A good way to waste time online

The World Wide Web is many things: teacher, meeting place, entertainer, shopping mall, weather forecaster, news source, etc. But first and foremost, the Web is a productivity sink, where even the best-laid plans for efficient surfing can fall victim to distractions ranging from the pedestrian to the bizarre. (You can only imagine the innumerable tangential hazards that the Web holds for someone whose assignment is to go online, dig around for worthwhile diversions, and report them to you.)

But while there may be times when the Web seems to have been created for the express purpose of keeping you from getting things done, there is at least one site out there dedicated to making your life more efficient. LifeHacker is a regularly updated blog where you can spend hours and hours learning how to make better use of your time.

Launched in January (and attracting 188,000 visitors in its first eleven days), LifeHacker welcomes visitors with the observation, "Computers make us more productive. Yea, right." and then proceeds to try and take at least some of the irony out of the first statement by collecting efficiency aids from around the Web. LifeHacker is a blog in the style of a links collection rather than an online diary. New posts are added more frequently than at most such sites (averaging a dozen or so each weekday) and simply supply a few lines of introduction, the related URL, and, when the story has been discovered on another blog, a 'credit' link to the original source.

As for specifics about the type of material posted here, a sampling from the site as I write this includes:

How to fabricate your own low-cost Homemade Baby Wipes; Rules for effective PowerPoint presentations; How to overcome procrastination, stay on top of multi-step projects, and handle burnout; Upgrade news about Del.icio.us (an online bookmark service) and Backpack (web-based organizer); How to get out of credit card late fees; How to stand out (in a good way) at your next job interview; Seven tips towards faster Web browsing; A daily roundup of news from such sites as CNET and WIRED ...and an ever-growing collection of time-saving FireFox extensions.

Of course, this doesn't mean that LifeHacker is entirely above wasting a bit of your time. Other links include the Polaroid-o-nizer (to make your pictures look like they came out of an SX-70), and an online, do it and print it yourself Safety Sign Builder. (Granted, the latter application can be used for legitimate purposes, but I'm guessing that more customized warnings will be generated for dorm rooms than factory floors.)

By the time you read this article, the above examples will have probably been pushed off the home page by newer additions, but the information lives on in the site's archives - divided into such categories as Personal Organizers, File Sharing, Productivity, and Internet Phones. (Whether a result of tracking the most popular categories, or simply a reaction to the most destructive productivity-related threats of surfing, the first three archive categories listed on the home page are Spyware Cleaners, Spam Filters, and Virus Killers.)

In addition to the archives, the right side of every page also contains a short list of alternative sites to which surfers can turn, to ask for guidance with specific problems ("What's the best dead-tree world atlas you can buy?" from Ask MetaFilter) or simply make chance discoveries of useful information ("Wash each side of a window in a different direction... Afterwards, if you see any streaks, you'll immediately know what side of the glass they are on." from Tricks of the Trade).

Given the amount of information provided, it's fortunate that LifeHacker has a clean and open layout, generously punctuated with illustrations, text boxes and font changes. Each day's collection can be quickly scanned for items of interest, and every story's headline links to unique URLs (or in the case or archived items, single-story pages) for precise bookmarking or e-mail forwarding.

So while regular visits to LifeHacker might actually increase your time online, time spent exploring the site will probably be time effectively utilized, and may itself result in time gained somewhere else. And if you become so entranced by the time-saving tips that you spend all your free time collecting them? Then it may be time to just walk away from the computer...at least for a time.

But until that time, LifeHacker can be found at http://lifehacker.com/.

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