Idle Time

As a thought experiment, imagine you were restricted to use a single device to interact with the whole digital ether. Exclusively one: laptop, tablet, smartphone, e-reader, you name it, but for the rest of your days, this is the one and only device you would ever be "touching". The good news is that you get to choose, of course.

I have presented this riddle to many friends and, invariably, their answer is always the same: smartphone. To their surprise, my answer is — and has always been: old fashioned PC, precisely, macOS[1].

My answer to this question has its raison d'être, since most of my waking hours go by in front of a computer. Not just at work, but even during leisure time. The computer is the tool I use to funnel my creativity: from writing, coding, designing, reading, communicating… but also my go to device for absolutely everything.

I do not dislike smartphones, I understand you can get plenty of stuff done with them, but for me they never "clicked" as creation tools. My iPhone home screen is almost "factory settings" and the main uses it gets are limited to podcasts, audiobooks, music, messaging and hailing a cab from time to time.

The computer is the machine I grew up with, the one I discovered a whole new world throughout: from DOS to the dawn of the Internet, I learned to love its design, appreciate its craft, but ultimately, I became fascinated by how it worked.

For these reasons, I have always been drawn to the keyboard as an input device, hence keyboard shortcuts are my thing. Although I don’t use them as much as I love them, still today, every time I invoke one, something feels right deep inside.

My approach to remember, use and learn new keyboard shortcuts has always been the same. I do not employ heavy machinery such as Text Expander or Keyboard Maestro. I just try to be aware and spot routines I repeatedly perform with the mouse, until the inevitable thought of "I’m sure there’s a shortcut for that…" pops up. Then research for the shortcut and meticulously log it in a "Shortcuts in Use" note that has been in the works forever.

Believe, after this 500 words introduction detour, the story eventually lands somewhere. As a matter of fact, this post was inadvertently and without permission seeded in my mind a few months ago, when this product escalated to the very top of the Product Hunt ranks. It caught my attention immediately because somebody just "productized" the list I had been curating for years, I loved it.

After a more than deserved "upvote", the product itself inspired a broader examination on how we interact with our devices and the impact they potentially have in our minds.

Before we dive in, please, keep in mind that these lines are not grounded in academic research, there’s plenty of studies available documenting this phenomenon. But rather my personal journey and a humble observation on how to ensure our time is well spent in front of our devices.

My working assumption revolved around the idea of how much of the time spent in front of a computer had actually become idle time. Non-productive time, without a clear task or particular goal to achieve, but rather wandering around, just being with the computer, or well, procrastinating.

For a curious, monkey mind, sitting down in front of a computer with no predefined task to accomplish, will inevitably become a recipe for failure. In my particular experience idle time meant playing around with some app settings, re-reading an article or rethinking the way my filing system worked. Unremarkable activities that directly translated to anxiety.

While in idle mode your mind runs fast, it operates in autopilot, but it is going nowhere. This is a nasty loop, because it feels effortless and comfortable being in idle land, but at the same time you are also aware you shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Well, at this point you might be wondering what keyboard shortcuts have to do with idle time and if there’s even a connection between the two. A few months ago, I was wondering exactly the same. It turns out they have a lot to do with one another and, indeed, such connection exists.

The trick that ties everything together is one of the simplest, silliest things I’ve done lately, that has had a major impact in my daily life: setting aside the mouse to the left of the keyboard.

Its immediate consequence: using the computer now required deliberate effort.

Thoughtless, fast paced, muscle memory mechanics were not available anymore. Therefore wandering was not an option because the ease in which I used to navigate the computer was completely gone. Every single time I was about to fall back to idle mode, I encountered the inconvenience of a lefty mouse, not easy, then the itch immediately vanished.

The computer wasn’t effortless as it used to be, I just unlearned — to put it in Star Wars terms, thus our relationship was changed, forever, for the best. Now every time I sit (well, stand) in front of the computer I have a clear goal in mind. It has earned back its purest creation soul.

It is a funny feeling, though. Everything I could "do" now ties back to my keyboard expertise — or, well, if I want something badly, I know a fall back to the uncomfortable mouse experience is still an option. This has inevitably expanded my shortcuts portfolio in ways I could have never imagined, to the point that I stopped logging the new ones onto my note — and where Shortcuts.design came in handy :)

Finally, and most important, the anxiety associated with the idle time has completely gone away and I find myself in "flow" state more often than ever before.

That was quite a long story, so, to wrap everything up, I want to go full circle, back to Michel van Heest, the man behind Shortcuts.design. This week I randomly came across his Medium post about the "behind the scenes" story of his product, which I not only clapped the shit out of it, but also reminded me how much my life has improved just by embracing the keyboard.


[1] That’s a subtle distinction though, because the question presumes platforms, which is not entirely fair. I’d rather use white labeled hardware running macOS, than a MacBook running Windows or some Linux distribution. But that’s beyond the point and food for an entirely separate conversation, that won’t be happening in these lines either.