Category Archives: Productivity

Productivity Tip #8: Launchy for hyper-fast file access!

I’ve been looking for ways to improve my PC workflow, and I touched on that in an earlier Productivity Tip. One of my readers suggested that I use Launchy, which is “an open source keystroke launcher for Windows.” Essentially it’s an application that runs silently in the background that lets you quickly and easily access indexed data through super simple keystrokes. It’s simple to use and incredibly powerful.

For example, let’s say I need to open one of my most commonly accessed files, HumanMaleVisuals.gc. I’ll show you what I did before Launchy, and now what I do after Launchy:

  • Without Launchy: I have to open an Explorer window and navigate to c:depotdungeonrunnersbuildgameavatarraceshumanmale and then open HumanMaleVisuals.gc. This is annoying and time-consuming. I hate navigating with a mouse because it’s slow, so I always ended up simply typing it all out (I type 140wpm), until I eventually just up custom shortcuts to go straight to it.
  • With Launchy: I press the Launchy keyboard shortcut (Alt-Space), type ‘malevis’ and Launchy’s indexed search immediately selects the file I want. I hit enter, and it opens instantly. Right there I’ve saved time by simplifying a common task.

There’s a tremendous amount of power and customization available in Launchy. You can select which folders to search, what file types to search for within them (i.e., in the ‘textures’ directory it ignores all the material script files and ONLY looks for image files), how many potential results to show at a time, etc.

Another massive time-saver for me is accessing commonly used folders. I simply make a shortcut to the folder, then call it something simple and short to type. For example, let’s say I want to look at Bob Contractor’s submissions folder.

  • Without Launchy: I open an Explorer window and manually navigate to C:workcontractsBob Contractor.
  • With Launchy: I open Launchy with the alt-space shortcut and type ‘art bob’ and press enter.

I have a folder full of shortcuts to all my most commonly accessed applications and folders, with their names written in shorthand so I never have to type much.

One of Launchy’s best features for me is its extremely intelligent handling of partial and incomplete text strings. If I’m looking for HumanMaleVisuals.gc, I can type all sorts of crazy gibberish and STILL have it find the right file. As I was writing this I tried the following; ‘hu ma vi’ – ‘vis’ – ‘man gc’ – ‘man le sal’ – ‘ual’ – ‘male gc’ – ‘nma gc’ – ‘lev gc’ – and ALL of them correctly pointed to the file I wanted. And I have thousands of files indexed with very similar names. It’s also blazingly fast at doing this.

Using Launchy has dramatically decreased the amount of time it takes me to access the huge variety of files I touch at work every day and freed me even more from the shackles of Windows’ default search and means of accessing files and folders. I’d strongly suggest giving Launchy a shot. One of my favorite sites, LifeHacker, has a fantastic article on tweaking Launchy to fit your needs. Check it out!

Who else uses Launchy, or other software like it?

Productivity Tip #9: RocketDock to free you from the Taskbar forever!

I’ve long been frustrated at Windows’ tendency to suck. If some random part of Windows suddenly freezes, EVERY part of Windows is frozen. Sometimes I can’t even access my start menu, or anything on my system tray, or even touch my taskbar because Windows has ground to a halt because a butterfly flapped its wings on the other side of the planet.

I despise convergent and interlinked applications and lately I’ve started getting extremely aggressive about replacing parts of Windows I don’t like with highly specialized tools. In another Productivity Tip of mine, I’ve talked about Launchy to free you from navigating for commonly accessed files and folders through Windows Explorer. In this Productivity Tip, I’m going to talk about RocketDock and how it can replace your QuickLaunch and your Windows taskbar.

My friend Eric talked about RocketDock on his blog and got me interested in it. RocketDock is a FREE, extremely attractive application launcher. Fundamentally it’s a clone of the icon dock that Mac users are already familiar with. Just by itself without any customization, it can completely replace your Quicklaunch bar and look about a hundred times better. It also won’t be affected by Windows Explorer locking up. 🙂 Check out the video below to see EXACTLY how it looks and what it does:

You can launch applications from it, minimize applications to it, and customize it endlessly with all sorts of interesting ‘docklets’, which are custom user-made applications that extends its capabilities. For example, you can add a custom readout of your system information (CPU usage, disk usage, time), a huge variety of clocks, the ability to monitor and check your mail, monitor the weather in your area, the ability to launch your start menu from the dock itself instead of the taskbar, etc.

There’s another commercial dock application called ObjectDock that has years of docklet applications built for it, and fortunately, RocketDock was built to be compatible with all of these docklets. You can check out a huge gallery of docklets here on WinCustomize.com.

