, however: QuicKeys is also complex; all those advanced options stare you in the face even when you’re creating a simple macro.
The bottom line: If MIT’s researchers had had a macro program when they did their productivity study in 1986, they might not have reached different conclusions. But they would have finished their report a lot sooner.
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