Tech Life The Evoluton of N.A.D.D.

Messy Thinking

Having a full blown case of N.A.D.D., I know two things:

  • There is an infinite amount of information out there
  • I have a limited time to find it all

The consequence of these truths is simple. I’m in an incredible fucking hurry to learn as much as I possibly can.

My desktop is my primary window to all of this information which means I (and all N.A.D.D. sufferers) develop a unique relationship with our workspace. We develop what others may see as quirks, but, to us, the quirks represent pure information acquisition acceleration.

These interactions… these preferences… are developed over time; they are refined to support whatever variant of N.A.D.D. you might have (and there are many… another column). Some are created as a reaction to technology while others emerge from our very personality and each is unique.

Here’s the history of my N.A.D.D.

The Cold, Dark Years of DOS (Early 80s)

It’s hard to imagine a bleaker conduit to information than a DOS command line. How am I supposed to multi-task behind 64k memory, a 2400 (nay 300) baud modem, and a monochrome display? The only glimpse we had of N.A.D.D. were memory resident programs (TSRs, remember that?) . Think SideKick. Think XTree. Yeah, I was there… tinkering with the XTree color scheme to get it JUST RIGHT because green text with yellow borders is HOW IT SHOULD BE.

Mac, The Real Deal… 15 years early (Mid-80s)

I’ve already described my holy shit moment with the Mac, but it’s interested to reflect on it now given what I understand about N.A.D.D. The introduction to a graphical user interface is a seminal moment because I understood that this new desktop metaphor reflected my mental process… which is messy.


Yeah, most thinking is messy. Really messy. So are GUIs… they are imprecise and they are HELLO WINDOWS AND FOLDERS EVERYWHERE and I like that because it reflects the imprecise nature of our thinking. GUIs give us the ability to construct a visual structure for organizing our thoughts and each structure is different. By organizing your thoughts in a single, visible location, you encourage idea cross-pollination and that’s what our brains are good at… making new wholes greater than the sum their parts.

My first twelve minutes with the original Mac were life changing and, chances are, I could have saved myself a lot of productivity over the past two decades if I’d somehow weaseled my way into owning one, but they were amazingly expensive and the Dad could read the writing on the wall about the coming Microsoft monopoly, so we were a PC house. Weak.

“The Unix Moment” (Late 80s)

With Microsoft still spending a lot of time stumbling around in the dark and bumping into shit trying to figure Windows out, I had another formative moment in college which, like the Mac, I recognized, but stupidly, didn’t do anything about.

The University of California @ Santa Cruz gave you a Unix account when you showed up for your first computer science class. There were rumors in the hallways that this was “cool” because you could send “email”. Being a BBS dork, I got the concept, but did not understand the Internet implications thinking “Well, I guess I can email other UCSC accounts… OH YOU MEAN THE ENTIRE WORLD… oh.”

My first homework assignment involved compiling and submitting my first Pascal program via my Unix account and, armed with some basic Unix commands, I poked around a bit. “Who” revealed there were twenty other folks on this machine. I ask the guy next to me, “So, when the machine crashes, do we all have to re-login?” His response, “It doesn’t crash”. Well now.

Unix was a glimpse of extreme multi-tasking. A prerequisite of N.A.D.D. The problem was there wasn’t a messy GUI to provide a model for using it. Command-line multi-tasking just isn’t a turn on. Sure, you can do it, but you gotta work for it. If I’d stuck with Unix at this time, I would’ve probably turned into a tremendous Unix nerd with no appetite for UI asthetics… I would probably have also grown my hair long.

Windows Tries Really Really Hard (Early 90s)

My N.A.D.D. hit it’s stride with full time use of a GUI. In this case, during my Borland years, the GUI was Windows 3.x and Windows 95. Microsoft had finally created a semi-non-ugly version of Windows. Borland was in the midst of moving all our applications over to Windows so we could ride the wave that was becoming Windows 95.

I developed two significant N.A.D.D. interactions during this time that are still with me:

First, I developed a strong pro keyboard policy. This is partly due to the fact that I’d begun my stint as an engineer and I appreciated the precision of the keyboard. As I’ve said before, if you use a mouse, sometimes you just miss. Keyboards don’t miss… and if they do, just hit the BACKSPACE.