I’ve used RocketDock to completely replace my Windows taskbar and my Quicklaunch. All of my most commonly accessed applications are on the dock, I minimize running applications to it (which are thumbnailed, so I can easily see what’s in each minimized app), and I have a clock on it just like before. The entire dock auto-hides so it only pops up when I want it, and it does it MUCH faster than Windows’ default taskbar, and it looks cooler doing it. You can even customize the speed at which it hides and unhides. Also customizable are the icon size, whether or not they zoom when you mouse over them, and exactly where on your screen the dock sits. It’s a hell of a nice thing, and as I said, I’ve totally removed my Windows taskbar.

When everything on my system is minimized, THIS is what my desktop looks like:

I have no desktop icons (because everything I access is either accessible via Launchy or through the icons on the RocketDock) and no taskbar, because I use a program to hide it. When everything is minimized, my PC looks like it’s off.

When I move my mouse up to the top of my screen to bring up the Rocket Dock, this is what I see:

You can see all my commonly accessed icons on the left (Firefox, Notepad, 3DSMAX, Core FTP, Photoshop, Project, Explorer XP, MindManager, AllWays Data Sync, ACDsee, Quicken), my short list of system files and tools (My Documents, RocketDock Settings, Hide Taskbar, Battery Power Meter docklet, and my clock), and off to the right is the thumbnailed minimized applications I have currently open (Firefox, Notepad, 3DSMAX and Photoshop). When I mouse away, it immediately disappears and goes back to my perfectly black desktop.

Everything is very simple, very clean, and very efficient. It’s also not affected by any other part of Windows freezing, or random application freezes, because it is its own separate program, unconnected to anything else. It also looks damned pretty, and you can find lots of kickass high-resolution icons for common applications for it all over the internet. The icons I use can be found here in the gallery of an artist named Deleket.

If you’re wondering how to access the Start menu without a taskbar, you can still use the Windows key to bring it up, or a Start Menu docklet. And the tsakbar is by NO means gone forever if you still want it around! That’s just my personal preference, because fuck Windows. 🙂 Finally, if you’re wondering about your system tray, there’s a docklet available for that, too. All these things have been thought of, and solved.

So, that’s what I do to replace the Windows Taskbar. Has anyone else done something like this?

Productivity Tip #7: Remove window blinks from your IMs with Gaim.

I have accounts with all four major instant messenger protocols. Because I hate each one of their native programs, I use a single program that can log into each of them and keep it into one single interface. This prevents me from having to switch between multiple applications, taking up tons of RAM, and communicating as quickly and efficiently as possible with the people on my contact lists.

There are several applications that group all the IM protocols together, such as Trillian, Miranda IM, and GAIM. To varying degrees, each of these applications minimizes all the extra clutter and maximizes your ability to customize the application for your preferences. They’re all valid options, but of these three I’ve chosen Gaim because of one simple feature:

I can make my IM windows stop blinking!

In every other IM application, your IM windows blink and make a sound every time there’s a new message. This is really irritating and distracting, and pulls me away from my work. I can’t ignore it, because it’s designed to be attention-catching, so I tend to open them just to make them stop blinking, and it disrupts my workflow.

I COULD just turn off IM, but I can’t do that for long because I communicate with my artists through IM, so making the windows not blink keeps them in the background to check at my leisure.

The way to do it in Gaim is this:

Open the Gaim window -> Tools Menu -> Plugins -> WinGaim Options -> Configure Plug-In -> Uncheck ‘Flash window when messages are received.’

In all likelihood, I will never switch from Gaim for this one simple feature. Thank you, Gaim developers. 🙂

Does anyone else have a pet feature they love about software they use?

Learning In Progress #3: Numbered Bullet Points.

I’ve noticed in the past that when I send back a list of requested changes to my contractors, if there’s more than one change, sometimes they’ll forget one or two. It’s a simple mistake, because I’m often trying to transmit a lot of information, and some of it can just slip their mind.

I quickly stopped writing entire paragraphs containing several changes, and boiled them down to individual bullet points. But still, sometimes a bullet point would be forgotten, and the problem still wasn’t entirely solved. So to combat the changes falling through the cracks, I’ve discovered a useful tip that seems to work best: Numbered Bullet Points.

Bullet points themselves are a useful way of dividing large ideas into several smaller ones that are easier to communicate and understand. But bullet points alone aren’t enough. By using numbered bullet points, you assign a VALUE to each bullet point, and it reads more like a step-by-step list with concepts that can be quickly referred to by their number value.

