Breaking habits

I like to make a habit of breaking habits, and my distraction-free desktop has turned into a great example of that. For years I've been subconsciously annoyed by desktop clutter, never realizing that the whole time it was just a bad habit -- and one that's surprisingly easy to break. The Mac-based technique shown in that screencast -- hide desktop icons as well as windows when not needed -- has really simplified things for me, and I'm definitely sticking with it for now.

Over on my Windows box, it's even easier to achieve the same effect. You can toggle desktop icons on and off by right-clicking the desktop and then doing Arrange Icons By -> Show Desktop Icons. For how many years have I used Windows without ever discovering that fact? It's scary.

I haven't yet found a native or add-on hotkey to make the Windows icon toggler as quick and easy as DesktopSweeper's Apple-Enter on the Mac. If you know of one, clue me in and I'll pass it along. But meanwhile, the menu-driven approach works well enough. With icons and the taskbar hidden, I'm writing these words in emacs against a featureless grey background. Alt-Tab brings up Firefox as needed.

Here's more scariness. Earlier I needed to bring up Windows Paint to capture and edit a screenshot. As much of a command-line geek as I can be, my first instinct was to reveal the desktop icons, hunt for Paint, and launch it. But in the spirit of breaking habits, instead I revealed the taskbar and did Start -> Run -> pbrush. Crazy, huh? Most people use four or five apps on a regular basis. It's a manageable namespace that fits neatly into the cognitive window of five to seven things. Instead, we've learned to pick that handful of items from a desktop cluttered with dozens of things.

There's an imperfection in DesktopSweeper, by the way, that turns out to suggest a powerful new feature. It hides icons less completely than the Windows hider does. If you touch the part of the Mac screen where a hidden icon lives, it'll show up, which is disconcerting. But it's also the case that if you download a file to the desktop it'll be visible, and that's potentially quite useful. It suggests the possibility that showing icons needn't be an all-or-none affair, and that rules about recency or frequency of use could govern what to show or hide. It further suggests that the Mac's opacity feature -- much lauded but rarely exploited well -- could indicate a spectrum of recency or frequency.

This last idea occurred to me after I added Spirited Away to my Mac setup on the recommendation of Adnan Wasim. "It runs in the background, and hides all non active windows after a predefined amount of inactivity time," Adnan says. A very cool idea, and it works well. But for me the anti-clutter benefit is offset by the distraction cost of having windows wink out of existence at seemingly random times. What if, instead, they just gradually went transparent? The effect would be a bit like Sam Ruby's Fade to white hack, which -- in an effort to wean people away from an obsolete RSS feed -- used a date-based algorithm to gradually turn the text from readable black to invisible white. Dunno how that'd work in practice, but it would be interesting to see.

Several folks wrote to discuss the ways in which hiding distraction and managing clutter are interrelated. On Unix/Linux but not Mac or Windows, multiple workspaces -- each with a set of applications -- afford a powerful way to manage clutter. And of course there are add-ons. Lee Grey's WinZen, for example, is an add-on clutter manager for Windows. His notion is that when you're actually using several windows at once, the process of arranging them as needed -- by dragging and resizing -- is radically inefficient. WinZen is a layout manager makes it quick and easy to achieve a variety of task-optimal tilings.

I guess all this fits into the category of what our parents or grandparents used to call Hints from Heloise, and what we now call lifehacks. It's a bottomless well because there are infinitely many ways for us to interfere with our own productivity, and infinitely many ways to short-circuit that interference. Yesterday, for example, I heard a radio interview with Judy Collins in which she was asked about her work habits. One of her lifehacks is to avoid the "noise of the world" -- radio, TV, newspaper, Internet -- during her early-morning creative time. The hack? She moved her coffemaker into the bathroom so she wouldn't have to leave her bedroom first thing in the morning and face all those distractions.

Here's one final hack for the day. A couple of folks asked how I made that screencast which, unusually, captures an entire Mac desktop. I started with my regular tool, Snapz Pro X, but that quickly bogged down. It saves files very slowly, and with the whole desktop in view things were taking forever.

So I connected my Mac's S-Video port to the S-Video port on my Panasonic PV-GS400, and recorded to tape. It was quite amusing: I set the camera to tape playback, told the Mac to detect displays, and suddenly the Mac desktop was on the camcorder's little screen. For future reference -- mine as much as anyone else's -- the secret trick for recording in tape playback mode is to press the Record and BackLight buttons together.

This was advantageous in two ways. First, I could quickly and easily gather as much raw material as I wanted. Second, the 720x480 format was exactly what iMovie likes to edit, and when I'm laying down audio narration on top of screen video I'd rather do it in iMovie than in Camtasia.

But can you cram a whole Mac desktop into 720x480? Well enough, as it turned out, once I downsized the desktop icons and labels, and downsized the fonts in all the apps. Detail wasn't critical in this case, it was the gestalt of the desktop that mattered. But I'm pretty sure that for a screencast that focuses on an individual application window, 720x480 coupled with small fonts will make this approach quite workable.

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