With every release of Windows, I’d comb over the document to determine what keyboard support was available. This ultimately resulted in the discovery the Alt-Tab command which allowed me to cycle through active applications with zero mouse interaction. As a N.A.D.D. sufferer, I can safely say that I’ve used that keyboard combination more than the spacebar.

Another keyboard convention I adopted was the Windows key which handily fired up the Windows 95 Start menu. From that menu, selecting the first key of any menu item would select it. This meant that for launch applications, I simply type WINDOWS-R(un)-. Avid mousers out there are staring at that and thinking, “Lotta work Rands”. I promise that in the time it takes you to leave your keyboard, grab your mouse, and successfully double-click that Excel icon that I’ve already fired up Excel and moved onto something else. Keyboard. Faster.

The second interaction that developed during this time was my predilection for maximizing all windows. Remember, thinking is messy and we like GUIs because they encourage this messiness, but I really can only focus on thing at a time. Please don’t tell my N.A.D.D. support group this… they’ll kick me out.

Yes, the 15″ monitors of the time looked big at the time, but they were small especially since we were suddenly ACTUALLY MULTI-TASKING. Combining my Alt-Tab aptitude with my maximize windows fetish, I refined my N.A.D.D. Folks would drop by my office and be dazzled by my keyboard mastery… never leaving the keyboard while surfing a pile of windows.

I also had a brief hint of blissful things to come during this time thanks to Borland’s C development environment. Little know fact, if you installed a Hercules video card in your PC, you could do something revolutionary (for PCs). On your primary monitor, you had the windows application that you’d be debugging. On your secondary Hercules monitor, you’d have your debugging information. Given present day technology, this is a serious yawn, but remember, we’re talking about the early 90s here. Macs remained spendy and it’d be another eight years before Microsoft landed dual-monitor support in Windows 2000.

I’ll say this now and I’ll explain it in a bit, “If you’ve ever experienced a dual-monitor set-up, you will never ever be happy with a single monitor again. Ever.”

Windows Gets It Right, Too Late, Rands Bails (Mid-to-Late 90s)

The Internet bubble was good to N.A.D.D. Money was free, so the technical superiority of your average desktop set-up improved. Big, faster, more. Suddenly, everyone had a 21″ monitor which meant more pixels. Microsoft finally landed dual monitor support and I couldn’t buy a second monitor fast enough. Sure, initial support was pretty sketchy, but who cares… I’m dazzling my co-workers by dragging a single window across two monitors.

The full time presence of dual monitors changed my maximize-everything N.A.D.D. interaction. While I tended to still keep my primary monitor maximized, my second monitor became more of a palette desktop… a careful organized set of always running applications that I tended to constantly refer to. Think instant messaging, music, calendar… The adjustment here was that now that I had more screen real estate, I realized that moving my eyeballs was faster than all that alt-tabbing. That means more information with less work. mMmmm… NAAAAAAADDDDDDD.

The Big Switch (Early 00s)

I’ve already documented my switch to Mac OS X back in 2002. The article points out many of my issues with Mac OS X, but, in terms of N.A.D.D., they can be summarized thusly:

First issue: Mac OS X’s design for heavy reliance on the mouse. This frustrates my N.A.D.D.. A mouse is swell, a mouse gives you precision, but it does not give you speed.

Second issue: Window management. The concept of “maximize a window” appears to vary based on application. Maximizing to fill an entire monitor isn’t a no-no, it just doesn’t do anything useful except make the window bigger… kind’f.

I solved both issues incrementally. For mouse and application launch issues, LiteSwitchX gave me my task switching while LaunchBar gave me speedy access to applications for both launch and selecting. Since Jaguar, Mac OS X has taken a stronger keyboard stance by adopting Alt-Tab as Apple-Tab in Panther. With Tiger, Spotlight appears to be landing an integrated means of finding/launching applications.

Unfortunately, my maximized_windows_everywhere tendancy has just not translated Mac OS X, but, two years later, I think I’ve accepted the transition. Allow me to explain visually. Brace yourself for a big segue.

a very large flat panel

Folks, that’s 30 inches of flat panel. You’ve got a strong opinion about this beast, but let’s forget the hugeness for a second and remember a simple, important fact:

Thinking is messy.

