Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tips for Browsing & Working Faster

Fast Typing
As someone who does most of his work online, the browser has become the cornerstone application I run at all times. And being in technology for almost 15 years, I can't help but notice some of the browsing habits that my family, friends and colleagues have. In most cases, I'm their tech support and their first line of defense for most of their PC needs (purchase, how-to, strategy, approach, web site, email, etc.). So, I wanted to write a few browsing (and some non-browser) tips to help speed things up and help all to not only be speedier, but more productive.

It is worth mentioning (up front) that these tips are derived from my own personal style, and may not all work for you. However, I'm hoping that at least a few of them will come in handy and perhaps help you develop your own style. Since the objective of these tips is to be speedy and more productive, it should come as no surprise that this means I rely on the keyboard for most of them (instead of the mouse) minimizing "lift." That is, the act of lifting my hand and going to the mouse to only click on something once and allow me to resume typing. A perfect example of this is the URL bar/field. Many take the mouse to click on that field so that they could type away the URL in mind. I'm getting ahead of myself, but I figured an example is in order.

The Browser Itself

I wouldn't be surprised if the main application most of us use in today's age is the browser. Heck, I'm willing to go as far as suggesting that the browser is the new operating system (OS) of today. And your choice of browser says a lot about you, your browsing habits, and a whole lot more. Let me be short, sweet and to the point and say that if you're using Internet Explorer (IE) and you don't really have to (because of your work's IT, etc.) then do us all, and do yourself, a favor and switch. And if you're on IE6, then know ahead of time that you'll have to choose a side. Yes, it's that serious. Personally, I use Firefox. And if I wasn't, I would use Google Chrome. Why? Well, the number one reason I use Firefox beside the its compliance with the standards out there is its add-ons and extensions. There are some I simply would rather not work (or live) without.

Keyboard Shortcuts

As I previously mentioned, avoiding that reach to the mouse is sure to save you time and help accomplish things more efficiently. Addressing my earlier point, seeing a professional reach for the mouse and clicking on the URL bar only to type "www.google.com" kills me. Within most browsers (yes IE too), you can alt+d to put the cursor within the URL bar highlighting the entire current URL ready for you to type over it with what ever your heart desires. Besides copy (ctrl+c) and paste (ctrl+v), going to the URL is the next most common thing ... heck, I think it may even beat copy & paste.

Keyboard Shortcuts

While we're at it, you don't really need to type "www." and the ".com" at the end. Just type (in the example I used of going to www.google.com) "google" and hit ctrl+enter. That combo adds "http://www." before the string and ".com" after the string. The string being the "google" part.

Here's a list of keyboard shortcuts that apply to most browsers, but are listed here with Firefox in mind (yes, I'm bias):
  • Go back one page in history: Backspace [or Alt + Left Arrow]
  • Go forward one page in history: Shift + Backspace [or Alt + Right Arrow]
  • Home Page of browser: Alt + Home
  • Reload current page: F5 [or Ctrl + R]
  • Stop loading current page: Esc
  • Page down (i.e., scroll down) in current web page: Spacebar
  • Page up (i.e., scroll up) in current web page: Shift + Spacebar
  • Go to bottom of current page: End
  • Go to top of current page: Home
  • Zoom in (i.e., increase text size of page): Ctrl + =
  • Zoom out (i.e., decrease text size of page): Ctrl + -
  • Find a word in current page: Ctrl + F
  • Find again: F3 [or Ctrl + G]
  • Find Previous: Shift + F3
  • Print current page: Ctrl + P
  • Bookmark current page: Ctrl + D
  • View Page Source: Ctrl + U
  • New Tab: Ctrl + T
  • New Window: Ctrl + N
  • Close Tab: Ctrl + F4 [or Ctrl + W]
  • Close Window: Alt + F4 [or Shift + Ctrl + W]
  • Select Tab (1 to 8): Ctrl + (1 to 8) [for example, to select 2nd Tab: Ctrl + 2]
  • Select Last Tab: Ctrl + 9
  • Toggle Private Browsing: Ctrl + Shift + P
  • Select location bar: Ctrl + L
  • Select search bar: Ctrl + K

This keyboard shortcut list does not do it justice. My favorite list can be found here.

