A while back I posted a link about productivity by Tony Schwartz from the Harvard Business Review that was titled: “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time”.
In my link I quoted this bit:
The biggest cost — assuming you don’t crash — is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.
Nothing Schwartz was saying was particularly new to me, but I liked the reminder, so I posted about it.
I spent the rest of the weekend working on projects around my house. I was dead focused on the task at hand. I didn’t stop to check email or Twitter — or anything — I just kept working, completing one thing at a time.1
After I finished up I sat down at my computer and looked at the screen.
Twitter was running, Mail was running, ditto Messages, Yojimbo, OmniFocus, Notational Velocity, Safari, Dashboard, and on and on.
I thought back to what Schwartz wrote and realized that when I am working on my Mac I am constantly jumping between these apps — I am increasing my time it takes to do any one thing because I allow myself to engage too many things at once.
This — I assume — is why many people find the iPad to be such a refreshing writing tool: it forces focus. I know this and I have said this before.
This time I wanted to bring that forced focus to my Mac. Somehow. Fullscreen apps took me a step towards that, but the three finger swipe became too convenient to procrastinate with.
I needed a solution, well truthfully a band-aid. Because the solution is discipline, and that is a far reach from the fix I implemented. My fix, though is the solution to the long term need of more discipline when I work.
So I asked myself to define the activities that I used my computer for, and then to break down what apps I need to have open to best do these activities. I came up with four activities (but I am adding more as the need arises):
- Casual computing. In this mode I am not doing anything that is important so distractions are welcomed interruptions — a way to spur other thoughts.
- Default. This is the state I always want to “enter” my computer with. It is the pure state, there are minimal distractions, but maximal apps to get to any immediate task right away.
- Writing. This is a pure mode where only the tools needed to write are running.
- Work. This is the “day job” mode, where like the writing mode only the tools needed are running.
Ideally I wanted to be able to hit a keystroke and flip my computer from one mode to another — so that’s what I created with Keyboard Maestro.
SHIFT+CONTROL+OPTION+R activates a Keyboard Maestro macro that presents me with the four modes, but instead of calling them “modes” I actually call them: resets. I chose ‘resets’ because that’s what I am doing. I am not shifting my mode from work to writing, I am resetting my computing environment from work to writing.
All that Keyboard Maestro does is open and close the apps needed for each reset so that only the apps that I want open for each reset are open.
Reset my Usage
This can, of course, be done manually — hell you can even just ignore offending apps if you want — but I like this approach because it forces me to commit to doing something different. Practically speaking, I can’t just start writing a post if I am in the middle of an IM conversation — I must first have decided to either end the conversation and get to writing or to continue the conversation and delay the writing. Doing both cannot be an option any longer.
More than just that, the drastic shift in what windows I see on my desktop — going from open windows to no opened windows — resets my mind. Effectively I am shoving everything off my desk and then saying: go.
I am also changing my viewport by displaying a new background for each mode shift thus helping my brain to shift into the new work at hand.
I know that I can do this without an elaborate Keyboard Maestro setup. I know that I don’t need to close these apps if I instead just ignore them. None of that knowledge changes the fact that I simply don’t ignore those apps when they are open. So truthfully I really do need to use these macros to achieve this level of concentration.
When I wrote about why I prefer Writer over Byword and how I see the two apps very differently I received a lot of feedback. The feedback seemed to be wild agreement, even if the person preferred another app, or criticism that I was simply too fiddly. Perhaps I have other issues — suggested some — if I can’t just sit down and write.
Or perhaps I am not alone and that’s why tools like iA Writer exist.
Either way, I do like this little trick.
Here’s some screenshots of the four resets in Keyboard Maestro:
I recommend that you do not multi-task while using power tools. ↩