You don’t want to admit this because you’ve been carefully orchestrating yourself out of the chaos by constructing your personal version of N.A.D.D. These interactions with your desktop, your content, your thoughts exist because information is messy, too. It’s all a big mess and our job as consumers of an infinite amount of information is to find a system of organization which best suits our interests and our attention spans.

The comment I’ve heard most about this new 30 inch flat panel is, “Who in the world needs it?” You do. Right now. So do I. 60 inches would better, but 30 inches is all we got.

Yes, I can’t afford it. Neither can you because we’re not working at Pixar or PDI where they’ve got a present day politically correct justification for all those pixels, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it. It just means we haven’t successfully convinced the bill payers that more pixels means more productivity.

I know, I know, it sounds like an engineering boondoggle. MORE MONITORS MEANS MORE FEATURES AND LESS BUGS. Right and I’M REALLY WORKING AT HOME. Of course our managers are going to be suspect and they’re going to ask for proof positive about why a tremendous monitor is going to improve our productivity and I don’t have said proof, but I do have an opinion.

My maximize-every-window tendency was a reaction to technological limitation, namely, monitors are too damned small. Mac OS X’s lack of aggressive window maximization forced me to start using my desktop as a organization mechanism. I resisted it for about three months, but, invariably, my desktop became populated with the usual collection of folders, half-thought-out documents, fire wire drives, and stickies.

My desktop became a two dimensional, colorful snapshot of my life and that’s the point… my desktop became a living, breathing reflection of how I think. If the sky is falling in my life, my desktop is a disaster. If life is proceeding as expected, my desktop is clean and predictable.

Your desktop is structured clutter and so is your brain. Sitting in this clutter is everything that you’re up to. It’s your budget, your journal, your to do list, your status reports and that half written flame-o-gram that you’re never going to send, but you constantly revise. These thoughts sitting in close visual proximity to each other allow them to cross-pollinate… to borrow from each other or to merge into something you were not expecting. Sure, it’s not the desktop doing this, it’s your brain… but the desktop is the essential tool which gives you this clutter abstraction process.

Look at your desktop right now. Now, I want you sit back in your chair, fold your arms behind your head, and imagine four of those desktops forming a square as your workspace… get past the slack jawed amazement about the sea of pixels and think about how’d you work in this space.

That’s right. As your desktop size increases, as the borders become wider and taller… they vanish. You now realize that, yes, you’ve been staring at a world of information through a tiny 17″ window for the past decade… who knows what you’ve missed with this myopic vision. No wonder you’re writing that flame-o-gram… I’d be pissed, too.

30 inches is big. It’s huge. Don’t let your size envy prevent you from seeing the evolution it represents for your desktop. It’s a step out of mediocrity into greatness because one of your favorite tools, your desktop, is doing exactly what it should… it’s getting the hell out of your way and allowing you to move faster and learn more as you stumble through your messy life.

That’s the pitch for your manager. It’s a soft pitch and they probably won’t get it, so send them this article to them and tell them this, “Genius is defined by the ability to make connections between dissimilar subjects and, boy oh boy, can I get a bunch of dissimilar subjects on screen with 4 million pixels.” Good luck and get one for me while you’re at it.

I warned you. It was a big segue. Now, what was I saying? Oh yeah.

Your N.A.D.D. is different than mine. You never had a chance to live on Mac OS X… or maybe you’ve never used a dual monitor set-up. Doesn’t matter. You’ve got your quirks well defined and, boy, LOOK AT YOU FLY WITH THAT TRACKBALL. The one constant we share as N.A.D.D. sufferers is the ability to evolve because, by definition, NADD keeps you relevant. We want to know it all… and we want to know it all right now. (And 30 inch flat panel can help!)

25 Responses

  1. Rands is Right (The N.A.D.D. Justification)

    Oooooh, Rands has a great justification for getting that 30″ monstrosity from Apple. N.A.D.D.!