Don't expect to memorize half of them. Simply refer to the shortcuts and use them; and you'll learn them in due time. Despite my technology tenure, I learned one keyboard shortcut today, for example (shift+spacebar).

Use Tabs

I remember once reading something similar to the following line (I'm adapting it a bit): If the browser is the new operating system, then the tab is the new system process, and the tab bar is the new taskbar. There are always reasons to launch a new browser window, but for the most part try and use tabs whenever possible.

There are many add-ons (for Firefox) that help optimize tabs and their use. Most should know how to open a link in a new tab (just right-click the link ... when in doubt, right-click). As evident by the keyboard shortcuts, there's always more than one way to do the same thing. So look it up and see if using it works for you ... but be fair, give it some practice first. When I don't have a link but know my URL, I simply ctrl+t (open a new tab), type the main domain name & hit ctrl+enter to make it a .com url with the www part and I'm off to go. It's longer to read (and type) than to do, I assure you.

Get Organized

Organize your bookmarks in folders. I know that many use outside social bookmarking sites, and even local bookmarking is usually heavily tagged (meta-data); but I still think folders in this case (for bookmarks) rule. And I recommend creating as many of them as you can. Later, if you're serious about organizing, you'll find yourself consolidating some of the folders or even nesting some within others. The end result, in all cases, should be a more organized browser, a more accessible list of links and more efficient cataloging.

For example, I have a bookmark folder sitting on my Bookmarks Toolbar called E-Mail. In it are all the email sites I visit (gmail.com, mail.yahoo.com, hotmail.com, etc.). Another easily accessible folder (although this need not be this accessible) is a folder I created called Bookmarklets. More on those in a little bit. Another folder, again on the Bookmarks Toolbar, is (replaced with the company for whom I'm working). In it are links to the intranet, and several other internal links. In this same folder, I also keep the external and internal links (when they're different) to access my mail over the web. The next point should tie nicely with the reason behind this madness.

Use Keywords on Your Bookmarks

I don't use this as heavy, or even in the same way as most people do. Let's first talk about what they are: Once a bookmark is created, you can go back to it, go to its properties and see a field called "Keyword." It is in this field where you can set a small word or phrase (I'd keep it concatenated) to use instead of the actual bookmarked URL itself. Let me elaborate ... Let's say you bookmarked "http://mail.yahoo.com." Then you go give put "ym" as the string in the Keyword field. Now, all you have to do is type ym in the URL bar and hit enter. Circling back to the keyboard shortcuts, you would do alt+d then ym and enter; and voilĂ , you're at Yahoo! Mail. Of course, you can make your keywords as long or as short as you need them to be.

But where this is the most handy is with longer URLs that you want to bookmark. For me, the longest URLs I seek the most are bookmarklets. Excellent segue into the next section ...

Use Bookmarklets

I don't like to use toolbars outside of what came native with the browser. Heck, even that I butcher to maximize my browser real-estate on my old laptop (a used Dell Latitude D505). I don't install the Google Toolbar, the Yahoo! one, or any other. Toolbars will slow your browser down and are a security risk I'm simply not willing to take. Don't get me wrong, there are a few especially for developers that are absolutely amazing. Nope, I don't use those either. If I had a browser that had them, I'd have them disabled most of the time.

So what do I use instead? Most of what I need, and most of what the toolbars do, can be done with bookmarklets. Bookmarklets are basically JavaScript that calls that have been bookmarked. For example, javascript:alert("hello world"); is technically a link that can be bookmarked. Many sites offer bookmarklets that you can drag to your toolbar for later use.

JavaScript is used on most web pages. Those JavaScript bookmarklets allow you to run your own "manipulations" against the page that you're currently on/viewing. For example, you can force most pages to have a black or white background using a bookmarklet. Amongst such bookmarklets are the ones from such social bookmarking tools I previously mentioned, like Delicious, Tumblr, and others. Amongst my most used bookmarklets are URL shorteners. They not only provide a shorter URL for whatever I want to send out, but tracking (if you're logged in ... free account) all those URLs as well. I digress. You can read more about it here.