“I see you completed changes 1 and 3, but not 2?”

More than half of my job is learning how to organize and distill information into small, easily understandable, meaningful bites that create their own context. Numbered bullet points are one of the many tools in my arsenal. You’ll notice I often even use them in my writing… 🙂

Learning In Progress #2: The Character Tree

The project I’m on is a small-scale MMORPG. As is typical in this type of game, your character is always on the hunt for newer, better pieces of armor. That requires a significant investment in creating new art assets for these armor pieces. There has to be a lot of them, they have to be varied, and they have to look cool. They also have to visually represent different levels of quality. i.e., common armor, special magic armor, and super rare awesome hard-to-find mythic armor.

The problem is — how do you keep track of that many assets? How can I show them off and make sure the visual progression makes sense and that each fits the game’s art style and color palette?

I struggled with that for awhile and one of NCsoft’s head art people worldwide showed me the character tree. It’s a giant table full of characters, each character occupying a single cell of the table. Here’s a mockup very similar to what I use:

Horizontally, the tree is divided into sections by the player’s class: Mage Armor, Ranger Armor, and Fighter Armor. Underneath that are class-specific armor types. i.e., Light Cloth and Heavy Cloth for the Mage, Light Leather and Heavy Leather for the Ranger, etc.

Vertically, it’s divided by the quality level of the armor: Normal Armor, Unique Armor and Mythic Armor. The lower you go on the list, the higher the quality the armor is.

It’s further divided up into yellow and blue cells. The yellow cells indicate an armor set that’s complete. The blue cell indicates an armor set that’s still in production and not yet complete.

When I put the characters on the tree, I place them visually where I think they belong in terms of armor quality. If one piece of armor looks dramatically better than another, then I’ll move it further down the table and leave gaps in between them. Seeing those gaps shows me visually where the progression of low quality armor to high quality of armor breaks down. That way I can know where to start concepting a new armor set to fit in and maintain that logical progression.

I have a five foot by five foot printout of this character tree on my wall. I refer to it constantly, put Post-Its all over it to give me notes, and I have a special template that I can paste new armor sets onto, print out, and cut out to paste individually into cells instead of replacing entire sheets simply because I updated one asset. 🙂

The biggest benefit of this character tree is to be able to see at a glance how many armor pieces are in the game, how many are completed, and how many are still in production. I can see how the different pieces of armor relate to each other visually, I can see what the name of that asset is, and I can rearrange it easily.

Seeing the entire series of character armor sets in the game was tremendously valuable and has helped me plan art production more effectively and keep track of things like never before. Having it ALWAYS on my wall instead of in pure digital form has been vital. It’s also helped me realize some mistakes I made in other areas.

One of the initial mistakes I made on the project was choosing exactly which armor set was what quality at the outset of production, and naming it that way. i.e.:

Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2

All the filenames would reflect that:

Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Helm
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Boots
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Body
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Shoulders
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Gloves

But if I place that asset on the tree, and it looks more Unique than Mythic, and I decide to move it, I have to rename it. You can’t call a Unique piece of armor Mythic! It gets confusing, and creates two names where there was previously only one. In the game it may be Human Male – Unique Leather Armor 4, but all the data still points to files that refer to Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2. That requires renaming the MAX file, renaming all the textures, renaming all the materials, re-exporting the model, then going through all the multiple data files and renaming everything and testing to see if it all still works. It’s HUGE pain in the ass.

I didn’t realize it was a problem until I started moving characters around on the tree and they took on drastically different roles than they were originally intended, even though they were called something else using the same terminology. So, in the interest of flexibility, I started naming the armor sets generic names like Cloth 1, Leather 2, Plate 3, etc. That way, the designation of quality (Normal, Unique, Mythic) is totally stripped from it and it can be shifted around easily. The filenames are also shorter, take less time to type in and are less confusing overall.

I never would have realized that if I didn’t have a way of visualizing all our characters and quickly rearranging them! Once you put them all together, the difference is incredible.

Other things I have added or will soon add to the character tree is a text readout of how many characters there are, how many are finished, and how many are still in production, how many color variations exist, and so on. I’ll also have small color-coded tabs on each piece to show what color variations exist for that piece of armor. There’s no reason to waste 10 cells on a single character in red, blue, green, purple, etc, when I can show the normal version and have small color swatches tell me exactly that while taking up less space. 🙂

I also have a version of the character tree for creatures, which organizes them by race (Orok, Mutant, Fade, Whisker, etc) and role (Melee, Ranged, Caster and Boss). It makes coming up with new monsters incredibly easy when you see one race missing a mage, or a giant bruiser!

