I bought my first computer in 1984, which makes me a veteran of around 28 years of personal computing. My very first machine (A Kaypro II) had a single 9″ CRT screen, green on black characters, and that was all. I wrote with a program called Perfect Writer, PW for short (for geeks, it was a CP/M version of MINCE, which in turn stands for “MINCE Is Not Complete EMACS” and the rest is left as an exercise for the reader). On a screen that could hold 25 lines of 80 characters, PW was nice because almost all of the screen–23 lines–was devoted to the text you were writing, and that was that.
Later, I learned to add TSR programs (for “Terminate and Stay Resident”) that could be invoked with a key combination, and, later still, the ability to suspend and switch between programs. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that I started using a true multitasking operating system (Windows NT).
Today, of course, we take multitasking for granted. Multiple windows, and there’s always an icon somewhere telling us when we have a message. Appointments pop up on top of the stack of windows, demanding attention (remember yesterday I talked about the coworker who had 150 alerts saved up?).
All of these things interfere with thinking. It’s like having multiple bosses (like I do) who have very different agendas. It’s hard to keep a clear mind.
So my experience this morning was somewhat revelatory. I got to my before-work study spot and checked my mail (in retrospect, this kept me from studying and was a mistake, but that’s a story for another day). There was a letter from an old friend asking my opinion on the Republican primary field, and on the connection between religion and politics.
It seemed only right to answer him, so I popped out the keyboard on my phone (LG Quantum. Whoo-hoo.) and started to write. And write. And write. And when I looked up, it was 8:50 and time to head down the hill to work.
On a device with about a 3.5″ diagonal display and a thumb-operated keyboard, I had spent about an hour, uninterrupted, writing on politics.
What I wrote is irrelevant. What is, is the fact that I was in a kind of flow state. I had what I needed, and no distractions (in theory, had the letter come on paper, what I needed might have been a pen and paper). Because the phone wasn’t throwing up information (I suppose it could have) I was able to focus on the task at hand. I had no status alerts to check and/or respond to. And, incidentally, I had almost no fonts or effects to choose.
I have tried, over the years, some of these “typewriter” programs that let you turn your windows-laden screen into a virtual Kaypro. They’re available for both PCs and Macs. I kind of liked them. I liked the “clicky typewriter” effect. But I hated the fact that I couldn’t see the task bar with all its vital information, alerts, and stuff. Remember the need for self-discipline? I need more than I have! I also liked to play with what features the programs actually had (I need to strip things down to the level of Notepad!). And eventually, I realized that I was wasting time playing, and gave up.
I think I’m going to try again. This time, I’m going to disable Outlook and all of my informational programs. I will abandon all “features” in the plain-screen program except the plain screen itself. I’m going to try to go back to the green screen and see if it helps me focus on task. It may well not (it may have been the content of the communication that lead me to flow so well this morning). But it may.
Although I was born in the 1950s, I have grown up with technology (I can beat out even my very smart semi-adult children at some geek things). I love multitasking. I have multitasked while writing here, which has slowed down the process. Perhaps it’s time to go back to monotasking, at least for some things. I’ll give it a try and let you know.