Monday, October 11, 2010

A Case for an Old Fashioned Office

I was watching a rather long video online today. The video was thoughtful, having to do with a minimalist, focused lifestyle. Naturally, I was having thoughts of my own while watching the video. I like to take notes of such thoughts. Sometimes they result in good blog posts. At other times they develop into more fully formed ideas which positively change my life in the long run.

I used to use the default note taking application on Ubuntu – Tomboy – for taking notes. However, lately I've switched back to taking notes on paper. Here's is why.

If I had to take notes with Tomboy, I would have to minimise the video (which I was playing in full screen) switch to the Tomboy window (which may or may not obscure parts or whole of my video) and write my note. Meanwhile I notice that I have a new email or that a friend has messaged me. The net effect being that I'm completely distracted from the video. Compare this to a paper based note taking. I open my notebook and write in it. The video still keeps running in full screen and I'm still able to hold it within my attention.

This isn't a case of bad user interface design. It is simply a limitation of current hardware. Current computing hardware is two dimensional. Since screen space is limited, different contexts must be separated in time or in space. You can view two things one after the other, one at a time, or you can view two things at the same time, but on half the screen space.

The 3D world is a lot less restrictive. I can spread out all my books and notebooks on my table and keep them all within my attention. I can context switch between them a lot more easily.

Another good example is reading a lengthy text. People are often able to remember where a certain section of a book was in terms of the page location and even the location of the section on that page. You're able to flip through the book and find what you were looking for. You can't do the same with a PDF. A PDF doesn't have a thickness. All pages, all content occupies the same limited 2D space.

We are often so enamoured of technology that we don't realise how much this decreases our productivity. I'm rather surprised by how much my productivity has gone up ever since I started using paper again.

With the current technology the solutions to this problem are

  • Use the old fashioned way. Use paper, notebooks, files, planners. They aren't as cool as your latest smart phone but they make you more productive.
  • Use dedicated devices. E-book readers are a good example. A dedicated device does only one task and does it well. With different devices you can physically separate different tasks in the 3D world.

This is not to say that digital devices don't have advantages. If information needs to be shared or searched it is probably best to have it in a digital format. But evaluate – do you really need to take personal notes on a computer? Does your to do list really need to sit in your email inbox?

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