  2. Hate to be a tweak, especially at the end of a good post like this one, but Mac OS X has always had command-Tab action – it animated active application icons in the Dock rather than popping up a floating screen, but the purpose and result were the same, even if the graphic representation makes more sense now.

  3. suddenly I found myself visualizing a monitor that actually stretches like a net between the two front posts of my desk (about 36″ wide)….

  4. We’re gonna need viable non-flat display technologies soon. You can only have a flat monitor so large before the edges of the screen are twice as far from your face as the middle.

    Somebody figure out how to manufacture concave 48″ LCD monitors. Like, now. Go. Get started.

    I’ll wait here.

    Traditionally, I’ve been a maximized-everything type, but recently I’ve strayed from that. I don’t have a second monitor right now, turns out monitors cost money? I keep Opera and its many delicious tabs open in the lower left, and fill the gaps with shiney things, Winamp vis, DUmeter, space for RSS notifications, tiny consoles, contact list, a narrow glimpse of TorrentStorm, exposed bits of file browsers for dropping stuff onto. By the time I get the urge to go back to fullscreening everything, which will come eventually, I’ll probably be able to just get a bigger monitor instead.

    p.s. i luv u rands

  5. I can’t wait until augmented reality glasses become affordable and don’t make me look like a dork. The world will be my desktop.

  6. Yes, yes, yes. I’ve wanted a 30 inch display for exactly the reason you cite, ever since they first came out with that 22″ one.

    You mention a lot about speed, especially in re: mice, trackball, keying, etc. Has it ever occurred to you that possibly maximum speed isn’t the best? If I’m roaring along, and suddenly I have to wait for an app to launch, I’m gonna feel derailed. Wouldn’t it be better if I were only going at a medium pace to begin with?

    I actually prefer text entry with a little bit of typeahead, maybe, but with a perceptible lag – maybe 0.1 sec or so – between the keypress and the appearance of the glyph. I’ve done all kinds of things to acquire this in the past, including using emacs over a 19.2k modem when there were local text editors and a 10bT connection available. I’ve also had friends code up little emacs doohickeys that implemented this slight delay. I find that, not only do I commit fewer typing errors, but I tend to be a little bit more measured and careful about what I’m saying, too.

    Your comment about the workspace reflecting the organization of the thoughtspace got me to thinking about this. My computer’s faster than my brain – I’d rather have them in better sync than try to speed the brain up to silicon velocities.

  7. Sorry to pick nits, but:

    >Since Jaguar, Mac OS X has taken a stronger keyboard

    >stance by adopting Alt-Tab as Apple-Tab in Panther.

    You’ve been able to Command-Tab between applications since Mac OS 8.5.

  8. quote: I would’ve probably turned into a tremendous Unix nerd with no appetite for UI ascetics

    should that be asthetics?

    as a unix nerd, i consider myself a ui ascetic.

    that was until i installed windows yesterday. its kinda nifty, but why must windows raise on focus? why cant i make focus follow mouse? and where is my multiple workspaces that are just an Alt-2 away?

  9. I’ve found that the resolution it took for me to lose my window-maximization fetish was a measly 1280×1024. I agree with anescient up there; well past 1600×1200, we’re going to start needing concave screens.

    To Josh: there are options in Windows to change the way window focus works. They’re well-hidden, though, since most Windows users aren’t familiar with X-style focusing. The TweakUI Windows XP PowerTool from Microsoft lets you change this and many other little UI settings with a minimum of bullshit. You can get it here:

  10. For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to just be able to throw on some glasses and superimpose my ‘desktop’ on every flat surface available. Sure, you’ve got to turn your head to look at the wall full of xterms next to you, but geez. Unlimited desktop space. Hurrrrf.

  11. Given your N.A.D.D.-iness, you’re probably already aware of this, but just in case : In OSX (10.3 works, not sure about earlier versions), Ctrl-F1 turns on full keyboard access. Ctrl-F2 then highlights the menu bar, Ctrl-F3 the dock. Ctrl-F7 highlights dialog box items so you don’t have to head to the mouse to click “Don’t Save”. There are other commands as well – check the built-in help for ‘Full Keyboard Access’.

