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7 daily productivity hacks to help you work smarter in 2021

Juggle email like a pro, type a lot less, maximize your screen real estate, and more.

7 daily productivity hacks to help you work smarter in 2021
[Photo: Domenico Loia; Tourbox]
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If, like me, you’ve been wandering around the house muttering, “New year, new me” without really being sure what’s going to change, might I suggest you use this year to get more productive?

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That does not mean working harder, mind you—especially if you’ll still be working from home for the foreseeable future. It simply means working smarter so you can get more done in less time and, in turn, maintain (or regain) a proper work-life balance.

Take it from me: a lazy but productive homebody who’s been working remotely for years.

In that spirit, here are some of my most prized productivity-powering possessions.

A big 4K monitor

We’re officially living in an era of cheap, large, high-resolution displays, and of all the things on this list, this is the very last one that I would give up.

You’ll never know true productivity until you can see all your work on a 4K screen. No need to hunch over your laptop screen. No need to hook up multiple monitors. Just get yourself an inexpensive 4K-capable TV.

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[Photo: Doug Aamoth]

Yes, I said TV. They’re cheaper and larger than computer monitors and function almost identically. Plus, you can use it as a TV!

I have a 55-inch TCL smart TV with Roku built in. It is way too big. I basically had to build a second, narrow-depth desk so that I could set it far enough back from my main desk to properly see the whole thing.

The setup works for me, but in retrospect, I should have gotten a 32-incher or a 43-incher that could sit on the back edge of my main desk. You can find them for around $150 to $250, respectively. That’s a small price to pay for a gargantuan productivity boost.

As far as working with such a setup goes, I’d recommend having your laptop on the desk in front of you and keeping correspondence stuff on the laptop screen: email, Slack, chat, and the like. Then use the big screen for productivity stuff: web, apps, presentations, and documents. The horizontal resolution you gain lets you keep multiple windows open and side by side at once, while the vertical resolution is great for displaying long web pages and documents.

Type-to-talk features

You don’t have to pay anything for serviceable dictation. Talk-to-type features are built into Windows (see here) and Mac (see here), and they’ll save you a ton of typing time.

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Now, I don’t recommend that you dictate everything. You should still use your keyboard—sometimes it’s faster! But I am suggesting that leveraging dictation is great for when you’re in a back-and-forth chat with a coworker, sending quick but sorta lengthy emails, and getting a rough draft of a document started.

I’d say that in a normal day, I spend 20% of the time dictating stuff that I’d otherwise type. It probably saves me about an hour, and is especially great for returning email first thing in the morning.

A great mouse

This is the second-to-last thing on this list that I’d give up. It’s about neck and neck with the big TV in terms of usefulness, so it would actually be a pretty tough decision.

The thing is: Laptop keyboards have come a long way. They’re all pretty good now—as in good enough to use as your daily driver. Trackpads, on the other hand, range from good to downright awful. And even the good ones can’t hold a candle to a great mouse, in my humble opinion.

Logitech MX Master [Photo: Logitech]
You don’t have to break the bank on a great mouse, but you’ll probably have to spend some money. I’m a Logitech MX Master man myself (there’s one for Windows and one for Mac—each at $100), but you can make strategic use of retailers’ return policies and try out mice until you find one you love. It’s one of your most important work tools.

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A cross-platform password manager

On any given day, I’m logging into dozens of different sites, services, and apps from a handful of different devices and operating systems. PCs, tablets, phones, Windows, Android, Apple—you name it. If I had to manually type each user name and password each time, I’d never get anything done.

And we’ve all heard how important it is to have different strong passwords for every account, which makes it almost impossible to keep track of it all manually.

That’s where a good password manager comes in. For starters, it’ll store all your already-created passwords and help you create strong, unique ones when you sign up for new accounts. But the best feature is that you can use them with all your various devices. You keep all your passwords locked up in a vault that’s protected by a master password which can be used to log into all your other accounts.

I use LastPass, which has a free plan for one user that can be used on multiple devices. For some reason, I pay $3 a month for the premium plan, but it’s now dawning on me that I could probably get away with the free service.

Glance-able Gmail

If you feel like you spend all day inside Gmail, I’m happy to report that it’s possible to not spend any time inside Gmail while still handling all your Gmail messages.

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There’s a great, free Chrome extension called Checker Plus for Gmail that lets you read, reply to, and send Gmail messages right from the extension itself.

It’s a lifesaver if you get a lot of web-based mail all day. With a click or two, you can keep on top of messages as they come in without having to keep hopping in and out of the Gmail interface. It works with multiple Gmail accounts as well, which is a huge bonus if you need to juggle multiple email addresses.

A phone-to-computer connection

Just because you’re sitting in front of a computer all day doesn’t mean people are going to contact you there. Chances are, you’re getting text messages and calls all day, which means you’re constantly ping-ponging between your phone and your computer.

Connecting your phone to your computer means that you can deal with a lot of your phone stuff directly from your computer. If you’ve got an iPhone and a Mac, you may already be doing this with the Continuity feature. It does a lot of things, including letting you make and take phone calls and send and receive text messages from your computer.

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If you’ve got an Android phone and a Windows PC, you can do much the same using Microsoft’s Your Phone app for Windows. Another great feature for Android users is that if you’re using the Android Messages app on your phone, there’s a handy web-based version that you can use on either Mac or PC to send and receive text messages.

Connecting your iPhone to a PC for texting and calling is . . . well, anything but straightforward (or possible, in many cases). However, if you’ve got a Dell or Alienware PC, you can try the Mobile Connect app, which is a good start, although far from perfect. It might be a cold day in you-know-where before we see seamless iPhone-to-PC integration.

A programmable peripheral controller

Anyone who does any sort of creative work or who has to bounce between a million apps at once would be wise to take a look at a programmable hardware device.

To be honest, I’m not exactly straight on the official category name for these things. I use the $170 TourBox, which is probably overkill for most people, but you can search Amazon for “macro keypad” and get a nice selection of hardware that starts at around $40.

I’ve also had good luck with the Razer gaming keypads, which start at $80 and can be programmed to handle nongaming tasks. Oh, and they can also be used for gaming. Double bonus.

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The idea is that you can program the individual keys on these peripheral devices to replicate multistep keystrokes, launch apps, and do all sorts of other cool tricks that might otherwise take you a handful of clicks or some finger gymnastics to pull off. I do a fair amount of video and podcast production at my day job, and having something like the TourBox or Razer peripheral that translates a bunch of complicated keyboard shortcuts into individual, tactile hardware buttons is a godsend.