Distraction-Free Computing – No Apps Required

fpic.jpgWith the proliferation of apps, we often forget that software isn’t required to make us more productive. Or perhaps it’s not that we forget but rather that it is more convenient to look to software as a crutch for not being productive, “If only I had the perfect to-do app, I wouldn’t keep falling behind.” This perspective does not undermine the value of a well-crafted piece of software, an app that helps us get things done, but it does reflect a WALL•E world (not Walley World), where man’s reliance on technology is synonymous with his survival.

Before I start waxing too philosophical, the point is that technology, and more specifically apps and software, aren’t always the solution. Sometimes the solution is simply you and your ability to exercise restraint, whether it be not installing that next app or resisting the urge to blame being unproductive on the lack of a perfect system.

As part of writing my first book, I often struggled with this app-centric mentality. In particular, I continually was on the hunt for better writing tools and apps that could help me be “distraction-free.” While I appreciate apps like Freedom, Think, and a number of similar tools, I’ve found the best way to keep focused and productive is to not move from a distraction to a distraction-free computing environment but instead to always be in the latter state. Here’s how I’ve accomplished that and it doesn’t require any apps (although this particular setup does take advantage of some Mac-specific features):

  1. Use a Minimal, Dark Wallpaper on Your Desktop The desktop wallpaper is in your face all day. It’s one of the few elements that takes up the entire screen and depending on the size of your monitor, will likely be showing no matter what app you are using. It provides the foundation for a distraction-free environment, so don’t see it as a means to express yourself. Instead, choose a wallpaper with little to no pattern that is also dark, so that it will always frame the app you have opened.

Desktop

My desktop at any given point in the day; here is a screenshot of what it looked like while writing this post.

  1. Store Nothing on Your Desktop One of the worst habits people have is keeping an extremely messy desktop. It’s no wonder many feel overwhelmed as they work, with various projects, downloads, personal, and professional icons scattered across their screen. Just as with a physical desk, a cluttered computer desktop will keep you feeling stressed and unfocused.

Once you organize and clean your desktop, only allow items on it that are currently being used for an active task (e.g., I have one screenshot on my desktop that I will use for this post). After that task is completed, either delete those items (my favorite!) or file them accordingly.

  1. Keep Only Currently Used Apps in Your Dock There’s absolutely no reason to have any apps in your Dock that aren’t currently being used. That’s especially true with awesome launcher tools like Alfred, which require nothing but the keyboard to open an app (versus using a mouse to click and open them from the Dock…how antiquated!). You’ll also want to be proactive about closing apps as you finish with them (e.g., close the Dictionary app after you look up a word).

The Dock

At the end of every day, I also close every single application. This allows me to tackle my most important task first thing in the morning, without being concerned with whatever I was working on the day before.

  1. Remove Alerts and Notifications Mail Last ScreenWhy can’t you get anything done? Well, look no further than the constant flow of alerts and notifications you get flooded with, day in and day out. Remove all of these intruders and especially email alerts. Close your IM client or simply get rid of instant messaging all together.

I also recommend doing something similar with you mobile device(s). For iOS and Mac users, get Boxcar and run all of your notifications through it, so that you easily toggle all notifications on or off. More drastically, turn email off completely on your mobile device (it’s usually a simple toggle) or move your email icon to a different screen, so that it doesn’t tempt you.

  1. Stay Organized with Spaces I find that many Mac users don’t use Spaces. Spaces are an easy way to stay organized, especially when you assign applications to specific Spaces. For example, I use six Spaces and have assigned Firefox to Space 1 (all web browsing), Mailplane, Google Calendar, and Wunderlist to Space 4 (all task management), and Finder to Every Space. Whenever I open any of these apps, even if I am in another Space, they will open in their assigned Space. This approach not only allows me to keep related activities in the same area, it also reduces the amount of time cycling through my open apps because I know where the most used ones are located.

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Concluding Note

These options may ultimately not be what works best for you but they’ve greatly improved my creativity and focus over the last year. My hope that is whether or not you use these specific approaches, you’ll be encouraged to not always look to software to solve your productivity problems.