In Defence of Laziness

I have to admit that when it comes down to it I’m just plain lazy. I’m always looking for ways to avoid the smallest amount of effort!
For example, I hate having to move my hand away from the keyboard while in the middle of typing something... to click on my mouse. What a huge waste of energy! Is there a key-combo I can use? If not, perhaps I can hook up ChatGPT to do it for me?
Embarrassingly, I’m so lazy that I’ll spend hours trying to save mere minutes on a repetitive workflow. I’ve even designed and built whole computer programs just to automate away
a single annoying task
Today we’re going to talk about the
Mother of Invention:

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I know the keyboard shortcuts for almost all of the software I use. It’s the first thing I look for when learning new software, and I’ll even reject a new program or web app based on whether it allows me to control it with the keyboard.
It's about the flow. Don't interrupt my typing! If you’ve ever had one of those early-career ‘data entry’ jobs, or spent time typing paper notes into the computer, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s nothing more annoying than to have to stop mid-sentence to reach for the mouse and click on some drop-down.

Ancient History

My first experience with a word processor was on my dad's computer. It came with a little cardboard overlay that could go over your keyboard to highlight which keys did what. I spent much more time playing with what it
do than writing whatever assignment I was supposed to be working on.
While the word processing programs changed over the years - from
- some of the keyboard commands actually stuck around; and the concept certainly stayed. There are probably a few Word and Excel key combinations that I stubbornly use out for muscle-memory that I don't think have been officially documented in decades. Amazingly, they still work! Oh,
, I will not forsake thee.
I’m not alone - engineers and programmers in particular get very attached to their keyboard control, to the point where there are
many dozens
of plugins and overlays out there that let them use their preferred code editor’s key bindings (Emacs FTW!) in web browsers, operating systems, word processors and beyond.

Let's do the math!

I'm in my text editor, word processor or spreadsheet most of the day, every day. They are the tools of my trade. By learning how to run my tools through the keyboard I've multiplied the payback over and over again. How's that, you may ask?
Let's say you spend an hour learning and practicing the keyboard shortcuts for a piece software you use every day. If you look around you'll always find free videos and tutorials that will help you with that and there are even cheat-sheets that you can print out and pin up next to your monitor.
Now let's say that 1 hour of effort saves me, on average, only 1 minute a day not having to switch to a mouse and navigate ribbons over and over again. That's a net time savings of more than 5 hours a year! Small, but perhaps not insignificant.

Compounding Interest

When you obsess over your workflows like I do, you start to see opportunities everywhere. Now, not all of them are worth the effort to address - it's just not worth spending
10 hours
to improve a daily process by
1 second
, right? Or is it?
Let’s look back at our keyboard shortcut example: perhaps 5 hours a year of saved time is not the only improvements gained:
As we've discussed before the keyboard is in many cases more precise than the mouse - resulting in fewer mistakes and higher overall input quality. So maybe I've eliminated a regular error I make using the mouse, say, to copy formulas across a table.
Keyboard shortcuts are
easily composed
into groups of commands that when used regularly become muscle-memory. So for example, let's say you usually do a whole bunch of the same formatting and copying for the first row of each worksheet in Excel. If you're using the mouse you need to move your eyes from the data to locate and click each button, perhaps going back to the table to change the selected area in-between. With a keyboard this might be just a chain of keystrokes (like
ctrl-home, ctl-shift-right-arrow, ctrl-b, ctrl-i
or whatever) that can be done repetitively without moving your eyes, or your hand, from where they were.
Now that you’re thinking in terms of
groups of commands
- you’re basically programming macros. If your software supports macros (you might be surprised how many of them do), you can assign
one new shortcut key of your own
that combines all of those for a compound effect!
A final compounding effect here is on your behaviour. Because you are thinking more deeply about composing the ways you interact with software, you end up looking for and learning about other ways of automating things: for example custom formats and themes, snippets and templates, and eventually full-on scripting.

Just Like That!

Now you just cut-and-paste some data into a blank sheet, press
ctrl-t, alt-=
or something, and Bam! It's formatted into your custom-defined table complete with filters and a summary row of totals at the bottom.
As you build up and compose these little short-cuts they become something bigger - and maybe your monthly inventory reporting task has gone, incrementally, from a full day or two of effort to a 10 minute one with fewer errors and better consistency.
Your savings are multiplied.

Automate, Rinse and Repeat

Take that concept and apply it to the repetitive processes in your quality, production or business workflows. Where can you find day-to-day shortcuts that will reduce touch-time without compromising quality? What multiples in efficiency, quality or consistency could you gain by the simple act of pre-calculating values or batching some repetitive prep? How about making an instruction, tool or calculation more easily available to the workflow users?
And then: Is there a way you can combine several small efficiencies into one 'macro' to compound the wins?

ChatGPT All the Things!

Sometimes, especially in regulated industries where the stakes are so high, we look at 'automation' as though it's
got to be
some huge, formal and expensive remodeling project. A multi-million dollar robot fleet with RFID tracking and AI-enhanced sorting algorithms. Or an organization-wide reworking of all it's perfectly good workflows to fit some software company's latest hybrid ERP/LIMS/STS/eQMS's idea of how
all businesses
should run.
And believe me, those can really work well when they are chosen, designed and implemented properly
to meet the requirements of your company
They're not the
only answer,
and might not even be the best answer for your company
right now
But you can always look for the small things - the incremental improvements that reduce friction in a common workflow. Is there some hidden shortcut, template or automation feature that your existing software supports? You might be able to turn a small bit of up-front effort into an automated efficiency or quality win that returns in multiples.
Thanks for reading, until next time!
– Brendan

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