I’ve been ripping on the mouse for years.
The argument is one of precision. The mouse, while incredibly useful as a casual means of interacting with a computer, is not a productivity tool, because when you use a mouse you sometimes miss and missing isn’t productive.
WAIT WHOA RANDS. PHOTOSHOP MAN. PHOTOSHOP LOVES THE MOUSE.
Calm down, yes, when it comes to art, to replicating the natural brushstroke, there is nothing better than the mouse (except a Wacom tablet), but do this for me. Go find the Photoshop guru on your floor and watch him or her work. Yes, the mouse is in play, but did you have any idea how much manipulation he did via the keyboard? Want to know why? Because anyone who has a deep, meaningful relationship with a computer is constantly looking for a way to save a few seconds.
The Learning Contradiction
Most of the time when you’re sitting at your computer, you’re doing exactly the same things. Your brain protects you from this mundane observation because your brain is really good at repetition. This is both a blessing and a curse. I’ll explain via an example.
Application switching inside of an operating system is the foundation of NADD. The ability to quickly context switch between apps is so common a task that they’ve developed a keyboard command just for us. In Windows, it’s Alt-Tab, and in Mac OS X, it’s Cmd-Tab. Problem was, when I made the move from Windows to Mac OS X, there was no Cmd-Tab equivalent, so my first moment inside of Mac OS X felt like this…
- “WTF with maximizing windows?”
- “Shit, how do I switch apps?” CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK
The pathway I’d learned to do a simple, essential task was blocked. A task I’d taken for granted was now a mental hangnail, which threw off all my timing.
A quick search of the Internet revealed a fine shareware replacement for application switching. After the install of the new system preference, the hangnail vanished. I didn’t think about app switching again. Was my new solution faster? I don’t know. All I know is I’d unblocked the path to do what I needed to do so that I could forget it was there.
The blessing of learning a thing is also a curse. By learning to do a thing, you also forget it’s there, which means as new, improved means of doing things show up, you remain blissfully ignorant. I’m a fan of this ignorance because I’ve got other crap I need to do, and I don’t want to sweat the details, but here’s the rub: the details might be wasting a huge amount of your time.
Let’s try a test. From this article, I want you to count the number of discrete steps it takes you to compose a new mail message. Each key or key combination you click is 1 point. A mouse drag is one point. A mouse click is another point.
There are two types of people. The ones who waited for me to say Go to compose a new mail and the ones who read “compose a new mail message” and pressed the three keys that are necessary, from anywhere in the OS, to fire up a new compose window.
Anything more than three points to compose a new mail is a massive waste of your time.
“Rands, you are a nerd. I am not. I enjoy the slow gracefulness by which the mouse glides over to my dock and I select the mail application, after which I select the File menu, followed by New Message. Aaaaaaaah.”
All I’m reading is 5 points. All I’m thinking about is the 37 mails you send each day multiplied by 5 points = 185. Let’s multiply that by 30 days in a month, which is 5550 points. Finally, let’s multiply that by the number of other micro-tasks you’re doing where you’re doubling the amount of necessary effort. Ok, I can’t even do the math; I’ve got the productivity shakes here.
Ok, deep breath. Whooooooooooo.
You’re likely not in as a big a hurry as I, that’s fine. You may have an extremely casual, informal relationship with your computer and that’s cool, too. Perhaps this article is not for you, but my question is this: do you want to spend your time heading towards doing stuff, or doing stuff?
This article is for the folks who, when they discover a simpler way to get something done, a shortcut, they get a rush because they know simplicity is elegant and efficiency is a turn-on. The target audience for this article is people who, when presented with some else’s desktop, can’t help but stare and size it up. Their question is, “What is this person doing that will make my world move faster?”
How many fingers are sitting on the keyboard right now? Go type something. Looks like I’ve got all ten in play, but as I watch myself type, I’m really only using six or so. Yes, my form is crap, but I’m still hitting 90 words a minute on most typing tests.
Would you rather have ten smart fingers or one big, dumb thumb? Ten fingers, of course. Then why in the world are you holding onto that mouse right now?
The first thing we need to do is get you to understand the degree of your mouse addiction, so I’m going to ask you to unplug your mouse. It’s important to leave the mouse in the same familiar spot on your desk, but it must be unplugged.
Ok, now go work for 10 minutes. No cheating.
At some point during these 10 minutes, you’re going to forget the mouse isn’t connected to your computer and you’re going to grab it and the pointer is not going to move. You’re going to think, “Huh?”
