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)-
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.
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!)