Overcoming Your Mess Of A Desktop

The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).

After a few recent conversation and emails, I wanted to offer a more tactical example for those of you who may have read my Excessively Minimal post1. The idea2 was essentially that Minimalism is more an aesthetic than it is an over-arching philosophy. It is more about how the end results look and feel than it is about the amount of tools and technology that go into creating it. One of the best examples (at least for me) of how this can helps is the approach I’ve taken to my desktop management.

The Mess Was Winning

For the longest time, my desktop has been a mess, an utter pigsty. It was the dumping ground for just about any files, folder, screenshots or reference materials that I might be using (or more likely had already used). There was no real system and tons of files. The initial idea would always be to keep things there temporarily, but inevitably, my pack-rat tendencies would get the better of me and the mess would overwhelm me so much that I eventually couldn’t look at the screen without my blood pressure rising.

The Mess Was Overwhelming

When your environment looks like a mess, you feel like one. I know that many of us “feel more comfortable” surrounded by the things we have to do, but I’m almost certain that most of us have no idea of the kind of impact this can have on our psyches. I’m one of the many who are more comfortable in clutter than cleanliness. I rationalize that I want be able to see what needs to be done and enjoy a tangible reminder of what I’ve already accomplished. It took a long time to realize that all I was really accomplishing is creating unmissable visual reminders that would pull at my mind. To use a GTD term, not only did I have “open loops,” but I was actually making myself stare at them. They pulled my mind in several directions and often left me jumping from task to task without really focusing in on what needed to be done.

The Mess Needed To Go

Once I realized the negative impact this was having on me, I decided that it was time to start cleaning up my crap. While it was far from a conscious act (at least it wasn’t at first) and it took me a lot longer than it should have in order to take control of my environment, here is the path I took from a maximal to minimal desktop:

  1. Clean House – The first step I employed is an age-old tactic used by teenagers everywhere. I created one folder and much like my childhood closet, I shoved absolutely everything in there. At first this was a lazy man’s tactic, but ironically, I quickly saw value in it and started refining the idea. Rather than keeping everything on the desktop, I allow myself to keep active files there for two days while I work with them. After that, they get moved into a single folder titled “Random Desktop.” Once a month, I go through everything and file things in one of four homes: A lot ends up in the trash, most ends up in Evernote, larger files go into Dropbox and anything text-based gets entered into Simplenote.
  2. Ditch the Dock – Once I started using LaunchBar, the dock at the bottom of my screen really became superfluous. Over time, it just became obvious that the best tactic here was to go into preferences and hide it. Once you learn a few keyboard shortcuts, especially Command-Tab for quickly switching apps and Command-Space (my shortcut for LaunchBar), you’ll find that there isn’t much you need it for. In the rare case that I want to use it, I simply mouse down to the bottom of the screen and it comes right up. I also took the time to remove any unnecessary apps; even though it is mostly hidden, it just keeps me from getting distracted in the rare case that I do need to use the dock.
  3. Love Your Menu Bar – You know all of those icons on the top right of your screen? They are your friends, but you have to use them wisely. Take a few minutes and think about what you have up there. I kept Apple’s Wi-Fi status, the battery indicator, the clock and spotlight icons, but got rid of all of the other “stock items.” From there I added in several of the key applications I use including: TextExpander, Dropbox, Keyboard Maestro, RescueTime, Evernote, Skitch, Cloud App and Fantastical. This gives me quick access to key functions when I need them, but keeps them out of my way when I don’t.
  4. Pick a Visual – Considering how easy it is to change up our computer’s wallpaper, we rarely put much thought into the image we choose. It’s usually the a family photo, a favorite team, a beach or, if you are lazy, it’s the stock image that comes with your computer. For the longest time, I went the family photo route, but found it was a distraction. It pulled me out of my work and into other areas of my life. Recently, I switched over to “The Process of Design Squiggle” by Damien Newman. I just find it to have a very steadying impact on me and it is a constant, needed reminder to focus.
  5. Geek(Tool) Out – While so much of this has been about removing things, I finished up by adding some key information onto my desktop thorough the power of GeekTool. GeekTool lets you use various scripts3 to pull information from your computer directly onto your desktop. This takes some initial setup, but once you get things rolling, your system can automatically pull just about anything onto your desktop. I know that many go crazy adding weather, tasks, music, etc., but I like to keep things simply only adding in the current day, month, date and two days’ worth of appointments from my calendar. If you are interested in how to get this on your computer, check the geeky quick tip at the bottom of the post.

A look at my current desktop:

Click here to get a closer look

Life After The Mess

The end result is a minimal looking desktop that manages to be extremely powerful. It took a lot time and technology to put this together, but I feel far more focused since implementing this approach. I have less of my work blatantly staring me in the face, helping me to stay on task while learning to finally put things where they belong. Looking back, this has gone far beyond taking control of my environment. It made the environment itself less relevant, allowing me to focus on what is really important: the work I want to accomplish. Cliche as it might sound, having less on my desktop has helped me to accomplish so much more.

Geeky Quick Tip

If you want to get the same information on your desktop here is a quick breakdown:

  1. Download GeekTool from the Mac App Store
  2. Install iCalBuddy
  3. Open GeekTool
  4. Click and drag four Shell Script boxes out onto the desktop and copy & paste the following scripts, one in each Shell Script box:
    • Month – date +%B
    • Day – date +%A
    • Date – date +%d
    • Calendar – /usr/local/bin/icalBuddy -nc -nrd -n -eep url,notes,location eventsToday+1 | sed -e “s/*/–/” | sed -e “s/!/!!/”

Here’s a video that will show you how to get the date and another that shows you how to get the calendar.

If you are looking for a little more, here are some weather options from Brett Terpstra: http://brettterpstra.com/geeklets-weather-and-forecast/ and a lengthy list of GeekTool options from Lifehacker.

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  1. If you haven’t, feel free to give it a read… don’t worry, I’ll wait  

  2. For those too lazy to read the whole thing.  

  3. Don’t worry, this is easier than it sounds  

5 Responses to Overcoming Your Mess Of A Desktop

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