When it comes to working at your computer, there is only one rule: context switches are horrifically expensive.
Let’s talk about the Zone once more. You’re either sitting down with your computer to futz around with something or you’re attempting to get in the Zone. This is that magical place where you’ve managed to fit the entire context of your current project in your head. With all this content in there, you can perform superhuman acts of productivity and creativity because you have the complete problem space at your mental disposal.
The act of transitioning into this mental state is just as tricky as maintaining it, and much of the battle is against pixels.
The brilliance and the curse of your computer’s desktop is that you can have as many open windows as you like. Now, as an avid consumer of information, unlimited windows sound like a lot of win. The problem is that when you have more than two or three open windows, you need to start overlapping them. Go back to your actual desktop and answer this question: what happens when a document is covered by another? It’s gone. It’s forgotten. Sure, you can have pile of stuff strategies: “pile 1 is bills, pile 2 is important,” but the simple fact is that if you can’t see the information, it’s forgotten.
Try it. If your desk isn’t already OCD-tidy, go find a piece of paper hiding on your desk where upon discovery you realize its importance — was it important before your discovered it? Yes. Did it matter? No, because you forgot about it.
The simple solution for Zone-based productivity is to keep everything that contributes to your current problem in front of you, and that means more pixels.
Back to the Transition Layer
There are two solutions for adding pixels to your desktop. You can buy more displays until you can see every gosh darned relevant pixel at once (which is awesome). Or, in the case of notebooks, prior to Lion, you could employ the bevy of Transition layer-based tools like Exposé and Spaces.
My preference is the sea of pixels provided by two massive displays featuring eight bajillion pixels. It’s efficient for one simple reason: my eyes move faster than my fingers. With two displays full of well-organized bits, I can instantly shift from Working-on-Code window to Looking-up-Syntax window simply by instantly visually shifting from one window to the next. Nothing moves, scrolls, or changes position or orientation. This is friction-free information consumption.
However, the fact I’m writing this on a MacBook Air on a couch in the middle of Nowhere, Minnesota and have written the prior three pieces on various planes and trains makes it clear I’m going mobile and that means I need Transition tools that mirror my desktop setup. And after a solid week of Lion, it feels like the integration of Exposé and Spaces as Mission Control finally gets window management right. I’ll explain.
You need a clear mental map of your stuff. As I explained in the prior article, I found Exposé to be invasive and non-intuitive when it came to clean context switches. The feature, while pretty, increased mental friction when I fired it off. I’d forget where I was and when it comes to being in the Zone, context isn’t just the art of knowing where you are, but the illusory and friction-free belief that you know where everything is.
Questions like: “Where is that?”, “How do I find it?”, “Don’t I already know that?” are mental speed bumps that are context- and Zone-destroying distractions. Why do you get pissed off when the phone rings when you’re in the Zone? Because you know you will shortly forget where you are. This is why when I’m working on a project of size, I’m most confident and most productive when the complete set of what I currently know is sitting directly in front of me.
Mission Control integrates both Exposé and Spaces, and, more importantly, it simplifies them. Gone are the chaotic and useless views of Let’s-See-Every-Damned-Window in Exposé, and gone is the ability in Spaces to create a massive unknowable 8x8 grid of virtual desktops. Both have been replaced with the clean, linear list of Spaces where an Exposé-like view shows only active windows in the currently selected desktop.
It might not seem like a lot of change, but after religiously trying Exposé and Spaces for years, Mission Control finally feels like my desktop and not a set of sexy but poorly integrated tools that were fun to demo but hard to use. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to Mission Control is that as I’ve been exploring three-finger gestures, each gesture, out of the box, does exactly what I expect it to do: scrolling left moves a Space to the left and scrolling up moves to the meta-view of all spaces. See…
You want as little transitional friction and distraction as possible. When it comes to distractions, natural scrolling in Mac OS X Lion is near the top. For those of you not familiar with the situation, in the latest release of Mac OS X, Apple reversed the scrolling action. Your scrolling wheel or your two-finger trackpad drag go in the opposite direction. Cruel joke, right? Did they swap the left and the right buttons on the mouse, too?
For an action I perform hundreds of times a day, I’m shocked that I’ve left natural scrolling on and now that I’ve become used to it, I’ll explain why old scrolling is actually wrong. That’s right. We’ve all been doing it wrong because it’s not how we think.
Try this. Go grab your closest iPhone or iPad, turn it on, and scroll… in any direction. Do it a couple of times, have some fun. Now stop. Before your next scroll, I want you to think what your brain would do if when you put your finger on the screen and slid to the right if the screen went to the left. Usability disaster, right? No way I’d ever convince you that was the right way because you would argue “that is the natural way for it to work”.
It’s called natural scrolling because the scrolling works how your brain expects. I know this because each time I’ve scrolled and thought, “Whu…?” I remind myself: “Think as if your finger was on the screen” and then I’m content.
Again, it’s a small (and initially annoying) change, but it’s an incremental change designed to mirror how you work when you’re working with atoms, and each small change in this direction is another distracting mental hangnail that will never bother you again. What you need is…
When you work, you must focus. I was a Windows guy for a decade before I came to Mac OS X, and even with multiple monitors on Windows I still ran almost exclusively full screen. When I arrived to Mac OS X in the Jaguar days, the absence of a native full screen mode drove me a little goofy.
I used Windows full-screen mode because of the size of the CRTs at the time. 21 inches was ginormous (and heavy), but I still ran full screen both because multiple windows felt cluttered. Windows keyboard support was stellar — I could fly through the windows. More importantly, and I probably didn’t realize this at the time, a full screen window meant I was doing one thing. I was focused.
It took over a decade, but full screen mode finally arrived in Lion. I’d like to think the noble cause of “allow folks to focus” was at the heart of this change, but I think it’s an acknowledgment that Apple is expecting to sell a crap-load more small screens than big screens, and on a smaller screen, a full screen mode is an efficient use of space.
For the mobile case, Full Screen mode in Lion has nice touches. When you invoke the mode (with a keystroke that apparently varies from app to app… grrrrrr), Lion creates a new Space filled with the full screen application. It’s locked and you can’t move the window until you unlock it. For the desktop case, I doubt I’ll ever use full screen and will continue to rely on Size-up for window management.
Distractions Damage Creativity
There are two kinds of distractions. There are the pleasant ones that are slightly related to the task at hand. These are creative diversions that you encourage because you know that letting your mind wander often results in discovering part of the idea that you never knew you needed. The second kind are the destructive ones. These vary from mental itches to full-on mental road blocks, and their impact varies from a loss of a train of thought to the complete destruction of an important idea.
I’m a toddler when it comes to destructive distractions. I am a full-on scream-at-the-top-of-my-lungs three-year-old when it comes to distractions that impair my ability to create. Mac OS X Lion is not without flaws in the quest to provide a natural and familiar mobile desktop. Launchpad is dead to me because I already use LaunchBar to deftly ignore the file system. I’m still wary of three-finger transitions, but they seem to be sticking.
These annoyances are minor given the vast improvement to the bevy of Mac OS X features that, for years, looked great, but didn’t map into how I think.