Good. Jot yourself a note about what you were doing:
- Switching to Mail
- Selecting Format Menu
- Selecting a paragraph of text
Each of these represents a second or two you can save. Each task that you jotted is a task where some maniacal productivity nerd has already stared at and figured out a way to make it faster. This leads to the second part of your exercise.
For each note on your list, I want you to discover a non-mouse-based equivalent. Start with the local help system. Better yet, let someone else do the work for you and search Google for “Must have keyboard shortcuts for YOUR FAVORITE APP”.
You might not find a shortcut for every task, and even if you do there’s no telling whether that particular shortcut is going to stick in your head, but my guess is… one will stick. It will stick because its value to you will become instantly apparent. I made fun of the Windows Start key for months until the key showed up on my keyboard and I realized it was the simple starting point for EVERYTHING I DID ON MY PC. I’m on a Mac now, but I can still close my eyes and imagine firing up Word: START-RUN-“Word”-Return. Four points… meh. I can do better.
The point of this exercise is awareness. Once you’ve found one or two shortcuts that shave a micro-second here and there, you’ll become more aware of other places where you’re repeating yourself. You’ll start looking for time-saving shortcuts elsewhere because there is bliss in saving time.
Practice Productivity Minimalism
Like your desktop, you’re going to construct your own version of productivity nerdery. Still, here are some of my favorite moves and observations.
As much as possible, I keep my system of shortcuts as simple as possible. My ideal is that I should be able to sit down at any vanilla Mac OS X system and fly. The primary reason has to do with my personality. I’m a nerd and I know that without constraints I’d tweak my productivity system endlessly. I’ll explain.
I recently pinged the Twittersphere regarding how many folks actively maintain their Address Books. As expected, the graph of the responses formed a pleasant bell curve with most folks responding with a healthy “I maintain it as I need it”.
Then there’s the guy who sent me the 700-word email describing, in detail, the precise process he uses to maintain his Address Book. This mail included AppleScripts and shell scripts. I read the whole mail. I ran the scripts, too, because I can appreciate the obsessive nerd personality.
I’m that guy.
I’m the guy who will spend the entire goddamned weekend reorganizing my tagging system because I didn’t like the tone or the tense of my previous tagging system.
Paying attention to productivity is a slippery slope. The system efficiency addiction associated with saving time can become so compelling that your process begins to control more of your time than your product.
Only Essential Additional Tools
Given my minimalist approach, I keep my list of required productivity apps short. In additional to the feverish use of Cmd-Tab for application switching, I also use LaunchBar.
This is the cornerstone of my interaction with the operating system. This is a utility that allows access to just about anything in your hardware and on the Internet via a simple Cmd-Space-application/URL/whatever. Your question is, “Does LaunchBar do my_favorite_task?” And the answer is, “Yes, it does. And if it doesn’t do it out of the box, it’s probably a five-minute configuration exercise to make it happen.” In the past ten minutes, I’ve used LaunchBar to: make a TinyURL for Twitter, search for the LaunchBar website, look up John Adams on Wikipedia, and fire up a half-dozen applications. My favorite game to play with LaunchBar is: “I wonder if…?” where I just start typing “I wonder if…it looks up maps”.
Yeah, it does.
Many folks prefer Quicksilver to LaunchBar and want to argue endlessly about the pros and cons of each. Realize this debate has nothing to do with the strengths of the respective tools, but is merely a manifestation of the zealotry of the nerd personality when it comes to defining, defending, and fretting about the inessential details of their favorite tools.
There are a bevy of other tools you can obsess over. TextExpander is popular with heavy email users in my crowd. There’s also a healthy sprinkling of AppleScript on most of my friends’ desktops. Everyone has his or her own system for productivity, which leads me to my last thought.
We’re All Wasting Seconds
This is the presentation I want to see at the next conference: in a room full of people, anyone is welcome to walk up to the mic and plug their laptop in to the projector. They’ll be asked to complete three simple tasks:
- Send a mail to a friend
- Find something on the Internet
- Save a bookmark or an image.
I would be fixated.
After the presenter was done with the tasks, we’d be able to pepper them with questions: “You did that too fast, what were you doing?” or “What haxie are you using on your dock?” or “I smell AppleScript… what the hell was that AppleScript?”
If each speaker had five minutes, in an hour we’d have 12 different speakers doing the same tasks completely differently, and I promise you’d find a small fix that you’d forget immediately that would forever have added a few seconds to your life.