Virtual Desktops: What Good are They?

I’ve been renewing my interest in virtual desktops – the ability to have multiple “desktops”, switching as you desire from one to the other. For Windows there is a very good implementation (freeware – not open source) called Dexpot. For the Macintosh, there is the program VirtueDesktops. For Linux, there’s the hugely popular Compiz – though I’m no fan of it (it’s purpose is to be pretty and to consume processing time – in my opinion). Default installations of GNOME and KDE both support generic virtual desktops – but Compiz makes them pretty.

With multiple desktops, the theory goes, you can use one desktop for a particular purpose, and another for some different purpose – for example, email on one and the Web on the other. It’s like having multiple monitors without being able to see them.

Note that this capability has existed in UNIX workstations since the 1980s – despite all the excitement over Apple MacOS X Leopard and it’s Spaces capability.

Note, too, that Dexpot handles a workspace with multiple monitors fairly well (no experience on whether Compiz or VirtueDesktops work well – my guess is they probably do).

So with multiple desktops, you can hide your email when you are busy coding (or administering, installing, or debugging…). This can save you from “hovering” over your mailbox instead of getting things done.

Virtual desktops can also provide the capability to separate two different environments – for example, working on a production system and working on a test environment. As administrators, you dare not mix up the test environment with the production environment when you go to shut the system down. Sure, you can color the terminal window – but what if you give your desktop an entirely different backdrop? And you wouldn’t even see the production environment unless you switched to it.

I’m going to try again – I’ve used VirtueDesktop in the past, but it had some annoying bugs – and we’ll see if it can improve productivity. I’ve also put Dexpot on my Windows desktop; we’ll see.

A Productivity Reading List

If you are serious about gaining control over your time and your productivity, there are a number of books you should read. Here is my list of well-worn productivity books for you to consider – most of them seminal classics in their field:

  • How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. This is a classic tome in productivity, and should be read by all. In particular, adherents of GTD will find parts of the process delineated here 30 years before David Allen brought it all together.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen. This is the modern classic and the definition of GTD. David is very readable, never boring, and always enlightening and delightful. If you want a treat, get the audio version also: hearing David read is also classic and wonderful.
  • The Time Trap by Alec McKenzie. Another time-worn classic on time management.
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A psychology classic about “getting into the zone” and making it work for you and how it works.
  • The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential by Tony Buzan and Barry Buzan. This is where mind maps where first explained and created. After reading this, you’ll wonder how you ever thought computers could do mind maps – and will find out what mind maps are really all about.
  • Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman. This book is wonderful and describes how optimism in life and outlook is truly a benefit in all ways and all round (well, except one – you have to read it…)
  • The Memory Book by Harry Lorrane and Jerry Lucas. This is a fun, readable, and memorable book. This is quite possibly the oldest book I own (that is, I’ve owned it longer than any other). You will not regret getting this book – and won’t need any other memory book ever.

What’s on your shelf?

What’s Right with GTD: An Answer

Dustin Wax had an article quite some time ago titled The Trouble with GTD. He discusses a lot of points, and I think that they deserve an answer.  I firmly believe in GTD – that is, the techniques expounded in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen – and would like to answer some of his points.  I don’t think that most of them are fair.

For point one, Dustin says: …[GTD] feels like business, and for people whose business is not business – creative professionals, for example – it feels “external” to our real work (and identity).

This is just another example of an old complaint against being organized, which goes something like this: I’m a creative type, and organization stifles creativity.  This is simply untrue.  In fact, a new acolyte is often told (and rightfully so): you must write (or paint – or sculpt) some every day, without fail.  If you schedule your time at the easel or at the writing pad – is this not being organized?

Organization (such as GTD) frees your mind from the daily worries to be more creative, not less.

The second point that Dustin makes is that a solo worker or entrepeneur is somehow different and thus GTD can’t work for them.  One of the chief recommendations given to those who work at home or are self-employed is to separate the home office or work from the home and family.  Without this separation – and the concept of “the office” being separate from the home – productivity goes way down.  GTD helps in either case – it keeps you from forgetting what needs to be done.

The third point is a valid point: GTD does not handle the overall plan, the  life goals – in GTD parlance, the arial view from 50,000 feet.  However, GTD never claims to handle this level, and even suggests that other techniques work for that planning.

Dustin also suggests that the question David Allen poses (“Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now?”) is some how wrong.  However, this question goes much further: it was perhaps first posed (as “What is the best use of my time right now?”) by Alan Lakein in his seminal 1973 work, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.”

I believe in GTD and think that those who keep at it will find that it helps them, no matter how devoted you might be.  The more you implement GTD, the better you will be.

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Sparking new ideas

When you are look for new ideas – for writing, for presentations – here are some ways to go about it.

One good way is to brainstorm – write down things to write about. Don’t stop to judge the ideas, good or bad – just let it flow at a rapid pace onto the page. I like to use what is called “junior legal” (8 in. by 5 in.) on a clipboard of the same size.

After writing down all the ideas that come to you, then you can sift and winnow what you’ve written. Don’t reject out of hand any idea; see if there isn’t a kernel of a possibility in it.

You can also use a mindmap during some of this process. A mindmap is like an outline in radial form that starts with a center topic (though this description is woefully inadequate). Don’t just make bubbles and connect them (which seems to be common to computer mindmaps); make connectors in different sizes, colors, styles – make the mindmap a work of art that expresses how each item affects you.

This may generate quite a few good ideas to start writing about. (Guess I’ll get started….)

Productivity Myths

An article by Dustin Wax over at the StepCase Lifehack blog is worth reading for anyone who hopes to improve their productivity. I’ve heard people succumb to these myths, and never have understood it. Dustin makes both the supposed case and debunks it at the same time.

It is well worth reading – in fact, if you don’t subscribe to his RSS feed amongst your other productivity blogs, you should.

Productivity Myths

An article by Dustin Wax over at the StepCase Lifehack blog is worth reading for anyone who hopes to improve their productivity. I’ve heard people succumb to these myths, and never have understood it. Dustin makes both the supposed case and debunks it at the same time.

It is well worth reading – in fact, if you don’t subscribe to his RSS feed amongst your other productivity blogs, you should.