The Desk and The Desktop: Musings on Productivity, Part 1

I. The Desk

Lately, I have been thinking about a desk. It is not a fancy desk, but in my imagination, it is a homemade desk. It is not a big desk. It doesn’t have any drawers, but it has a good sized surface. On the surface I imagine some blank paper, and a pen. In front of the desk is a chair. How productive is it possible to be with just a few tools like that? A paper, a pen, a surface on which to write, and a place to sit?

Do the tools really matter? Or is the person using them? Consider, for instance, John Quincy Adams. Without much more than paper, pen and a place to write, Adams had one of the most remarkably productive lives I can imagine: Minister to the Netherlands, Portugal, and Prussia, followed by a stint in the Massachusetts Senate, and then as a United States Senator for Massachusetts (while also serving as a professor at Brown). Then he was off again as Minister to Russia, then Minister to Great Britain. After that he became James Monroe’s Secretary of State for eight years. He then served as President of the United States for a term. But that wasn’t enough for him. After his term ended he served for 18 years (until his death) in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That seems a productive life by any standard. I’ve read several biographies of John Quincy Adams and it isn’t exaggerating much to say that he did this almost entirely through the use of pen and paper. His public writings are exhaustive. And in addition to all of that, Adams found time over the course of his life to fill 51 volumes of a diary totaling more than 14,000 pages. He did all of this without computers, the Internet, spreadsheets and Word documents, shell scripts, Siri and Alexa.

When I think about this it boggles my mind and I feel downright lazy in comparison.

Adams had more than just pen and paper, of course. He had a good education, and a phenomenal mind (I’ve read that he was probably our smartest President in terms of raw brain power). He had a library of books which was his version of the Internet. And he had time. The things that distract me today hadn’t been imagined. There was no radio, television, streaming services, or digital media. No email, texts, tweets, and alerts to disturb Adams’s focus. Time was, perhaps, Adams’s greatest productivity tool.

When I think about Adams and productivity, I think about a desk, an empty surface, a pen, a sheet of paper, and plenty of time to fill it.

II. The Desktop

I have a public screen and a private screen. When I am sharing my screen in meetings, I only share my “public” screen. There is a plain background, no icons on the desktop, and no windows open except for those that I need to share.

My private desktop is usually a disaster. Here is what it looks like as I write this post:

My cluttered desktop

More than just an empty surface with paper and pen, eh? Let’s see, I’ve got a browser window open (only one for a change!), but there are four tabs open in that one window. I’ve got a text editor open to a control file I was messing with. I’ve got Visual Studio Code open to a project that makes use of said control file. I’ve got Apple TV open because I never shut it down after watching something yesterday afternoon. I’ve got Apple Music open because I was listening to music while I worked. Let’s see, what else: Skitch, Bluetooth settings, Activity Monitor, Terminal, Calendar, the Console app, and of course, Obsidian, where I am writing this.

I have all of my documents available to me going back to college. I’ve got all kinds of apps and tools I can use for getting things done. I’ve got high-speed access to a large portion of the world’s information. Moreover, I can take all of these tools with me, carry them around in my pocket if I wanted to. And yet, I often feel lost when it comes to being productive. It makes me wonder:

Which is more productive, the desk or the desktop?


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