The following article was prepared by Mike Taylor, C.P.M.
May 2004


Sharpen Your Software Tools

Surely by now you've heard the parable about the two lumberjacks in a wood-chopping contest. One Lumberjack worked furiously over the long day, never stopped to rest, but still lost. The second lumberjack also worked hard, but he took a number of breaks and yet he won. When asked how he could have done it even though he took several breaks, the winner replied, " I wasn't taking breaks to rest, I was taking time to sharpen my axe."

The moral of the story is clear. A sharper axe cuts faster. In the long run, talking the time to sharpen your axe is much more efficient that just working harder and faster.

Now how can that story apply to us? I'm glad you asked.

For most of us our 'axe', has become the PC. We work furiously to process large amounts of data, analyze spreadsheets, compose correspondence, store and retrieve documents and locate information buried in the vast expanse of the World Wide Web. Software has become the working tool used by professionals to cut through the information tasks at hand.

Effective users remember the lumberjack parable and take the time to sharpen their software skills. They know that taking time to improve their software abilities now will pay off in the long run. People who are not so effective struggle with sorting lists of data, corresponding, sending electronic files and trying to find misplaced information. Instead of being a useful tool, software becomes yet another source of frustration.

Even through the moral of the story is obvious, putting it into practice takes discipline and focus. It's not easy to set aside time, to "stop chopping", while sharpening software skills.

The first time we stop to learn software skills; it may not make much difference. However, learning how to learn, where to find user tips and how to locate help, is a skill that also needs practice. It also takes some practice to find the right mix of "sharpening time" vs "chopping time". It's easy to say, "I'm too busy to stop and read a software tip." It's much harder to set aside time to learn a software skill today that might not be useful until later.

I think we all know people who repeatedly struggle with a simple task and steadfastly refuse to take the time to do some skill sharpening. I regularly get calls for help from frustrated people who have wasted a lot of time and are in a last-minute panic; "I know you've sent us a tip about how to do this task, but I haven't had time to read itů" They don't think they have enough time to learn to be more efficient yet waste much more time with the struggle because they didn't take time to sharpen their skill first.

O.K., all right already, stop the parable, I want to get off! I'm convinced, what can I do?

  1. Make a commitment: [it's the first step to healing, or so I've been told]
        a. "I will be much more effective when I learn to use my software tools better."
        b. "I will set aside some time each day to make a long term improvement."
  2. Set aside a regular period of time to sharpen your skills.
        a. Book one lunch or breakfast a week as a regular learning time just browsing or looking for a specific function.
        b. Set aside a coffee break each day and spend it learning or practicing.
  3. Set up a friendly learning club with a few friends and challenge each other to a contest for lunch once a month.
        a. See who can find the best new "wow" feature in a software application for the month. (e.g. Did you know you can do a "Save As" in MS Office applications by just using the F12 key)
        b. See who can stump the other members with a software problem. (e.g. Who can filter an Excel spreadsheet to only show items that are unique in Column F?
    Hint: it's an advanced filter feature. )
  4. Survey and become familiar with places to find information, user tips and help.
        a. Look through the software help file to see how it is organized and the kind of information it contains? I'm always amazed at the people who never even try to find an answer in the help file.
        b. Turn on the "Tip of the Day" in MS Office.
    Hint: It's one of the Office Assistant options.
        c. Keep your eyes open for a book or user guide at bookstores and on the web. Amazon and Barnes and Noble both sell a wide variety of computer books and learning CDs. I like to look on the used-book table in College bookstores for software-class workbooks. They are simple, explanatory and contain examples.
        d. Open us the Google search engine (www.google.com) and do a search for software tips or specific tasks. Example; " +MS Word +tips" or " +Excel + function +average "
  5. Subscribe to a free email software tip service or web site. There are lots and you'll want to shop around to find one you like. Try searching for +software +tips 
        a. Here is an interesting Excel web site I found while writing this article http://www.mrexcel.com/index.html 
  6. Take the time to read the tips! See step 2 above. Read it, even if it doesn't seem useful today. Don't file tips without reading them, you'll never remember it's there when you need it.
  7. Try it out. When you see a new function or trick, give it a try. Test it and play with it for a minute. It might not be important at the moment, but someday it could be the key. It is important to practice at reading instructions and translating them into an accomplished skill.
  8. Start your own set of tips folders. Include your own notes about how to do a task or copies of a help files. Organize the folders by software application or task, then cross-reference by including shortcuts in other appropriate folders. (e.g. Set up a folder for tips on doing mail-merge documents and cross reference with a shortcut in both a word processing and email folder... or... Store a software tip on sorting excel spreadsheets in an Excel folder and create a shortcut to it in your RFQ tips folder.)

It may seem like an insurmountable task, but the most important thing is to start. Once the regular learning pattern is established your software skills will grow rapidly.

Mike

P.S. Just to get you started, here is one of the most-useful MS Word hidden features I have found by browsing tips.

Turn on and the Word "WORK" Menu:

Do you work on multiple documents over a period of time? Do you wish you had a quick way to find and open any of 9 current documents without having to hunt for them? You can! It's the WORK menu.

1- Open Word (2002 or later)
2- In the VIEW menu select TOOLBARS > CUSTOMIZE ( the Customize dialog box will open)
3- In the CUSTOMIZE dialog box select the COMMANDS tab
4- Scroll to the bottom of the Categories in the left window and select BUILT-IN MENUS
5- In the right window scroll to the bottom and select WORK. Hold down the mouse button and drag the WORK menu and drop it on one of your existing toolbars at the top of the Word Window. I added mine right next to the HELP menu.
6- Close the CUSTOMIZE dialog box.
7- Open a document that you have been working on. Then click the WORK menu and select ADD TO WORK MENU. You can add up to nine, then the new ones start displacing the old ones.
8- Next time you want to open that document, it will be right there.


Read more articles in the Purchasing Toolbox at http://www.mltweb.com/prof/tools.htm and in the BuyTrain news article archive at http://www.mltweb.com/tools/buytrain/index.htm


MLTWEB is assembled and maintained by Michael L. Taylor, C.P.M. 
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Copyright;  Michael L. Taylor, C.P.M.
1996-2006