Although word processors have been used for many years now, many of the documents I edit still use formatting more suited to typewriters. Take advantage of your word processing software by using these simple formatting techniques:

  • Use italics and/or bold rather than underlining to emphasize words. Underlining was used on typewriters as a substitute for italics. Avoiding underlined words is especially important if your document will be converted for use on the web. Your reader will expect underlined words to be hyperlinks to Internet resources, so it’s misleading and frustrating if in fact the underlined words are not linked. Underlining is also especially problematic if your document contains Internet addresses (URLs) that contain underscores. The underlining obscures the underscores when the document is printed, again frustrating your reader.
  • Put a single space, not two, after periods. Two spaces are helpful in seeing sentences when a monospaced font, such as Courier, is used. With monospaced fonts, each letter takes up the same space, so it’s harder to see where sentences begin and end. However, in most cases, documents written with word processors use proportional fonts, where each letter takes only as much space as it needs. For example, in a proportional font, an i takes less space than m. Using just one space after periods will give your document a more professional appearance. It’s also friendly to the environment. In a longer document, using single spaces instead of two spaces after periods can shorten the document enough to save an extra page or two when printing. If you’re in the habit of using two spaces instead of one, you can use the find-and-replace feature of your software to make the change. Just search for two spaces and replace them with one space.
  • Avoid using hard returns, tabs, and/or spaces to create columns or tables. If you do, it will be more difficult to reformat the document. Changing the margins or font size will throw off your formatting. Instead, use the column or table functions of your software. Table borders can be turned off if you prefer not seeing the lines.

Major word processors like Microsoft Word contain many more advanced formatting options, such as styles, borders, shading, auto formatting, etc. The simple tips suggested above will take you far and position you well to take advantage of more advanced formatting techniques when you’re ready.

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Articles, videos, TV, radio, movies, books, Twitter, Facebook, websites, online forums, e-mail, advice from other people—sometimes the amount of information coming at you seems overwhelming. Yet other times it’s fine, and you feel like you can handle it. It’s not just the sheer amount of information that creates a feeling of overload. Rather, it’s how you approach processing information.

Focus is the cornerstone of managing information overload, and there are three important ways of focusing. First, take time to define your vision and to develop goals that will help you achieve it. Then you can more easily determine which information is important and which you can, and should, ignore.

Second, focus your attention. Multitasking can be useful if you’re combining several activities that don’t require much concentration, such as listening to an audiobook while exercising. But if you’re doing information-intensive work, such as writing a report or reading technical or complex material, multitasking will just break your concentration. That makes it harder to grasp new concepts and reduces your productivity. If you’re having trouble concentrating, try setting a timer for 20 minutes. Work on just one information-intensive project during that time. After 20 minutes, take a five-minute break, and repeat the sequence once or twice if you have time. After an hour or so, take a longer break.

Visual thinking is a third way of focusing. Doodling can help you focus by reducing daydreaming while you listen. Sketching your ideas, writing ideas on cards and sorting them, and mind mapping all tap into the power of visual thinking. Highlighting important material with colored markers or pencils is a tried-and-true way of marking important information. Be sparing in marking text, though, so that the highlighted information clearly stands out.

For more techniques on beating information overload, claim your free e-course, Beat Information Overload the 5F Way, by entering your first name and primary e-mail address in the sign-up form to the right.

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Several recent information trends can be expected to accelerate in 2010 and beyond. Which of these trends are you a part of?

Growth of mobile computing

Smaller, less expensive devices (netbook computers, smart phones, etc.), coupled with greater availability of Wi-Fi hot spots and mobile broadband on the 3G networks, have fueled the expansion of mobile computing. I bought a netbook in 2009, so I’m part of this trend. I thought for quite a while about getting a laptop as a secondary computer, but held off because of the expense and weight of full-size laptops. The netbook meets my needs.

This trend will continue. Even faster 4G networks are now being built, and free Wi-Fi is getting easier to find. McDonald’s will offer free Wi-Fi at about 11,000 U.S. locations as of mid-January 2010.  The variety of computers and smart phones will increase, while prices will keep dropping. According to DisplaySearch, netbook prices, which decreased about 15% in 2009, are expected to drop another 15% in 2010.

