Backup your computer automatically with Crashplan. No more worrying about losing all those pictures, music, or important documents!
So you’re sold on the idea of “life hacks,” but every time you go to change your passwords, budget your money, or make a to-do list, you become overwhelmed. If you want to avoid dooming yourself to a non-productive life forever, this simple guide will get you started with the most essential life hacking tools in just one day.
If you’ve been reading Lifehacker for a long time, you already know LastPass, Dropbox, CrashPlan, and other tools backwards and forwards. This guide is for absolute beginners—the people who are ready to take the dive into better productivity, but don’t know where to start. Check it out for yourself (you never know what you might have missed) and pass it on to your friends and family during your next annual tech support session!
Back Up Your Computer Automatically with CrashPlan
Time Required: 30 Minutes
Tools You’ll Need: CrashPlan
How It Works: You’ve probably heard people say it a million times before, but you should really back up your computer—and not just to an external hard drive, either. A good, cloud-based backup ensures that you never, ever lose any of your important files—a pain that many of you already know—no matter what happens. The process only takes a little bit of time, and is dead simple to set up. Here’s how:
- Download and install CrashPlan, and set up a CrashPlan+ account if you want to back up to CrashPlan’s service (which we highly, highly recommend).
- Start up CrashPlan. It will scan your system and suggest the folders that you should back up. Its suggestions should be fine for almost everyone.
- Choose a backup destination at the top of the window. If you’re backing up to an external drive, pick “Folders” and choose that drive from the list, and if you’re backing up to the internet, pick CrashPlan Central.
- Click the Start button to begin your first backup. It’ll take awhile, so don’t turn your computer off while it runs—it can even take up to a few days if you’re backing up to CrashPlan Central. Once it’s done, though, CrashPlan will back up only the files you’ve changed, every 15 minutes or so.
You can change a lot of other options in CrashPlan, as well as back up to different locations like another computer. This simple setup yields great results for most people. Once you’ve set it up, you’ll rarely—if ever—need to open CrashPlan again.
Create Better Passwords and Store Them in a Password Manager
Time Required: 2 Hours
Tools You’ll Need: LastPass
How It Works: Do you use the same password for nearly every site? Is it something easy to remember, like
b00klover1? If so, then it’s time to audit your passwords and change them to something more secure. Not only are your accounts notoriously easy to hack (something that’s become a real issue lately), but if you use the same password on every site, you make it easier for one hacker to access all your online accounts. A password manager like LastPass will fix both of these problems.
First we’ll install LastPass, and then we’ll use its password generator to change all of your insecure passwords to something better. Here’s how to set it up:
- Download the LastPass extension for your browser and install it. Restart your browser if necessary.
- Set up a LastPass account and give it a strong password that you’ll remember. This generator can help you create one.
- Go to a site you use (say, Facebook), and head to the change password prompt, usually buried somewhere in the settings.
- Type your current password in the first box, then click on the box for your new password. Instead of making something up, click on the LastPass button in your browser toolbar and go to Tools > Generate Secure Password. It should generate a random string of characters for you—a truly secure password.
- Click Accept and LastPass will copy your new password into the “New” box on your account page. Confirm your password change. LastPass will save your new password so the next time you log in, it’ll autofill the password box before you and log you in.
- Repeat this process for the other sites you visit on a regular basis. You should use a different generated password for every site—that way, if one gets hacked, the hackers don’t have access to all your other web accounts too. You can change all your passwords now, or do it over time as you visit these other sites (email, Twitter, your online banking page, and so on).
It seems difficult, and you won’t be able to remember these passwords off the top of your head, but you’ll be much more secure (after all, the most secure password is one you can’t remember). When you need to type in passwords on your smartphone, you can either view your passwords in your LastPass vault on your computer (by clicking the LastPass button), from the LastPass mobile site, or by using the LastPass mobile app that requires a cheap subscription to use.
Further Reading: Our Beginner’s Guide to LastPass, Our Intermediate Guide to Mastering Passwords with LastPass, Why Strong Passwords Aren’t Enough, and Why You Should Turn On Two-Factor Authentication Right Now
Alternative Tools: 1Password, KeePass, and others
Keep All Your Notes in One Place with a Cross-Platform Note Taker
Time Required: 30 Minutes (more if you’re importing notes)
Tools You’ll Need: Evernote
How It Works: If you’re the kind of person that has Post-It notes all over your monitor, crumpled up pieces of paper in all your pockets, and endless reminders in a hundred different apps, it’s time to consolidate everything into one, cross-platform note-taker. Evernote is the most popular, and with pretty good reason: it can store anything you imagine in one central place, digitize your physical notes, manage to-do lists, and you can search for nearly anything with just a few taps. Nearly every person we interview about productivity names it as the number one app they couldn’t live without. And luckily, it’s very easy to get started with it.
