To Minimalist Computer Geeks (Like Me)

I, like so many others, was inspired by Patrick Rhone when he started Minimal Mac – I wanted to make my Mac experience less cluttered and more focused. As it turns out Patrick and I are not alone, judging by the popularity of his site there exists quite a large group of Mac users who…

I, like so many others, was inspired by Patrick Rhone when he started Minimal Mac – I wanted to make my Mac experience less cluttered and more focused. As it turns out Patrick and I are not alone, judging by the popularity of his site there exists quite a large group of Mac users who feel this way. This essay is for those people.

Ian Hines recently launched a new interview blog, and one of the first interviews was with Patrick Rhone, in this interview he stated:

Sometimes I use TextEdit. If it requires a lot of formatting (which I do with Markdown), I use TextMate.

This statement seemed innocent enough, and I do believe it is, but it got me to thinking: what does minimalistic computing really mean? Does it mean that we use as few applications as possible, or mean that we use our computers as little as possible? Then again does minimalistic computing mean that we have a lot of apps that are themselves very minimal in what they do?

So many questions, none of which I know the answer to. Thinking about it another way:

If everything Patrick does in TextEdit can be done in TextMate, but not the other way around, would the minimal thing not be, to use only TextMate? I am guessing he uses TextMate (like I do) to convert Markdown formatted text into HTML markup for posting. ((Using the great MultiMarkdown Bundle.)) If that is the case then why use TextEdit?

Ah yes, but TextEdit can do somethings that TextMate can’t – like say, open a Word document. So would the minimalist approach to computing then be: that you use many single focused (do one thing well) apps, such as Patrick is doing, or be to have one app that can do all of these things?

That is an honest question, what is the answer? Better yet, does the answer even matter?

I don’t mean to pick on Patrick, so let’s look at my computing setup instead. I use two web browsers every day. Every day. Two browsers.

I use Safari and Chrome. I use Safari as my primary browser and Chrome as a backup when I need to get some Flash going. I could easily accomplish everything in one or the other, but I choose not to have Flash installed in Safari to speed up my web browsing and increase battery life – the downside being that I have one more app I must run. Right or wrong it is a choice that I have consciously made, does it go against minimalistic computing though? On the one hand I eliminate Flash, however in doing so I created a need for a second web browser. I could easily have just one web browser, but that would mean having to keep Flash installed…and so on. Which solution is more minimal?

Same can be said with Photoshop and Pixelmator. Photoshop is more powerful, but Pixelmator is my go to, and then I inevitably make the switch back to Photoshop because I can’t easily do something I want to do in Pixelmator. Look at this tracking chart of my Photoshop vs Pixelmator usage for 2010 (thanks to Daytum):

Screen shot 2010-11-17 at 1.40.56 PM.png

As you can see I use Photoshop overwhelmingly more than Pixelmator, and the fact is that I can do everything in Photoshop that I could in Pixelmator, but not the other way around. So why keep Pixelmator?

For starters it is faster and lighter to use on my Mac, so it makes good sense when I want to run a bunch of apps at once. It is also much, much, cheaper to purchase. It is more stable. However, wouldn’t the minimal thing be to get rid of Pixelmator and go all Photoshop? Or would it be to stick with the more minimal Pixelmator and ditch Photoshop? Or keep them both using them for different things – as I currently do?

Does any of this matter?

Isn’t what really matters the things that work for us the best? If I want to keep using multiple photo editing apps and that workflow makes sense for me then would that not be the best workflow solution for me? I think so.

There are more questions here than answers and I think most are rhetorical to be honest. I do think though that there is a difference between these three concepts:

  • Minimal Computing
  • Productive Computing
  • Best Solutions

That is, minimal computing seems to be a concept around which a certain group of us strive towards – minimizing and simplifying certain aspects of our computing lives. Productive computing is another facet – something that we all want to obtain, so that we can stop wasting time. This concept is centered on focus based tools like: OmniFocus, alarms, WriteRoom. Best solutions though are the things that work best for us and only us – like Patrick using both TextEdit and TextMate, or how I use two web browsers.

I think a lot of times we get these concepts confused because they so closely relate to one another. All to often I tend to blur the line between the three and it usually results in a compromise to the most important of the three: best solutions.

For instance let’s look at our menubars shall we…

There are nine icons in my menubar right now: Transmit, Dropbox, Bluetooth, Battery, Keychain, AirPort, Clock, Sound, Spotlight. A minimal approach would be to get rid of as many of these icons as possible. A productive approach might be to add as many as possible, to get the most information you can, or to get rid of as many as possible in order to decrease distractions. The best solution though is more vague, the best solution for me is to have nine.

I used to pride myself on the fact that I only had a handful of icons in the menubar, I removed the clock, sound, battery, wifi, bluetooth and Transmit. All to what end though? I ended up adding most back in Dashboard in one form or another and just ended up hitting F4 a lot more during the day. Likewise I used to have the icons stretch until they hit the other side with all sorts of things that monitored: temperature, fan speed, RAM usage and so on – that just resulted in ugliness. So I did a minimal and practical thing, I removed everything and added back what I missed. That’s how I ended up with nine – that’s how I found my best solution to the problem.

I know that sometimes I get caught up on trying to make my computer as productive as possible, or as minimal as can be – it occurred to me though that while that is all well and good, the best thing I could do would be to setup up my computer so that it works best for me, and only me.

I encourage you to do the same. ((That does not mean that you should stop reading sites like Minimal Mac, just that you don’t have to do everything posted on the site, or use every tool talked about – not that anyone said you ever did.))

[Updated: 11/19/10 at 8:03 AM] Patrick Rhone on Twitter reminds me that he too feels the same way, and that we really should read the About page on Minimal Mac (which I did read before posting this) where Patrick states:

I believe the most minimal computer is the one that is optimized for you. How you work. The menubar items you need. The dock items you need. The applications you need. The system you need. The peripherals you need. The tools you need to get the job done.

I believe most of us do not take the time to evaluate what that need is. The entire mission of this site is to help you ask those questions and find the answer that is right. The only answer that is right. The one that constitutes what is enough for you and only you.

Again I didn’t mean to sound like I was attacking Patrick Rhone, what he has done for my computing life and for the Mac community at large is wonderful. I was simply meaning to pose some questions that had been rattling around in my head, and some things that I see others not paying attention too.

It seems that I was not clear in my writing here today and for that I apologize. At the end of the quote from the Minimal Mac about page Patrick states the sites mission, which is to get people to think and ask questions about what they need. I had wanted to ask the specific questions that were in my head out loud and try to offer a look at how I answer those questions.

I was also pointed to these great posts on Minimal Mac: Computing Simplicity and Minimalism: More Than Just a Desktop ‘Theme’.

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