Now that I have my bookmarklets, I organize them in a folder called just that (see above), and then I assign my most used ones a keyword of their own to make accessing them a breeze. Like the Yahoo! Mail bookmark, now I can invoke a bookmarklet with alt+d, , enter.

Bookmarklets is what I use the most. And if you've been following my articles, you'll know I'm a bookmarklet-collecting freak. And I use a lot of them. I love the ones that help me read or watch YouTube by dimming everything else (two different bookmarklets). I use bookmarklets to help me write my blog (masking images and aligning them), to QA, to test accessibility, etc. There are many server services, with URLs, out there there that you could pass a URL to (like the current URL of a page) to do something with the page for you. Among such services is PrintWhatYouLike. I know this is not a bookmarklet article, but assigning such a bookmarklet a keyword and using it can have green implications (saving ink and printing paper).

A Couple of Words on Bookmarking ...

Where many use Delicious, Tumblr, or even others like Google Bookmarks and Instapaper, I've not been able to make that jump yet. Perhaps it's because I use Xmarks (formerly known as Foxmarks). Xmarks syncs my bookmarks and allows me to choose which ones are visible/accessible on different profiles. So my "work" profile only shows these folders, and not these others. I could also always go to xmarks.com and access my bookmarks from any computer with internet access.

I do, however, use photo/image bookmarking through a 3rd-party. Where most use such services as vi.sualize.us, I've found myself in love with weheartit (pun intended). I've added their bookmarklet to my collection, made sure it's in my Bookmarklets folder (organized) and have assigned the keyword "loveit" to it. Now, when I'm on a page/site that contains an image or a photo I like, I simply alt+d to go to the URL field, type loveit and hit enter. I then pick the image on that page that I want to "bookmark."

Other Browser Tricks

There are other tricks you can use to boost the likes of Firefox, which you can find here (speeding Firefox itself), extensions and add-ons that are highly recommended, and finally hacks to Firefox's configuration.

These are all things you can do to enhance Firefox. The bulk of the browser tips (and most are generic to apply to other browsers as well) came before the last paragraph, and they are discipline-based with a few technical ones here & there to help you along the way.

Outside of the Browser World

I'll try and be brief here. I find myself often needing to take a note. Nothing elaborate. I'm usually jotting a phone number down (although I do a lot more ... like this entire article), and I usually need it quick ... like NOW! My application of choice is Notepad. But in the spirit of keyboard shortcuts, I do not click on the start menu, find all programs, accessories, yada yada. Instead, I type ctrl+alt+n. That's the shortcut key I've assigned Notepad. I've also assigned one to the calculator (ctrl+alt+c). Now I'm only 3 -key presses away from getting what I need done.

Notepad Shortcut

There are many other things/quirks I do to help me work faster and being more productive. One overlooked item that I use almost always is alt+tab to switch/cycle amongst running applications within Windows. I cycle through tabs, since the browser is the bulk of what I use, with ctrl+tab. Sometimes, it's easier for me to do ctrl+1 for the 1st tab. On many occasions, I find myself guessing the number of the tab (hmm, it's about the 6th open tab so ... ) ctrl+6. All it does is bring focus to that tab. No harm with being wrong. I just adjust the number based on how close I got.

Using services that consolidate multiple touch points for you will inevitably, and perhaps by definition, help you work faster & better. Many of us use instant messengers like Yahoo! IM, AOL IM (AIM), Facebook chat, MSN, GTalk, Jabber, etc. But we also use Twitter, check our email, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. I use one application for them all: Digsby. It's a standalone application that's not browser based (must install it on Windows), but it's free and worth it if it was not.

Another highly recommended tools to help you work faster, better and be more productive include password managers like 1password and KeePass. Combining their use with your browser life and perhaps some cloud computing services (umm, like Dropbox ), and you'll quickly be armed with security on the go. Read more about that here.

As you can see, what you use outside of the browser (like to listen to your music, to watch video, etc.) can also help you be more efficient. Naturally, not all things that consolidate are worth a lick. Some things are best left separate.

That's the tip of the iceberg for my style and what I do. What's yours? I would love to learn new tricks (wuf wuf). Share them with us in the comments.  ▣

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