    It’s a shame the feature isn’t better implemented (chording between ctrl and the fn keys isn’t something I enjoy doing often) but it saves me a few minutes’ mousing a day.

  12. James 12 years ago

    The one problem I have with Apple displays is they don’t have enough pixels. Yes, this includes the 30″ display, and no, I’m not joking. Why does Apple have to be stuck in 72dpi land? 72dpi went out with the ImageWriter. Even Windows has decent-ish large font support, but Apple removed it from NeXTstep when they turned it into OS X. WTF? The 17″ Powerbook has about the same number of pixels as I can get on a 12″ tablet PC. As you say, it’s all about the pixels, not just the inches, and Apple just proves that it’s not the size, it’s what you do with it.

  13. Jadrian: Yeah, i’ve tried power tools, and i get multiple desktops — BUT to change desktop I need to go to the task bar and click on an icon, then select which desktop im going to. Thats far too much mousework. Is there anyway of keyboard shortcutting changing desktops ?


  14. Josh: if you right-click on the desktop switcher bar itself, you’ll see a “configure shortcut keys” option. I use win+alt+[C/V/B/N] for mine, but you can choose whatever you want.

  15. My name is Jared, and I have N.A.D.D.

    It never had a name before, but I knew something was there. I stand of the eve of my Switch, as my new 15″ Powerbook will be arriving at my house any day now, and the very thought of attaching another monitor to it makes me quiver with joy. I’ve never personally used a dual monitor set up, but I really look forward to it. I got a chance to see one of the new Apple 23″HD displays in person, and my first reaction was, “How the hell would I use up all this desktop?!” Now I understand, and now I know it would be no small feat to use all those pixels.

  16. Interesting read. I suffer from the same thing. Mabye I can get a quack to prescribe that 30″ display to cure my symptoms.

    Oh, and you do realize “Nad” is a slang term for a testicle right? So when you say, “This frustrates my N.A.D.D….” :O

  17. I am an avid advocate of dual monitor set ups. I had a laptop for a year or so and a monitor to go with it. At that time I was only hitting the tip of the iceberd by just throwing Photoshop palettes to the other window.

    These days *everything* goes to between the the two monitors. Heck, even my desktop mess of icons spills onto both screens!

    And I really am an advocated – serious – I own *four* monitors, and have convinced all over my 5 room mates to get dualies too. I could never, ever even consider going back to a single display again. Ever.

  18. Hey rands, quit with the NADDing and send me that Jerkcity book you promised (for winning your original NADD desktop contest or something).


  19. I’ve found that Desktop Manager is very helpful for my own organizational spasticness. It allows me to group windows in nice ways that make Expose more powerful. I still haven’t decided on LaunchBar vs. QuickSilver though…

  20. I have a scorching case of N.A.D.D. and only had a name for it after reading articles here. And, how do I know for sure? This article clinches it, because I have an unending hunger for SCREEN REAL ESTATE.

    I have a triple-monitor system on my G4, on the left is a lovely Sony 21″ CRT screen (for nostalgia), front and center is a secondhand Apple 23″ cinema display I had to epoxy back together after buying as a floor model from my local Apple store, and on the right is a cute little 15″ viewSonic LCD pivot panel that a client gave to me for rescuing his windows box.

    And what’s sicker than that– I want MORE! I used to think this was sad somehow, but now I have a bulletproof rationalization and a reason to be proud of my ridiculously large desktop.

  21. Of course on unix boxen you can just set up masses of virtual pages using Alt- to move to the page in that direction and Alt-Shift- to move to the window in that direction. It’s the perfect NADD setup.

  22. dekkers 11 years ago

    dude, XTree rocks – as does Norton Commander. I still use Midnight Commander on Linux.

  23. I stillllll need one too.

  24. Joshua 10 years ago

    Have you ever taken a Myers-Briggs personality test? You sound like you might be an INTP.

  25. I feel exonerated! I thought there was something wrong with me for not reading through an entire blogpost before switching to something else that clicked in my mind, then switching back to the blog, then tuning out again and chatting with 5 people before going for lunch – with 11 blogs and 3 news items still half-read. Now I think I WILL buy that *huge* monitor I was dreaming of 🙂