I’m also going to develop the same type of visual progression for all our weapons. These constructs have been immensely valuable to me in doing my job better, and I’m still refining them.

Does anyone else work with data like this? If so, what other types of meaningful information might I include on these trees to help me direct better?

Learning In Progress #1: Sorting asset submissions

Here’s a peek into what I do day to day and the things I’m learning, from broad concepts to specific ideas. I don’t know how informative it’ll be, but I’d like to document it anyway.

I currently lead a team of 11 remote contractors, down from a peak of 14. Sorting out the data they send me is starting to get pretty tricky. The way I’ve BEEN doing it is by organizing them with a directory structure like this:

Bob Contractor
– submission01 (unique male leather armor 1)
– changes (helm modification)
– submission02 (unique male leather armor 1 fixes)
– submission03 (unique female leather armor 1)

The ‘changes’ directory is where I modify the file myself, save it, and send it to the contractor. I put it in a separate directory so I can better sort through the files I save myself, and the files the contractor sends me.

The main problem with the way I’ve set it up is that I get SO many separate directories under each contractor. I’m up to ‘submission30’ for one of my artists, and the sheer amount of files is overwhelming. Files can get mixed up sometimes and it’s hard to tell what the latest version of something is.

An idea I’m toying with right now is custom naming every file with a date prefix and dumping it all into one large directory. So it’ll look more like this:

Bob Contractor
(01-19-2007) File 1.max
(01-19-2007) File 1.tga
(01-19-2007 JJ) File 1 changes.max
(01-20-2007) File 1 fixes.max

It’ll all be in one directory, sorted alphabetically AND by date because of the filenames I gave them. Files I’ve sent back for changes have the ‘JJ’ flag, because those are the initials of my name. When I approve an asset, I already have to resave and rename the files and move them to the project directory, so giving them different filenames here prevents me from accidentally assigning textures to the model outside of the project directory (which gets ugly in the game). It fits in pretty well with my existing workflow, while also giving me a quick at-a-glance view of every contractor’s assets and the last time I received a submitted asset from them.

All I have to do to maintain it is, when I receive an asset submission, add the date onto the filename as I save the file to my hard drive (which I already do anyway, so it’s not an extra step).

I don’t know if this is the best way to do things, but it’s the best idea I have right now and I’m moving forward with it until I get a better idea. 🙂 Any thoughts or suggestions would be welcome.

[UPDATE] I talked to some more people about it and the most stupidly obvious answer eluded me — set up an FTP account, give my artists some basic file naming convention directions, and let THEM do it. No more sorting through old assets, no needing to rename everything… just let THEM take care of it. Problem solved! Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner, but I’m glad I asked around. 🙂 [/UPDATE]

Productivity Tip #6: Windows shortcuts to commonly-accessed folders.

During the course of my day, I access many, many different directories at the same time. I hate having to navigate to them manually through Windows Explorer (My Computer, C:, project directory, art directory, avatars directory, male character directory, texture directory…) I also hate having to type in the entire thing by hand.

So I found a very simple solution. On my desktop I made a folder called ‘WORK.’ I open an Explorer window, navigate to a commonly-accessed directory, then right-click and drag the directory into my ‘WORK’ folder, and click ‘Create Shortcut Here.’ I repeat this for every directory until I have a small list of instant shortcuts to the directories I want.

Now, anytime I need to access a directory, all I have to do is open my ‘WORK’ folder and double-click on the directory I want. Voila! No more wasting time navigating to the directory every single time. I’ve saved time!

Where else can you save time like this?

Good Little Habits #2: Everything in increments = Automatic Ass Kicking!

One of my core beliefs is that if you do something enough, you can make it a habit. Usually people think of bad habits like eating bad food, or smoking, or picking your nose. But there are also good habits like going to the gym, getting up early and washing behind your ears. The more you consciously act to do these things, the more UNCONSCIOUS it becomes. Then you’re doing them without even thinking because, hey, you’re used to it, and that’s just the way things go.

That’s a powerful tool. That’s how the mind works. If you can set out a roadplan of good habits to adopt, and start consciously doing them one by one until they’re automatic behavior, eventually you’ll have a pretty awesome portfolio of good habits.

One of those habits I’ve started adopting is Incremental Progress. If you do a little bit of something good whenever you can, you’ll end up with something great, and you’ll be surprised how easy it was to get there.

