Hey, it’s 2020 now! Cue things about resolutions and intentions and bettering selves. This year I intend to drive for more clarity and intentionality with what I put out to the world and how I spend my time doing it.
At work, most of us try to optimize how we spend our working time using a tool called Clockwise. It enables you to set preferences for how & when you like to work, automatically scans everyone’s calendars for meetings, and automatically reschedules those meetings to give each participant as much “focus time” based on their own preferences. On the surface, it’s wonderful for creating meeting block periods without having to think about arranging my day, and some of my colleagues thrive in long periods of deep focus.
But I barely use the focus time as Clockwise probably intends. Being at home, even in a relatively bare spare room / office space, I’m constantly distracted by my personal life: my wife, our things, my new puppy, my Nintendo Switch, my Apple Music library, Wikipedia, trees, cars driving by, a lightning strike of an idea, snacks.
For a while this frustrated me. I had thought working from home was the ultimate path to deep focus and productivity: no commute, no distractions by coworkers, no proverbial watercooler to seek out gossip (though I do enjoy my kitchen), no weird internal IT rules that prevent me from running my work computer the way I want. But I still find myself distracted, often by my own bullshit, which results in a very fits-and-starts style of work through much of the workday. Twenty minutes of deeply focused writing or backlog admin might be suddenly interrupted by my own desire to update my near-perfect playlist to cook to. Alicia might suddenly be having an awful symptom flare-up and I now suddenly need to make lunch and find her medication. Having a puppy isn’t quite like having children, but it’s certainly tested my ability to context switch on a dime to avoid pee stains all over the house.
I’ve very recently learned to accept this reality of working. It’s okay to get distracted by life. It’s okay to feel a little bored trying to improve how teams design products after hammering away at a product requirements document for a bit. It’s okay to stop and cuddle with my wife or a dog because that provides me so much more joy and fulfillment than how much time I can put into staring at a laptop screen.
I can still be quite intentional even if I’m bouncing between the many things in my life in fits & starts. An optimally-placed three hour block of time to write a song or a strategy document won’t solve for me being clear in what I’m looking to do and why; I can be comfortable working ten minutes here, ten minutes there, as long as I know why I’m doing it.
I own an iPad, but I really only use it to watch Netflix in bed with my fiancée since my iPhone 6s Plus is just too small enough for both of us to watch simultaneously. Outside of this pretty obvious use case, I’ve struggled to find a purpose for the gorgeous device in my life.
Everywhere I turn, though, I read about another person finding the iPad completely invaluable in their daily lives. It now exceeds the processing power of the average PC; its app ecosystem is generally much cheaper than the PC app ecosystem; it’s “more fun” to use than any device before. A lot of people who write about the iPad suggest that it allows for a level of focus beyond what Macs or PCs can allow.
I call bullshit. Anyone who says the Mac is too distracting has not given the Mac a fair shot since, well, 2 or 3 versions ago of OS X. Apple has made a series of beautiful, powerhouse laptops, build for demanding technical work — that also happen to be incredibly pleasant to use and conducive to focus.
I’m not suggesting that the iPad isn’t a great device — it truly is a pleasure to use. However, so are Macs, and some tech pundits seem to forget this. Efficiency on a Mac isn’t even a question worth asking — sure, you eschew a touch screen for a keyboard & multi-touch trackpad, but the sheer ergonomics of having both the keyboard & trackpad within millimeters of each other compared to jumping between keyboard and screen are staggering. Sometimes you want to lay back and relax, but when you need to work, the Mac wins every time.
The question really is about one’s ability to focus on a single task or project while working on a laptop/desktop computer. Tons of people have written about this. Those same people have tried incessantly for years to justify usage of an iPad for as many possible use cases as possible: blogging, note-taking, long-form writing, designing, music producing, analyzing spreadsheets, chatting with many people at once. I keep asking myself: what’s the goal of being able to do all these things on an iPad, other than attempting to justify my impulse purchase of an iPad?
If the goal is focus, I’ve wanted to try and tame the beast and have my Mac work to my advantage. Basically, a means of avoiding this:
Where’d my Messages go?
Hey, guess what? It’s really to avoid the above with really minimal effort and discipline. Between the iterative improvements brought to OS X and its huge app ecosystem, it’s really easy to make a Mac your portable productivity powerhouse. (Alliteration intentional.) And while the Mac app ecosystem is technically smaller than that of iOS, that has its benefits: less crap to weed through.
I have to give Apple props for identifying the key aspects that make iOS so pleasant to use and employing them in some fashion within OS X. For instance:
Launchpad is a solid app launcher and organizer; after a bit of reorganizing, it effectively replicates the iOS home screen. With Spotlight (or the more powerful Alfred) on top of this, finding and opening an app on a Mac is far quicker than anything performed on an iPad.
Full-screen mode and Mission Control in El Capitan is arguably an even more elegant app switcher than iOS 9’s. I can see everything at once, instead of having to swipe through a bunch of apps, some of which I haven’t touched in days.
Split screen mode is actually useful on my MacBook Pro unlike the iPad Air 2, which doesn’t give me quite enough real estate to work with two apps side-by-side.
Automator isn’t new or even quite that extensive without mild technical know-how, but Workflow wouldn’t be the iOS powerhouse it is without Automator coming first.
Love Drafts on iOS for jotting down quick notes, but missing an equivalent on OS X? Try using the fabulous new version of Notes.app with this Alfred workflow. This has become my perfect solution for quickly taking down ideas and then sharing them everywhere — both on my Mac an don the go.
Plus, you can enable Do Not Disturb just like an iOS device.
Still having trouble focusing after trying these wonderful solutions? There’s apps for that, including two literally called Focus (here and here) — some of which also have iOS counterparts but many of which are Mac exclusives such as:
Hazel, an automatic file organizer so you don’t have to clean your crap up yourself
Alfred, an amazing launcher and workflow tool that allows you to quickly ask a question or start something without pulling yourself away from the task at hand.
Ulysses, Byword, ia Writer, or any other number of free/cheap minimal writing apps for writing without distraction
Some of these are real boons to focus, like the first Focus app, which blocks you from accessing distracting websites and replaces them with inspirational quotes. I could argue that this makes the Mac BETTER for focus than the iPad, since you can actually stop Facebook from loading after you impulsively type the “f” into your browser’s address bar. Can’t really make the impulsive tap on the FB app icon on your iPad less compelling than it already is.
Disclaimer: I use a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which has a solid state drive and 16GB RAM, so I’m not really ever concerned about my laptop exceeding the performance needs I have. Yes, it came at a higher price point than the average iPad and I purchased it primarily with music creation in mind.
But considering the top-of-the-line iPad Pro is virtually the same price as (and comparable in spec to) the ultrathin MacBook, it ultimately comes down to user preference. I’m here to suggest that while tablets are so fun and exciting, many of the reasons why find tablets so fun and exciting are right there in your average Apple laptop.
As with any tech write-up, this is my opinion, but I’d love your thoughts too. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Like how I write? I’d love for you to share this post and follow my writing, either here or on Twitter. Thanks!