Simple tips to save time and increase output

Yaron Wittenstein
Aug 21 · 11 min read

One of the subjects I’ve always been very passionate about is productivity. Finding ways to do more with less time and effort is a matter of high importance. Saving many tiny-energy exertions across a workday adds up to a significant energy saver in total.

The internet is flooded with programming productivity articles. Isn’t writing a new one is kinda unproductive? 😉

Well, the vast majority of programming productivity articles are very specific. Here are some examples of the articles you can find:

  • Must have tools for any Mac Web developer for 2019
  • Top 10 tools for any Windows programmer
  • Most popular tools for Web Development

I wanted to write a piece that focuses on principles before the tools.


New Tools Come and Go Frequently. What Stays With Us Are the Principles!

I’ve found what I believe are the top 8 productivity principles any developer should employ.

I’ll also provide tools recommendations for Mac since I’m a Mac user. Several of my recommendations are relevant to other operating systems as well. Regardless of my suggestions, applying these principles to other operating systems or finding alternative Mac tools should be easy.

Again, what’s important is sticking to the principles and not the tools.

So let’s drill down…


Principle #1 — Automating Workflows

A decent amount of a programmer’s time is spent performing repetitive tasks over and over again.

Here are a fraction of some common scenarios:

  • Searching Stack Overflow via Google.
  • Killing an operating system process that hangs or consumes too much memory due to a leak.
  • Clearing the browser cache and refreshing our local http://0.0.0.0:8000 development page.

Part of these examples are non-direct programming tasks but are still indispensable for any professional programmer. For example: Looking for the time-zone/weather in other parts of the world.

Many of these repetitive tasks involve a sequence of steps:

  • When looking for help at Stack Overflow, we need to go to the browser and perform a search via a search engine. Then, we’ll select one of the top results which will probably direct us to a Stack Overflow page, even if we didn’t add the term stackoverflow explicitly to the search itself.
  • In order to shut down a frozen operating system process, we need to look for its process id (PID) and then execute a kill command (or go to a process explorer GUI, find it there and request to kill it).

Fortunately, various tools exist to automate these manual repetitive actions.

If you’re a Mac user, macOS ships with a tool called Automator that lets you create very complicated workflows. I use another one-stop-shop productivity tool called Alfred which I’ll mention a few times during the course of this piece.

Alfred is a versatile productivity app for Mac users. It’s one of the most popular productivity Mac apps for years, and for a good reason! One of the key strengths of Alfred is Workflows. Here is an image for illustration:

Basically, each tool has its own set of strengths depending on the situation. To my understanding, Automator is more of an IFTTT/zapier style tool. Automator hooks into to low-level operating system events, while Alfred mainly glues different components together and starts running when we command it to.

Tools like Automator/Alfred are general-purpose Workflow tools. Each has its own pros. There are also other, niche workflow tools/features. I use vim macros when I find a text-editing recurring pattern I’d like to automate during my work. A classic example for using a vim macro would be scanning a list of words separated by a comma and surrounding each with quotation marks.

If you use tools like Excel, then I know it comes with full-featured programming-language called VBA. The internet is full of articles about people that automated most of their day-work leveraging VBA magic!

Sometimes the best workflow solution is essentially writing code. Usually, it’ll be a small script consuming less than 100 LOC. Other times, it’ll be coding a small mini-project.

The key takeaway is that if you find yourself manually repeating a workflow-oriented process, think how it can be automated using a general-purpose workflow tool or ad-hoc software or if developing a solution from scratch will do the trick.

What’s important is to stay alert and ready for new automating opportunities.


Principle #2 — API & Inspection tools

API tools

Almost any developer has at least one HTTP connection during his workday. Be it faking an HTTP request for testing or triggering code on a server endpoint. A good HTTP interface (a.k.a API tool) is mandatory.

I highly recommend using Paw. Most people use Postman, which is more feature-heavy. Postman also has running load-testing capabilities and many integrations.

Once you use an API tool, make sure you save request files for future use. This can be a huge time saver if you mess a lot with the same API endpoints, only changing parameters instead of synthesizing from scratch each time you need. Additionally, sharing files between team members is important. You may want to have some shared place with widely used requests. It’s can also serve as a complement to your knowledge-base of the system.

