A simple software process review saves time

A few days ago I sat down and talked to myself (you can do that a lot in a small cabin in Alaska) and tried to think if there were any ways I could be more productive.

The biggest thing that was bothering me (the problem statement) was the time it takes after I've "finished" writing a long, multi-page tutorial before it can be published. I prefer writing longer tutorials, but they do take a fair amount of effort.

Listing all the process steps

I sat down and listed all the steps that I had to go through, and quickly started thinking about hiring an assistant. The biggest time-eaters were cropping all the images, checking the figure references and descriptions, fact-checking, grammar-checking, and uploading files. These are all things that someone else can do.

Sorting steps by time required

Just as I thought about paying an assistant, I sorted my steps by the time required for each step, and I realized that the biggest time-saver would be to use a better image-grabbing tool for capturing screen shots. I really like SnapNDrag, but the version I was using had one major flaw for me: when you use the "window capture" feature it doesn't bring the window to the foreground. It leaves it in the background, so all my screenshots don't look "active", and in tutorials that doesn't look right.

To compensate for this I was taking a delayed image of the full screen, where SnapNDrag let me set a time delay so I can bring the desired window to the foreground. Then I would manually crop that window out of the larger full-screen image.

So during my process review I realized I had fallen into this trap, and that if I replaced that one tool I would save a big chunk of time.


Fortunately I found two great alternatives. The first is simple: upgrade to a newer version of SnapNDrag, which now lets the previous window be the active window. The second option is the Screenshot Plus Mac widget, which also does what I want, and lets me take window screenshots without having to go through the long process I just described.

What I gained

I thought this process was interesting on two fronts. First, just by taking 15 minutes to list everything out I found a better set of tools, which is always good. Second, the mental exercise of reviewing my publishing process helped me find a major time-wasting flaw in the process. The simple act of questioning the process -- "Why do I do things this way?" -- helped me find a big time waster. And, as usual, once you can define a problem, you can fix it.