In Praise of Uni-Taskers

TV celebrity chef, Alton Brown, is not a fan of what he calls “uni-taskers” in the kitchen. Those are devices which can only be used in one way. Think: cherry pitters and other gizmos.

While I do agree with him when it comes to the kitchen, I’ve found the rule less effective in other areas of my tech life.

We currently live in a world of the all-in-one device. Ten years ago we had a bunch of different devices. Today, you can find most everything in a single “smart” phone. And I think that’s a problem. A problem of focus.

I’m singling out the smart phone here, but the same is true for the always-internet-connected PC. But the phone exacerbates the problem.

Over the last couple of years I’ve found the ability to focus to become increasingly difficult. In the past, I’ve been able to sit down to a task and knock it out in a couple of solid hours. Time would pass quickly and I got things done. Now, it’s just a bunch of 5 minute bursts of work.

I was really getting worried about my inability to focus. Do I have some middle-aged deficit disorder? Just growing old and senile? What the heck was going on?!?

But I took a step back and looked at the situation. Was I having trouble focusing in all areas of my life? Well, no. If I had a non-internet task in front of me, I still retained my focus. Preparing a meal? Yep, I could get that done with not much interruption. Reading a book? I go through about two books a week. So the ability to focus was still there. Diluted, but still there.

Looking deeper, I analyzed those things where I found distraction / lack of focus to be strongest. In results which will surprise no one, I found that I’d dick around most when my tasks were less than desirable. You know the “have to do” versus “want to do” stuff.

“Have to do?” Where did those things come from? And how are they different from “want to do?” Is cleaning up the house a “want” or “have”? Well, it depends. If I wanted the house to be organized because I want to play with my toys, it was a “want”. Guests coming over? It’s a “have”.

Work is the same way. When I’d say yes to things that don’t really benefit me — that I don’t care two shits about — they become a “have”.  And those always seem to suck-suck-suck.

It’s my own damn fault for saying yes to things. It’s one of the most important things that one can learn: to say no. True, being an independent consultant, it’s hard to say no to work. But at what cost did I say yes? To get a short term monetary gain, but to sacrifice my long term goals? That’s not a good idea. Every time I’ve ignored my gut and said “yes” it’s been bad. Never worked out without a lot of pain. Just say no.

Enough navel gazing. What about the uni-taskers I was talking about? Let’s take an example, reading.

As I mentioned, my ability to focus on reading is un-impaired. And why? Because I only read real stuff in two formats: print or Kindle. Both are uni-taskers. Can’t dick around much on a Kindle. And a book is a book.

DSCN4630 (Small)

If you are a reader, you need a Kindle. Nothing more to say. It’s a fantastic device and has me reading more than ever. Since I’m a cheapskate, the vast majority of books come from the library. For a $120 device I’ve probably spent $20 in content — the other hundreds of books are from the library. Not what Amazon wants to hear, but they make plenty of money off me as it is. And with tools like Calibre (free, and extremely useful), due dates are a thing of the past. I read at my pace, DRM fiends.

Music is another thing I use uni-taskers for. Sure, Amazon Music (and other streaming services) is handy — and I pay for it — but when I listen to music I want to listen to music. I don’t want to navigate. I don’t want an app to crash. I don’t want pauses. I don’t want notification beeps. I don’t want suggestions. I don’t want to be directed to purchase something. I want music.

DSCN4632 (Small)

So, I stick with CDs and LPs in the living room. Amazon is there, too, but only if I’m browsing around for new stuff, or can’t find the media. And at my workspace? An “ancient” Creative Nomad Jukebox. It’s one of my favorite thrift store finds. Load the music up, press play. Easy navigation. And no distractions.

One of the projects I’ve been thinking about is Twine interactive fiction. Think: Choose your own adventure. But writing on a computer? Ugh. It’s not going to happen. There are just too many distractions.

First, you have the Internet, the great time-sink of history. Second, I’ve usually got work e-mail running on my PC. Hard to get away from that, as much as I’d want to. (I’m actually considering whacking e-mail. It’s value to me is close to nothing.) Third, though I like the good mechanical keyboards I have, I just don’t like typing into screens — especially first drafts — my desire to edit as I go is too great. (That may be fine for blog posts, but for creative writing, not so much.)

Yes, I’ve tried social media blocking software. I’ve tried internet blocking software. Neither has worked for me. Mainly because when I sit in front of a PC I think “work” (the things I “have” to do, not what I “want” to do). So I need to get away from the screens.

So, I’ve once again dipped my toes into 10+ year old technology. No, I’m not a hipster, so I didn’t get a typewriter — plus, I can’t survive without backspace and arrow keys. But I did get a AlphaSmart.

DSCN4633 (Small)

It turns on instantly. It constantly saves. It does only one thing — allows you to type text. Originally designed for school use, they were discontinued years ago and area only available used. (Got an excellent condition one on Amazon for about $30.)

In today’s world, it’s about one technical step up from a typewriter. Even its way of transferring files to a PC is a hoot: You connect it via USB, it emulates a keyboard, you hit “send”, and it “re-types” your document into whatever window is open. It’s like watching Zork or Hacker type text. (Look ma, I’m running at 1200 baud!)

I had looked into to the Hemingwrite (now Freewrite), but too spendy for my modest uses. This blog post sold me on the AlphaSmart: It’s a piece of junk, but great for writing! If you are crazy enough about writing to get one of these, be sure to get the 3000 model — it has USB and emulates a keyboard on the PC. You don’t need any software. I connect it to a Windows 7 x64 machine without a problem. Be sure to set the “Send Speed” to “4” so you get the blistering 1200 baud.

You will not be impressed with this device, and it really really only does one thing. But for what it does, it does just fine. It allows you to focus on writing. Added bonus: It was designed for kids, so it’s pretty darn tough. It has cursor keys. A decent keyboard. And it runs about 300+ hours on 3 AA batteries. Definitely  a niche tool (unlike the Kindle or Nomad). I call it a “first draft” writing tool.