Windows 8 and Workplace Chaos

Fr. Joel Life on Planet Earth

Regular readers will know that I keep my eye on modern technology. I like to think I’m pretty tech-savvy, at least for a priest. So imagine my surprise when I went computer shopping at Best Buy and had no idea where to start. Touch-screen laptops, detachable laptops, all-in-ones, portable all-in-ones, Chromebooks, MacBooks, AMD, Intel…. I was totally lost. I asked the sales kid a lot of questions, but I got the feeling that even he didn’t really know what they all did. I walked out with a Windows 8 desktop computer — the old fashioned kind with cables that plug in, and a screen that doesn’t “touch”. You go with what you know.

The new computer introduced me to the new world of Windows 8 (actually 8.1). I’ve been using Windows a long time. I remember when the Start button was a new feature (1995). The blue bar of Windows XP is forever emblazoned in my memory. I used Vista for as short as possible, upgrading to Windows 7 as soon as it came out. That was five years ago. I can see lots of room for improvement with Windows 7, but overall it’s been a stellar performer. Has Microsoft created a more perfect Windows?

More Style than Substance

Windows 8 definitely has style. The bold colors and cheerful animations add a lot to the experience. But it’s also disorienting. The “Start Screen” is a wall of random tiles of different shapes and sizes. Some flip and change, but most just launch apps. Some apps cover the whole screen. It is possible to open an app, click on something, and suddenly have a white screen with no visible controls at all. It was a relief to finally open the Desktop app and feel like you were right back in the old Windows 7. It was also disappointing to realize that the Desktop side of the new Windows is basically unchanged. All the things I found annoying are still there, just like they used to be. The only immediate improvement I see is the lock screen.

Microsoft has a long history of adding a “user-friendly” veneer instead of addressing the underlying problems (like the Libraries in Windows 7, Windows Update, or the Network and Sharing Center). Windows 8 is in the same vein. It feels like a computer with a personality disorder: one side is fun, modern, flashy and mostly useless. The other side is workaday mundane but familiar and quite functional. Rather than improving the overall experience, Microsoft has just added more chaos. The most glaring example of this is the Start Screen. Clicking the Start button now presents you with a full screen of random tiles of different shapes and sizes. Some even pull helpful things off the internet like sports scores, stock prices, and useful headlines like, “What happens when we all live to 100?” and “Oven Braised Buttermilk Chicken.” That’s better than the old star menu?

My office is filled with enough distractions already. After all, my real desktop resembles the “Start Screen”. Most days it features a pile of half-open mail, a half-finished project, and a half-eaten cookie. I can’t focus on one task for very long before a phone call, an urgent email, or a knock at the door distract me with something else. It feels like a conspiracy to keep me from getting anything done. Now my computer is in on the game too by tempting me with random internet links.

Clean Your Desk

A random Facebook post (that I followed instead of getting something done) led me to an article titled FIVE WAYS TO BE CATHOLIC AT WORK. The first way surprised me: Clean Your Desk (At Least Once a Week). I thought — “Surely this doesn’t apply to me. After all, I have so much work and so little time.” But they made a good point and I got to thinking that I could at least keep part of my desk clean. You know, the part that has NEVER been clean. I set to work and to my surprise, it was spiffy clean after 30 minutes of organizing.

I was shocked. Cleaning my desk was the ONE task that I always wanted to accomplish and never did. How did I get it done so fast? Reflecting on my style of work, I realize that I don’t typically start with the difficult things. I usually start my day by booting up my computer and checking my email because that doesn’t demand too much of me. But then I never get to the things that really matter most. The longer I wait, the harder they seem. It’s not so much that distractions show up, but that I welcome them. The computer becomes an easy tool to avoid work. It’s not the computer’s fault that the user prefers to multi-task away from the important things.

Making the Start Screen Work for Me

I decided to apply the same lesson to Windows 8. A quick internet search for
getting the most out of the windows start screen turned up a Windows tutorial. I followed the instructions (though I can’t seem to pin more than one app at a time using my mouse). In under 10 minutes I had “pinned” apps I used most into a new group, put that group first on the screen, and resized them to look functional. Now my Start Screen functions better than the old Start menu did. It still has the flashing internet tiles but I choose to ignore them, or I can customize them to work for me or remove them if they distract me.

Stop Looking out the Windows

What is the lesson I learned? I’ll never have enough time to do everything. I have to sift through the options and use my time wisely. Being productive is a matter of focusing on the things that really matter and tuning out the things that don’t. To quote Stephen Covey, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The truth is that the people who stop in aren’t distractions; that’s the real work of priesthood. I can’t let the computer work distract me from what matters. I need to get other things out of the way so I can focus on what really matters.

Taking a little extra time to focus on what matters led to a clean desk and a more functional computer. I still can’t say I like Windows 8. I think the designers got so wrapped up in many different goals that they lost sight of what really matters for a desktop computer. Most people seem to agree with me, and the internet buzz says Microsoft programmers are hard at work on “Windows 9.” Maybe they should start by cleaning their desks.

Ok, so the truth is that I really just sorted mail and moved the open projects to the back half of my desk, but it looks much more welcoming now.

The truth is that I just sorted junk mail and moved things to the back desk… but it’s so much more welcoming now!