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By 20 March 2009 | Categories: feature articles

“Oh… I haven’t checked my Facebook page in a few minutes… maybe I should just do that quickly before I get back to work?”
If we’re to believe Baroness Greenfield of Oxford University, the web is “infantilising” our brains and destroying our attention spans.

While that may be taking it a bit far, there is the recurring theme of haphazard browsing as soon as we launch Firefox, Chrome, IE or whatever other browser is the flavour of the week. [See our Safari 4 Beta feature.]
We all convince ourselves that we are really quite productive online, but just try to reconcile why checking your Facebook took an hour.

The trouble with productivity is that it doesn’t just happen by accident, it requires a concerted effort. It also requires the right (free) tools. So here it is; our 7 steps to improving your online productivity.
Step 1: Aggregate content: Feed Readers

A daily information gathering session is essential to keep up-to-speed on the current news and happenings in your specific area of interest and the world at large. Why spend the time sifting through multiple websites when a feed reader can do it for you?
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A feed reader aggregates syndicated web content such as news and blog posts in a single location for easy viewing. It displays all the latest headlines or posts from your chosen websites, making selecting which stories you actually want to read much easier. It also helps to reduce your bandwidth usage because you no longer have to browse each page.

For a straightforward feed reader try Google Reader. Yahoo, MSN, and various other portals and sites offer their own feed readers. Most browsers and email clients also offer feed reader functionality – it’s all a matter of personal taste.
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Step 2: Type it down

Writing down your appointments on your hand or on a loose piece of paper is a bad idea. Carting around a leather-bound dairy is old hat, is easily misplaced and makes you look like an accountant.

A web based calendar on the other hand is extremely practical. You can share your schedules, define public and private appointments and it is accessible from any PC with a connection.
 These calendars also carry an abundance of other features like automated reminders and event planning apps.Goole Calendar is superb. Also see Yahoo Calendar, Scrybe, and 30 Boxes.
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Step 3: Start you own tumblelog
The short-form, mixed-media posts that tumblelogs allow for are the perfect blend of social bookmarking and blogging. They prove very useful for sharing content and adding your own thoughts and opinions on the subject of the shared content.

The sharing dynamic of a tumblelog and the fact that it is possible to have multiple contributors also makes it ideal for collaborating with others to explore common interests or accumulate online research. We have started our very ownTechSmart Magazine Tumble to share all the latest tech news and info the web has to offer.

Tumblr.com is a powerful tumblelog service that is incredibly user-friendly and packed with features. To begin using the service you literally need only register for an account.
Step 4: Brainstorm online

Concept development and brainstorming are instrumental to productivity. As the old adage states, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Mind maps and flow diagrams are an excellent way of communicating concepts and ideas. There are some very powerful web based diagram and charting applications that offer free basic editions. Such services offer charting tools and tutorials and often support online collaboration.

Flowchart.com (beta), MindMeister, and Mind42 are all very straightforward services that will create useful diagrammatic presentations of ideas.

Gliffy is a more technical application offering a wider range of tools but is consequently less easy-to-use.
Step 5: Word processing services

Online word processing allows you to manage, download, share and collaborate on documents without having to download any applications. It is excellent for people with more than one PC or for those who travel as documents are accessible from any PC with a connection, and in some cases mobile phones as well. Some of these services even let you store documents online that can be synchronised with offline documents.
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Google Docs, Zoho Writer, ThinkFree and Adobe Buzzword (Private Beta) are all excellent free services. We particularly enjoyed ThinkFree which is a full web based office suite.
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Step 6: Store it online

Having your media, documents and other files scattered across flash drives, multiple PCs and external hard drives can been extremely frustrating; more importantly it is counter productive.

Backing up all your files online just makes good sense.
Your files are secure in a remote location, they are accessible from any connected PC and they are centralised – no need to try and remember where you stored it. Many of these services also allow for automatic and incremental backups so your files are always up-to-date.

Most online file storage services offer limited space options for free; only charging for premium services.

Box.net, IDrive and Mozy are just a few such services that offer free basic storage services.
Step 7: If it offends you cut it off!

Perhaps a little Biblical but you get the point. If you can’t control yourself then make sure you don’t have to. In this case get an app to do it for you.

If you use Firefox you can install Stealth Kiwi which allows you to block specific websites for predefined periods.
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Thus you can allow yourself access to Twitter, Facebook or your tumblelog for only 10 minutes every 2 hours for instance. [Note: you will need to installGreasemonkey first, it allows you to add various userscripts to Firefox – so it will prove useful beyond Stealth Kiwi.]  

If you are not inclined to run user scripts try these two low key solutions:

Considering that time is precious you can run a timer, available from theinsomniacsociety. On this page you can count down a set amount of time which is displayed on the tab in your browser. Say you want to limit the amount of time spent on your favourite, but unproductive, website, set the time limit on the page and off you go. Once the limit is reached a browser alert box pops up to remind you of the fact that it is time to get back to work.

Browser Timer does basically the same thing. You download this .exe file, open it up and it will ask you how many minutes you want to browse before it closes the browser. Once done it will ask you if you want to close, or to continue.
Use the tools

Separating the online ‘wheat from the chaff’ is essential to improving your online productivity. Finding the right tools is just the beginning; you actually have to use those tools. The above steps, while not an exhaustive guide, should set you well on your way to a more industrious online experience.

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