Greater acceptance of cloud computing

As mobile computing increases, so does the need to access your data and software from more than one computer. Cloud computing, where the data and/or software is hosted by a service provider accessible over the Internet, is a convenient solution. Many companies also use cloud computing to reduce the need for local technical support of servers, to maintain off-site data backups, and to provide collaboration tools for their employees and clients.

Among individuals, web mail remains the most common use of cloud computing. However, more are beginning to store data online and/or to use online software such as Google Docs. The convenience of access from anywhere seems to outweigh concerns about privacy and reliability. According to a September 2008 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 69% of online Americans were then using at least one cloud computing application. That number is undoubtedly higher now.

Larger drives for less

More of us need to store large video, photo, and audio files. Fortunately, the cost of large hard drives has plummeted, and even general office supply stores are selling more than one model of terabyte hard drives. Some of these drives can be configured to be accessible over the Internet, so that you can get to your files even when away from your primary computer.

More social networking

According to the New York Times, by the end of 2009, Twitter was approaching 100 million users; Facebook had reached 350 million users and may hit half a billion by July 2010. Although the growth of MySpace has been eclipsed by Facebook, MySpace remains strong among younger online users and those interested in music. LinkedIn is primarily for professional networking, but has been adding features as it competes with Facebook and other sites for market share. Other social networking sites are strong outside North America. For example, Orkut is popular in Brazil and India. Still others market to niche audiences. Ning makes it easy for organizations and interest groups to set up their own online communities.

I held off on participating in social networks, mainly because of concerns about time management, but 2009 was the year I jumped in with accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I’ve found that they’ve enriched my life, given some attention to time and information management. If you’re not already participating in an online community, will this year be the year you join in?

Increased use of libraries

As the economy worsened, library use increased. People have turned to libraries for Internet access, job-hunting resources, and entertainment, as well as books. Many libraries are also reaching out to Internet users by engaging in social networking; answering questions through e-mail, instant messaging, and/or specialized web applications; and providing registered library users with web access to expensive databases. If you haven’t been to your local library for a while, stop by its building or website and see what it can offer you.

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My office declared Aug. 4 to be “Clean-Up Day.” I spent most of the day cleaning out my working file folders. These are intended to hold just current projects, but they were overflowing with old information and completed projects. It’s difficult to set aside a whole day for weeding files, but so energizing that it’s worth it to make the time. I already feel that I have a better handle on my current projects.

Have you tried working file folders? It’s a flexible method that minimizes relabeling as your projects change.

Just label some folders in sequence, using numbers, letters, or a combination. I use F101, F102, etc., where F stands for folder. Then jot down the folder numbers and what each contains. This is your index. I created a paper form for my planner and list the contents in pencil, but you could also use a spreadsheet or a table in a word processing document. At first, you’ll need to refer to the index frequently, but soon you won’t need it for the files you reach for the most.

When you’re finished with the information in the folder, either toss the papers or file them in a permanent file. Erase your index entry too. Then reuse the working folder for another project.

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Appreciating Freedom

On this Independence Day holiday in the United States, I am grateful to all who have fought and worked to establish and maintain our freedoms, including intellectual freedom and freedom of information.

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Save time and energy by carrying shopping-related information with you. List part numbers, sizes, etc. in a small notebook, your planner, PDA, or cell phone. That way, you’ll have the information at hand when you’re in a store or ready to shop online. For example, my planner contains spark plug model numbers for my yard equipment, printer models and toner cartridge numbers, and sizes of my computer desk (monitor space, depth of top surface, etc.) so that I can be sure new equipment will fit.

For supplies that are hard to find and/or expensive, you may also want to jot down favorite suppliers.

One caveat — When you replace equipment, be sure to update your shopping information! Recently, I nearly bought the wrong toner cartridge because I hadn’t updated my notes. Fortunately, the store was out of stock, so I was able to double-check before ordering.

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