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Investing Time to Save Time: The Sequel

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2017. Investing time to save time: the sequel. Intercom July/August: 14–16.

For most of my 30-year career, I’ve embraced opportunities to learn new communication skills. Broadening my repertoire made me an essential employee, while improving the diversity of my work and eliminating boredom. The downside? I had no free time. Indeed, my workload increased so much I never would have survived without learning to use my new skills more efficiently. But I’ve also learned how hard it was to motivate myself to learn those new efficiencies. In traveling the world to teach what I’ve learned, I’ve found most people feel the same way: we’re often too “lazy” to invest time in learning new things, even when we know, logically, they’d subsequently save hours of effort.

One obstacle is the fear that saving time requires huge efforts, such as learning complex new software. But it turns out that the biggest savings come from small, simple things we do every day without noticing. Cumulatively, these add up to enormous time sinks when we perform those actions repeatedly. For many years, I’d evangelized how keyboard shortcuts were more efficient than the mouse or arrow keys. When challenged to prove my belief, a little data on how I work demonstrated that just three keyboard shortcuts for moving around a file saved me up to 20 minutes per day compared with using the mouse or arrow keys. Don’t believe me? Check my article (Hart 2011) for details. I got so excited by this result—and by having 20 unexpected minutes to relax and work without feeling rushed—that I came up with many more shortcuts.

Of course, we do many things less frequently that take longer to accomplish. Working primarily as an editor, I need to repeatedly type the same comments, sometimes with only slight variations. That repetition both wastes time and increases wear and tear on my aging body. Anything that reduces typing lets me finish work earlier and decreases my pain at day’s end. Paying attention to what I was typing let me develop automatic text shortcuts that eliminate prodigious amounts of typing.

In this article, I’ll provide examples of just how easy it is to save time by investing time.

Moving faster with shortcuts

My first three movement shortcuts were simple ones: move to the previous or next word, the start or end of the sentence, and the previous or next punctuation (i.e., a mid-sentence position). You’ll find that you use these constantly when you edit someone’s work or revise your own. My article (Hart 2011) provides details of how to create such shortcuts. Chapter 5 of my onscreen editing book (Hart 2016) demonstrates more than a dozen categories of shortcut, each with many examples. The key to identifying such repetitions in your own work is to pay attention to things you do frequently. For example, I edit science manuscripts, so I frequently need to move to numbers, brackets, and literature citations so I can modify the text; thus, I’ve created shortcuts that bring me to the next or previous instance of these things in a single keystroke.

How? By recording a Word macro that uses the search and replace dialog box to find special characters. Jack Lyon’s wonderful free primer “Advanced Find and Replace for Microsoft Word” teaches everything you need to know to master this dialog box. There’s also an updated verson for sale. As an editor, I use this tool every time I need to do a consistency check, dozens of times per manuscript. With a friend’s help, I saved even more time by creating a macro that copies selected text into the Find dialog box, finds the next or previous instance, and then closes the dialog box. I also need to check literature citations, potentially hundreds of times per manuscript. The Find macro, combined with a few other steps to automate the process, cuts the time required to check literature citations by more than 50%, and I make fewer errors. For details, see my article on the Techwhirl site (Hart 2017). This is just one example of a broader principle: making your software support the way you want to work instead of changing how you work to suit the software.

Reducing the amount of typing

Writers and editors both type a lot, and in technical communication, this involves much repetition. For editors, the repetition involves standard comments; I have a list of more than 100 that I use in most manuscripts, often several times. I use Word’s AutoCorrect feature, which replaces a shortcut (an easily remembered abbreviation) with text; my shortcuts are typically 5 keystrokes long, and create from 20 to more than 200 characters of comment text. If I can save 15 keystrokes this way, 100 times per manuscript, that’s 1500 characters I don’t need to type! If you document software for a living, you could create such shortcuts for every menu item you describe repeatedly. For example, “]comm” (5 keystrokes) could type “Open the Insert menu and select Comment.” (40 keystrokes)—a saving of 35 keystrokes. One of my students at the United Nations uses this approach to write highly standardized 12-page reports in minutes using dozens of AutoCorrects. Word’s Building Blocks feature allows longer, more complex chunks of text, such as standard table formats. If you use a content management system, it offers even more power for creating text once and reusing it many times.

Better still, why not build guidance and standardization into document templates for different jobs? I call these templates “dynamic style guides” (Hart 2000) because they turn your word processor into a performance-support system. For writers, they eliminate the need to remember a document’s structure and content or retype boilerplate that appears in every document; for editors, this nearly eliminates the need to ask authors to insert missing information (the template reminds authors to provide the information) and eliminates the need to edit the boilerplate; it’s already been inserted and proofread. Again, content management systems can perform much of the heavy lifting for you.

Finding motivation

These ideas seem simple enough, yet if you’re like me, you probably work harder finding excuses to not invest the time than you do finding solutions. Like me, you could make your life easier if you’d just get over your reluctance and persuade yourself to try. Start by identifying what’s stopping you and solve that problem. My problem combines software fatigue (frustration with endless, often counterproductive, generally pointless changes to how software works) with stress over having to memorize yet another shortcut. And I’m the guy trying to persuade you to invest some time!

Some tips I’ve described for fighting writer’s block (Hart 2012) may get you past your reluctance. For example, eliminate distractions. Instead of searching the Web for yet another LOLcat image, create a new AutoCorrect and reward yourself with that LOLcat using the time you save. If the problem is burnout, give yourself some downtime. I keep an ideas file, and when the burnout starts to ease, I return to that file to see which ideas I can implement most productively. If the problem is fear, learn to be willing to fail—and to seek help from others. Many of my best solutions arose from brainstorming problems with colleagues. In my case, I solve software fatigue and stress by forgiving myself for delaying, and then coaxing myself to invest the time. Writing an article such as this one provides additional incentive: I feel hypocritical providing advice that I’m not willing to follow myself.

Eliminating problems, or finding ways to cope with them, lets you seek ways to motivate yourself. Everyone has different motivations. Here are some of my rewards that might motivate you, too:

  1. Calculate the return on your investment to satisfy your inner numbers geek (Hart 2011).
  2. Save time at work, finish earlier, and go do something more fun (e.g., a late-day kayak excursion).
  3. Reduce the number of keystrokes to reduce your aging body’s pain and fatigue.
  4. Automate or accelerate routine mechanical tasks to free up time to concentrate on the real work (clear communication), which is the part most of us like best.
  5. Improve your work quality. As a wage slave, this earned me better performance appraisals; as a freelancer, it creates intense client loyalty.
  6. Master your tools, like any other professional. I take quiet satisfaction at being as fast as I am.

What could motivate you to invest some time in saving time?


Hart, G. 2000. The style guide is dead: long live the dynamic style guide! Intercom (March): 12–17.

Hart, G. 2011. Save time by mastering the basics: efficient movement within a file.

Hart, G. 2012. Writer’s block: different causes have different solutions. Part 1. <> Part 2. <>

Hart, G. 2013. Investing time to save time. Intercom (November/December): 21–22.

Hart, G. 2016. Effective Onscreen Editing: New Tools for an Old Profession. 3rd ed. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec.

Hart, G. 2017. Making Microsoft Word work for you.

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