Empty desktop with a background image of a star cluster

Clearing my desk: On using screens intentionally

What follows are some notes about how I use screens, which I am bothering to write because I increasingly notice how my habits diverge from those of people around me. I have not bothered to validate the effectiveness of these practices in any statistical or otherwise scientific way. But people do frequently ask about my productivity habits, and, with an n of 1, these notes are part of the answer. Perhaps they will be helpful for you.

The underlying idea for me is that I like to keep a clear desk. In my office, for instance, I keep the desk where I meet with students empty, except for a few intentional symbolic objects on the side. I do this to express to students that they have my complete attention—and to help me give that attention. During the meeting, we might put things on the desk as we discuss them. But at the end, I make sure those things are gone so the desk is clear for the next student.

The clear desk is also how I approach screens. I try to set up digital spaces in ways that encourage focus. I am still somewhat distractable, but within a range I am willing to tolerate. The more I hear from others about their digital lives, or see from glancing over shoulders at their screens, the odder these practices seem.

Keep the desktop empty. Just like their physical counterparts, computer desktops are useful places to put things. But they are not for storage, they are for active work. I use my desktop a lot to keep files, but only during a given work session. At the end of the session, all those files need to be deleted or put somewhere else. To help me do this, I use beautiful desktop backgrounds from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day; the pleasure of seeing unobstructed images of the cosmos is more than enough motivation for me to clear out pesky icons. On my phone, I keep only my most often-used apps on the home screen.

One screen, one task per workspace. I do use an external monitor for work (laptop screens are hard on posture), but I try to get the smallest one on the market. No multiple-monitor setups. But I do have multiple virtual workspaces that are easy to switch between. On each workspace, only one task is allowed. This might mean multiple windows—say, a paper draft and an outline—but they are neatly organized using a tiling window manager. No windows piled on top of each other. Each window opens in full screen, or close to it, by default. If I want to change tasks, I have to change workspaces.

Big text. Compared to what I see on most other people’s screens, I use pretty big text—several points larger than the default on everything. Big text is easier when you have only one thing on a given screen. It also reduces the amount of potentially distracting stuff that can fit on the screen. And bigger text means you don’t have to lean into the screen as much, which is good for posture. I have lots of opinions about fonts and choose them carefully. But that’s another post, and my choices change every few years. Size stays consistent.

Minimal notifications. When watching other scholars’ slideshows, it is pretty shocking to see how many notifications it has become normal to let in. I always turn off all notifications on desktop, especially super distracting ones like email. On mobile I allow text message notifications but that’s about it. Especially for communication channels and social media, I want to have to consciously decide to see them, not have them pushed at me. For random apps that might have important messages, I have them send notifications to email and find them there.

Remove the dock. I’ve never understood docks (like the one found on MacOS). A dock takes up a bunch of screen space with distracting corporate icons, reminding you of all the other apps you could be using, and everything it does can be done another way. Learn your keyboard shortcuts.

Tab zero. Modern browsers have become at keeping vast collections of tabs open. But that doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. I might open as many as a dozen tabs in a session, sometimes in two side-by-side windows. I also use Firefox Containers to isolate tab cookies for different platforms. But at the end of a session, I shut down all the windows and all the tabs. I don’t restore unless there was a crash. If something is important, you can find it again from the history by typing keywords from the title in the search bar. I also use a plugin to clear the history that is more than six months old, because who cares.

Inbox zero. I too have read all the things about how you shouldn’t pressure yourself to be Inbox Zero. But I can’t imagine the stress of an inbox with thousands of messages, or whatever everyone does these days. This isn’t to say zero always means zero; I usually end an email session with between zero and ten messages in my inbox. I quickly delete or archive what isn’t important before looking at it, and I take the time to unsubscribe, because it is worth it. For any important email, I try to either reply quickly or shift it to my to-do list—a simple text file ranked in order of urgency—or my calendar. I should be better at this, but I try to close my email client (Thunderbird) when I am doing anything other than email.

Shut everything down after a session. When I am done with my computer, I close down the programs, or only keep open some bare basics like my to-do list. That way, when I start up again, I can open only what I need for that task.

Use open-source, noncommercial tools wherever possible. I don’t like my desk cluttered with corporate logos. That is a personal preference. But open and noncommercial tools also tend to be less distracting, since they’re less likely trying to sell you something. I also enjoy seeking out community-centered alternatives. My favorite operating system lately is Pop!_OS, made by my local computer manufacturer System76. On mobile I use e/OS, which runs Android apps but doesn’t spy on you.

Don’t bring a phone to bed. Like most people, I am super susceptible to distraction by phone. I used to lose a lot of sleep from noticing a triggering email or text while trying to doze off. So at night, now, I keep my phone in a separate room, charging for the next day. By my bed I keep an old tablet, which has apps only for reading and note-taking, plus a browser not linked to the other devices. No email, no social media, no calendars. The BlitzMail app is an easy way to send a quick note-to-self for tomorrow.

I don’t know if any of this is of use, but these habits have been really helpful for me. I hope they provide at least a bit of amusement, or perhaps some horror.