Here’s an example:

If every time you go into your kitchen, you wash a couple dishes and put them in the dishwasher, eventually you’ll have a full load you can wash. You won’t have to sit down for 20 or 30 minutes and clear out two sinks full of dishes and make a huge ordeal out of it. By just doing a little bit at a time, you accomplish a big job, in small increments. You never really noticed doing it, but there it is, all done. It’s a nice feeling.

I think getting into the habit of doing that with EVERYTHING can be a huge boost to being successful.

Here’s some ideas:

  • Spend a little extra time thinking about a gift for a loved one, to make it special.
  • Spend another fifteen minutes on a piece of artwork, to make it shine.
  • Put a little bit more effort into cooking yourself dinner, to make it that much tastier.
  • Do a few more pushups before you rest, to see how far you can push it.
  • Stay a little longer at a party and try to make a new friend before you leave, for the sheer pleasure of it.

There are all sorts of little things like that you can do. A little bit more effort applied over time, consistently, can make a huge difference. Case in point: Grand Canyon! Not everything good has to be some huge damn ordeal, or an EVENT. Take something you normally do, sit back for a second, then add an extra little bit of love to make it special. It never takes that long, it doesn’t need to be hard, and a little bit of something is better than nothing at all.

The more you do it, the more it’ll become a habit, and one day you’ll wake up and realize:

  • You give truly thoughtful gifts to people you care about, and they appreciate it.
  • You’re a better artist, and you’re respected for it.
  • You’re a great cook, and you love doing it even more.
  • You can do a lot of pushups, and you’re a lot stronger than you thought.
  • You get along with anyone anywhere, and you make friends everywhere you go.

Substitute anything you do normally with this. When you look at a dirty countertop at home, just clean it while you’re thinking of it. If you’re emptying a litterbox and see a persistently sticky clump, give it a good scrape instead of leaving it. If you’re making a pot of coffee, spend an extra few seconds measuring out the best amount of coffee grounds to use.See, I don’t think anyone famous or great is great because of any one thing they did. Sure, they may have done amazing things at one point or another, but you never hear about all the buildup to it. I think success in all its forms comes from a LOT of little things, little incremental achievements.

The way I think about it is this:

It’s all a game of odds. Every time you put a little bit more effort into something, you increase your chances of a favorable outcome. If you do a LOT of little things, you increase your chances of a favorable outcome by a LOT. Never overlook small things just because you’re too focused on making big, earth-moving events. Everything counts, even if it’s just a little. And if you can reach a critical mass of little things, big things will happen. Most people just don’t think of it like that… and you can use that to your advantage.

If you can make things like incremental progress a habit, you’ll get in the habit of simply automatically kicking ass and not even realize you’re doing it.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Good Little Habits #1: Turn Impulsive Spending into Impulsive Responsibility

Recently I started curbing my impulse buying by stopping just short of purchasing it, look at how much I would have spent, then go spend twice that amount paying down my credit card or depositing it into a high-interest-bearing savings account.

It’s been quite helpful. If I can turn that into a consistent habit, I can turn my urge to impulsively buy things I don’t need into a way to pay off my debt even faster or start saving money. 🙂

If you’re gonna spend money, why not do it on something that’ll save you money, or even generate money?

Productivity tip #3: Remove distracting stuff from your field of view.

One of the things I’ve found to be the biggest hindrance of concentration and productivity at work is distracting stuff in my field of view.

It could be a lot of things… action figures, art books, notebooks, meeting notes, any gewgaw or knick-knack the mind can conjure. But every single item in direct or peripheral view of your workspace is a potential distraction.

I’m not saying you should get rid of everything on your desk. I’m saying you should move it all out of your immediate field of view while you work. If you’re supposed to be focusing on your monitor, move anything that can draw your eyes away from it.

Ideally, when you’re looking at what you’re supposed to be looking at, you’ll see two hands, a keyboard and a monitor and nothing more. You’ll have to turn completely and inconveniently around to start distracting yourself from the job at hand.

Identify the things you’re supposed to do that are important to you, and identify the things that distract you from that. Don’t mix them. Put them in to separate places and make it a discouraging amount of work to switch between those two classes of activity (productive and unproductive).  If you can raise the level of difficulty in engaging in unproductive work, you’ll be more likely to maintain productivity.

Harness your natural talents and don’t rely too much on your simple will to succeed and be productive, because that can falter. Make it idiot-proof. Imagine yourself at your worst and laziest, and erect barriers to unproductivity for THAT guy. Then be your best. That’ll ensure that even at your worst, you can’t help but do your best. Don’t leave that idiot a way out, and stack the odds in favor of making yourself proud. 🙂