- Download Evernote and install it on your computer and smartphone. If you don’t have an account, create one now.
- Start up Evernote, and start copying any notes you have in other programs into Evernote. You can create a new note by pressing the big “New Note” button at the top.
- Create a few notebooks—like Personal and Work—and add your notes to them from the “Notebooks” dropdown at the top. You can also create a few tags—like Projects, Articles, Lists, or whatever else—and assign them at the top of your note.
- To scan in any physical notes you have (like Post-It notes sitting around), just go to File > New Camera Note and take a picture of your paper note. Once you sync, Evernote will translate any text in the image so you can search for it as if it was a text note. Alternatively, you can just manually type in the note yourself.
- Install the Evernote Web Clipper extension for your browser, which will help you grab nearly anything from the web and send it on over to Evernote—articles you want to read, information you want to add to one of your notes, or even favorite tweets.
This is just a very basic setup. Unlike some of the other tools in this article, Evernote is more about using it than setting it up and forgetting it. Once you’ve got a few notes in there, though, you can use it to house just about anything. Jot down text notes, save pictures and diagrams, or even save audio notes straight from your phone. The more you use it to store and organize your stuff, the more it’ll help in your daily productivity. Learning how to use the search feature will be a big boon, too, especially if your notebooks and tags are well organized. Check out some of the other clever Evernote uses in our Further Reading below for more ideas.
Further Reading: What’s All the Fuss About Evernote?, Expand Your Brain with Evernote, Clever Uses for Evernote, and The Complete Guide to Going Paperless
Alternative Tools: Simplenote, Springpad, and others
Access Your Important Files Everywhere with Cloud Storage
Time Required: 30 Minutes
Tools You’ll Need: Dropbox
How It Works: If you’re tired of emailing yourself files, you need to start using a cloud storage service. Cloud storage fixes the problem of multiple computers, which most of us deal with these days. Maybe you have a desktop and a laptop, or a computer at home and at at work. If you’re tired of emailing yourself files, it’s time to start using a cloud storage service like Dropbox. Once you set it up, you’ll forget it’s even there and all your important files will appear on all of your computers. You’ll even be able to grab them from the web if you’re on a computer that isn’t yours! Here’s how to set it up.
- Download Dropbox for your computers and install it on each one. When you first start it up, it’ll ask you to create an account, so do that now. By default, you’ll start with 2GB of space, but you can buy more (or get some for free—we’ll talk about that later).
- When you start Dropbox for the first time, it’ll ask you where you want to store your Dropbox folder. The default location is fine. Go through the wizard to finish up installation.
- Drag any important documents, folders, or other files into your Dropbox folder. You’ll see a blue sync badge appear on the icons while those files sync to the internet, and a green checkmark when they’re finished. Within minutes your files will appear in the Dropbox folder on all your other computers and everything will stay in sync.
It’s really that simple to use. Just start using your Dropbox folder as your main documents archive and everything will be synced to your other machines. You can do a ton more with it, too, like see old versions of your documents and share files with your friends. Just right-click on a file in your Dropbox and go to the Dropbox menu for those options. If you start running out of space in your Dropbox, check out our guide to getting more free space on Dropbox to add more.
Further Reading: Our Top 10 Clever Uses for Dropbox, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Getting Free Dropbox Space, Get 8GB+ of Extra Dropbox Space for Free with Google AdWords, and Supercharge Your Dropbox with Wappwolf
Alternative Tools: Box, SkyDrive, and more
Automate Your Budget With Mint
Time Required: 1.5 Hours
Tools You’ll Need: Mint
How It Works: We all have our financial vices, but no matter how committed you are to budgeting your money, it’s just so darn hard to keep track of. Mint is a free tool that makes it easy: it automatically tracks what you spend, categorizes it, and keeps you constantly up-to-date on how well you’re sticking to your budget for those categories. Once you’ve set it up, you won’t have to do anything; Mint tracks it all for you. Here’s what you need to do:
- Head to Mint.com and create an account. It’ll take you through a short wizard where you’ll be asked to provide information about your bank accounts, so it can see your recent transactions.
- Once all your bank accounts have been imported, head to the Spending History page. You should see a list of transactions much like the one you’d see on your bank’s web site, except that each transaction will have a category like Groceries, Music, Food, and others. Mint does this automatically, but if it gets something wrong, you can always change the category yourself by clicking on the item and clicking the arrow next to the category name.