If you work with higher-level popular protocols like gRPC you’ll probably find matching UI tools that will suit your needs.

Inspection tools

On other occasions, you may want to be passive, sniff traffic, and record the packets for later investigation or for replaying traffic. When I really needed a good proxy for inspecting data for Mac, I’ve used Charles. Many years ago I’ve played a bit with Fiddler on Windows. It has since grown to support any popular operating system.

Of course, this item won’t be complete without mentioning the classic Wireshark. And ss you probably know, each operating system comes with built-in command-line tools such as tcpdump/curl.


Principle #3 — Clipboard History

Have you ever pasted text into your IDE file only to realize that the clipboard had more recent content and you had no longer access to the clipboard data you wanted?

Not anymore. Using a Clipboard history is a must-have tool!

I’m using Flycut, but there are plenty of alternatives for Mac. Actually, Alfred has a clipboard history feature built-in. Even if you have a clipboard history integrated within your IDE. It’s still advisable to have a cross operating system clipboard history tool.

A small tip: if you’re a Mac user who wants a very nice utility for selecting text and copying into the Clipboard, I highly recommend PopClip. This tool has many extensions, like selecting a word and asking for a Dictionary translation or selecting a word and opening Dash on that word.


Principle #4 — Text Expansion & Abbreviations

General text expansion

The classic use of text expansion is writing an abbreviation representing a longer text-blob and then the text expander semi-magically substitutes the abbreviation for the expanded text.

Programmers can benefit from text-expansion a lot in the context of code snippets. I’m currently not using a snippets manager, although I might use one someday. Alfred comes with a snippets manager out of the box too.

I mostly use text expansions when using tools like Google Docs. My text expander software for Mac is aText. You probably guessed right that Alfred offers it’s own Text Expansion feature which I haven’t tried yet, but I bet it’s awesome.

Command-line

In the command-line, I use many abbreviation aliases for longer commands (defined in my .zshrc dot file).

For example: Instead of writing git reset HEAD --hard for a local Git repository, I just write grhh.

If I need to merge the develop branch to the current branch, I just type gmd, or instead of opening vim with the vim command, I just insert v.

As a side note. Another tool in the realm of writing text is called Grammarly. It’s an AI-powered writing assistant. I use it all the time when composing emails (also for fixing mistakes while writing this blog post 😉)


Principle #5 — Instant local Search

People are flooded with data and programmers are no exception. In order to shorten the search time when looking for a piece of information, we must have good search tooling.

What do we search?

Files/directories/apps

Well, that’s relevant for any computer user. Search is the most used feature of Alfred. I prefer it over Spotlight which comes with macOS.

Fuzzy-search the command-line history

The command-line is a programmer’s best friend. We execute tons of commands during any single programming session. We usually repeat recently used commands, but not necessarily the very last one, making us press ↑↑...↑ in order to find the desired command.

A cool way to improve this is by using fuzzy-search on our Command-line history. I’d like to recommend an awesome tool called fzf.

This gem lets us enrich our command-line history with search-as-you-type (a.k.a fuzzy-search/incremental-search) capabilities. Not only that, but it also has another great feature for searching for a file by name with a preview mode option. So if we search for a file we can see its preview in order to make sure that’s what we seek for prior selecting it.

This tool is supported by any operating system and even has an official vim plugin called fzf.vim (I believe there are non-official plugins to other IDEs).

If you’re a zsh user, a super-handy plugin is zsh-autosuggestions. I use zsh-autosuggestions, and when I type a command I get suggestions from my command-line history which makes finding most commands a breeze.

So fzf + zsh-autosuggestions make an unbeatable couple together!

We use command-line a significant fraction of our work. Being able to search our command-line history is truly a must.

Offline documentation

One of the most frequent actions while programming is questioning “What’s the syntax for doing X in programming language Y?”

Instead of Googling for a syntax keyword or for some example showing how to use the standard library, it’s nice to have offline documentation ready for instant search on our machine. It can save loads of time and reduce context-switches substantially while programming.

