The Windows taskbar is your launching pad to your favorite applications and files. By personalizing the taskbar and learning a few power user shortcuts, you can make Windows work better for you. This is especially important for Windows 8, because Microsoft unfathomably removed the Start button from the new operating system's taskbar. Let's fix that.
There are over a dozen taskbar shortcuts for both Windows 7 and Windows 8, but my favorite--and the one I think will save you the most time--is Windows + number (0-9). This keyboard shortcut opens or switches to the program in that position on your taskbar. So every time you want to open your browser, for example, if it's in the first position on the taskbar, just hit Win+1. To get to the program in the tenth position, the shortcut is Win+0.
Head to the taskbar properties window (by right-clicking on the taskbar and going to Properties) and you'll find a number of customization options. For example, you can dock the taskbar to the left or right or auto-hide it (useful if you're working on a small laptop or monitor). One setting that might help you get to your windows faster is the taskbar buttons combining option. Switch to "Never combine" or "Combine when taskbar is full," and instead of always combining windows from the same program into one icon on the taskbar, Windows will show you an icon for each, along with their labels/names. If you're working on multiple Word docs, for example, if the icons are set to not be combined, you'll see the titles (or parts of the titles) of each doc you're working on in the taskbar.
You can also open and close applications and documents faster by middle-clicking with the middle button on your mouse. Middle-click a taskbar icon and it will open a new instance of that program (handy if you want a new browser windows, for example). Also, if you hover over an icon and then middle-click on the Aero Peek thumbnail, you can quickly close that window.
To make the taskbar really work for you, pin your most-used programs and folders to the taskbar. You can just drag-and-drop application icons to taskbar to pin them. For folders, you need a little bit of a workaround. When you drag a folder to the taskbar, Windows simply adds it to the Windows Explorer icon's jumplist (the menu that opens up when you right-click on the icon). To get a separate icon for your favorite folder, right-click on the taskbar, go to Toolbars, then "New toolbar..." Navigate to the folder you want, and you're done.
Remember that jumplists offer quick shortcuts: Right-click on any icon in the taskbar (or long-press it if you're using a touchscreen) to get useful contextual commands like jumping to your most frequently used folders in Windows Explorer or reopening recently closed tabs in your browser. You can pin your favorite sites or documents to the jumplist by clicking on the pin icon next to its name.
Pinning folders is especially useful for Windows 8. With no Start menu button, it's hard to jump to other programs or folders, but you can add those shortcuts to the taskbar with the pinning trick above (e.g., pin the Program Files folder to the taskbar).
A better option, however, is to use a utility that adds Start menu functionality back to Windows 8. Classic Shell is a free, open-source program that recreates the Windows 7 Start menu almost exactly. It's highly customizable too and solves many other Windows 8 usability and personalization issues (e.g., you can bypass the Metro screen altogether; hooray!)
So remember, Win+number, middle-click, and use those jumplists to get more out of that little taskbar.