- Once you’ve cleaned up your categories a little bit (if necessary), you go to the Budgets tab. Mint will start you off with a few common ones, but you can edit them to reflect how much money you’d like to budget for food, gas, clothing, and other items every month.
- Once you’ve imported your accounts and set up your budgets, the only thing you’ll need to do is check in regularly and make sure everything’s properly sorted. Change any categories that don’t seem right, add any cash transactions you’ve made with the “Add a Transaction” button, or go to Edit Details > Split to split a transaction (like an ATM withdrawal) into multiple ones.
With just a bit of regular upkeep, you’ll be able to get an accurate picture of your budget at any time from Mint’s web site or their mobile app for iPhone or Android. It still requires you take an active role in managing your budgets, but it’s much much easier than doing it all by hand, since Mint already tracks and categorizes everything you spend.
Further Reading: How to Create (and Stick to) a Realistic Budget with Mint, Why I Stopped Being Paranoid and Started Using Mint, and Mint’s New Bill Reminders Help You Stay on Top of Upcoming Expenses
Alternative Tools: You Need a Budget, Quicken, and others
Save Yourself Hours of Typing with Text Expansion
How It Works: We all have a few things that we type over and over again every day. Maybe it’s your address, a reply you send to a common email, a template for a document, or even a complicated character that doesn’t have a shortcut on your keyboard. Text expansion saves you time by letting you type these large blocks of text with just three or four keystrokes.
For example, say I have to type out my address a few times a day. Instead of trudging through it every time, I could set up a “snippet” that types my entire address when I type
,home. Immediately after I type those four characters, my entire address shows up preformatted, so I can move on to more important things. Add in all the other repetitive typing you do, and you can save yourself quite a bit of time and frustration over the day. Here’s how to set it up:
- Download and install a text expander like PhraseExpress (for Windows) or TypeIt4Me (for OS X). Start it up to see your current list of snippets—it’ll usually come with a few to start you off, but you can delete them if you like (in fact, if you’re using PhraseExpres, you should delete them-they’ll cause more problems than they solve, and the “Websites” folder is particularly annoying).
- To create one, click the New button and type the full snippet—that is, the text you want to finish with (like your full address)—in the big content box. Give the snippet a label (like “Address”) and an abbreviation (the short text you’ll type to insert your snippet, like
,home. Save your snippet to finish.
- Open up a text editor and try your snippet out. If it works, you’ve done it correctly, and you can repeat this process with other snippets you want to add. You may only be able to think of a few now, but as you go about your work, you’ll find tons of other text blocks that you type throughout the day that you can then go put into your text expander.
It sounds a little silly at first, but it really will save you time once you start using it. You can add your address, email signature, phone number, email address, or other salutations to your text expander and use them all day long. You can even tell your snippet to put your cursor in a certain location after you expand it, or tell it to paste the contents of the clipboard at a certain spot in your snippet (like someone’s name for salutations in a letter). It’s only limited to what you can think up. Check out the further reading section for ideas on how to use this genius tool.
Further Reading: How to Use Text Expansion to Save Yourself Hours of Typing Every Week, Set Up These Text Expansion Shortcuts Now, and Use Text Expansion to Make Quick Work of Assholes
Alternative Tools: Breevy, TextExpander, and more for Windows and Mac
Access Your Home Computer From Just About Anywhere
Time Required: 30 Minutes
Tools You’ll Need: TeamViewer
How It Works: Dropbox can help keep your files in sync between computers, but what if you need to check on something on your home computer while you’re out and about with your laptop or phone? This is where remote access comes in. With a program like TeamViewer, you can immediately log into your home computer and use it as if it were sitting right in front of you, which can be a lifesaver. Setting it up is very easy:
- Download and install TeamViewer on all your computers. Start it up and create an account by going to Connection > Set Up Unattended Access. This will make all your computers accessible with just a quick username and password combo.
- Log Into your account on your home computer. You should see that computer’s name in TeamViewer’s list of computers on the right-hand side. Leave TeamViewer and this computer running when you leave the house.
- When you want to use that computer from afar, start up TeamViewer on your second computer and log into your account. You should immediately see your first computer in the list. Double-click on it to log into it and use it remotely. You can perform tasks, grab files you’ve forgotten, or do just about anything else as if you were using it directly.
Simple, huh? You can even download their mobile app and use your computer from your smartphone or tablet, which is really amazing.
Further Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to Remote Controlling Your PC
Alternative Tools: Windows’ Built-In Remote Desktop, OS X’s Built-In Screen Sharing, and more as described here
Photo remixed from Spectral-Design (Shutterstock).