I use the most popular offline documentation tool for Mac called Dash. It comes with documentation for almost every programming-language and many popular libraries. It also has integrations with any known IDE. Not only that, but you can add custom documentation of libraries since Dash connects to many Packages Managers.

To activate Dash, most of the time I use the Dash Alfred Workflow for Search & Open Dash via Alfred’s prompt (it’s super useful).


Principle #6 — Knowledge Management

Inspired by the famous GTD method for organizing knowledge, I’m using a to-do list app to offload tasks out of my brain. Each time I’m thinking about something I need to do, I first add it as an item to my to-do list. Later, this item might translate into a GitHub issue or even a roadmap/technical-debt document.

For the past several years, I’ve been using Clear. I’ll probably move to another app soon since the last update was in 2016 and because I feel it lacks some features. But overall, it does the job!

If you want to have fewer tabs hanging open in your browser and gain more focus, consider using Pocket to save articles for future reading. It will help you clear your mind and focus on the current relevant tabs.

You may also use a sticky note app to jot down pieces you want to come back to later for long-term representation usage. And speaking of long-term use, I’m a long-time avid user of EverNote. Some people even use EverNote as their to-do list app. Whatever works for you, just make sure you don’t overload your brain with information, let someone else store it for you.

Knowledge Management can’t be complete without mentioning a backup platform Dropbox/iCloud/GoogleDrive style. Anything mentioned in this article is encouraged to be backed-up. Some of the apps have a Connect-with to a Cloud-provider integration, thus making the backup process smooth.


Principle #7 — Keyboard Shortcuts

You probably know the keyboard shortcut for saving the current file changes in your IDE. But do you know, for example, the shortcut for re-opening your last closed browser tab?

I believe that if one finds himself using a mouse too often when a keyboard shortcut exists, then they will struggle with it. The best technique for memorizing these keyboard shortcuts is by using spaced-repetition flashcards software like Anki. Anki is available for any operating system (Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, and iOS).

I’m a big fan of Anki, as it helps me to learn new things (keyboard shortcuts is a good use-case) and retain them for long-term use.

Speaking about flash-cards, spaced-repetition is the best way to extend your language vocabulary. For that I deeply recommend SuperMemo.

Putting in the time to learn and memorize useful Keyboard shortcuts can have a tremendously positive impact on productivity.


Principle #8 — Reading Code

Apart from writing code, it’s very important for reading and navigating an existing source code to be a pleasant experience. When I read other people’s code I usually prefer to read it outside of an IDE (it’s just a personal taste).

If I browse a GitHub repository, I sometimes use [Octotree][Octotree] but I usually prefer to go with [sourcegraph][sourcegraph].

I really like sourcegraph’s navigation and searching features. GitHub has recently launched their take on code navigation, I expect it’s only the beginning of something big.

I recently came across a tool called codestream that lets you have an inner chat on the code within your IDE. Although I haven’t tried the tool yet (vim support is upcoming), I believe it can be a great assistant for reading code since it lets you add bookmarks (called codemarks). codestream also integrates with other tools like Slack and many issue-tracking tools.

Make sure you enjoy a good reading experience while reading other people’s code. It can mitigate this already mentally demanding process.


Summary

In this piece, I’ve summarised what I believe to be the top 8 productivity principles each programmer should aim to apply. I’m humbled by the infinite number of tools and tricks available for us to apply these principles.

I believe that using these principles, can not only speed our work but also increase our joy and sense of fulfillment.

I’d like to thank you for reading this article! I hope you enjoyed reading it, and if you did please share it with your friends/co-workers/programmers.

Thank you!

Links:

  1. Alfred
  2. Dash
  3. Paw
  4. Postman
  5. Charles
  6. Fiddler
  7. Wireshark
  8. Flycut
  9. PopClip
  10. aText
  11. fzf
  12. Grammarly
  13. Anki
  14. SuperMemo
  15. GTD
  16. evernote
  17. Clear
  18. Pocket
  19. Octotree
  20. sourcegraph
  21. codestream
  22. https://github.com/YaronWittenstein/productivity-tips-for-mac

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

Yaron Wittenstein

Written by

A Passionate Coder

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

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