Saturday, January 27, 2024

Typing upgrade

About a year ago, when Jaya and I were celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary, Sujit presented me with an I-Mac. I received it with a mixture of happiness and bewilderment. The bewilderment was because I had never used a Mac before and I didn’t know if all my files would be compatible with the Mac OS. Sujit assured me that it will not be a problem which eased some of my worries. 

He then gave me some tutorials about common Mac commands. For eg. instead of the 'cntrl' key in Windows, I had to use the 'command' key in Mac. So for copying something, I had to click command+c. For Mac, it is Finder, while for Windows PCs, it was File Explorer. Instead of Explorer, there is Safari. I could search podcasts and music more easily. What made Sujit opt for an I-Mac was the Dwell feature in the Accessibility features about which he learned from a friend. When he used it in a showroom, he knew that I would take to it quickly.  

The mouse-pointer is moved using head-tracking technology. The pointer appears over the chosen spot and the dwell time countdown begins (a pointer circle starts to empty). When the countdown is over (which takes a couple of seconds), the chosen action is performed. The default dwell action is set to left click. By clicking on a dropdown menu, I can select a different action like double click, right click etc. The current dwell action will revert to 'left click' after the action is performed.

The Dwell function allows me to do what anyone else can do in a computer including browsing, switching between documents and reading pdf documents directly. Previously, once I had specified a document, I had to type within that document till someone changed it. For reading pdfs, I used to ask somebody to copy it in Word which would result in the images being lost. All such problems are no longer there. 

Another advantage is that there is a text prediction feature in the Accessibility keyboard which makes typing easier. After typing just a few letters, some words are suggested. I can select the word I want, and just click on it for it to get typed. For example, for typing the word 'example', I just had to type 'e' and it was the first word predicted. The software had predicted that after 'For' it was likely to be 'example'. 

Of course, so many advantages have to be accompanied by at least one disadvantage - the curse of distraction. In The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist Edmund Dantes reflected upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability that a fellow prisoner Abbe Faria displayed and said, 'What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?' Abbe Faria replied, 'Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect.'

Freedom is great but unrestricted freedom brings its own problems. Now that I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted in a computer, I felt the urge to do things other than what I was currently doing. If a WhatsApp notification came, I wanted to check what it was. I would think of something I wanted to check in Google. This would lead me to a link which would lead me to another link and another. . . I would be reading a book in pdf and I would be tempted to check another book. Previously, I could not do any of these things so I focused on the file I was working on for a couple of hours before I asked somebody to change it. 

At this time, I happened to read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. It mentioned a 2012 McKinsey study which found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone. This state of fragmented attention does not allow you to do deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. 

He said that many assume that they can switch between a state of distraction and one of concentration as needed, but this is wishful thinking: Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. The constant switching from deep, focused activities to superficial activities at the slightest hint of boredom teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. The urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial is always present. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy.  They just can’t keep on task. 

The key to developing a deep work habit is to  add routines and rituals which help maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Hours of practice is necessary to strengthen one's “mental muscle” to maintain this focus. A lot of advice for the problem of distraction follows the general template of finding occasional time to get away from the noise. Some put aside one or two months a year to escape these temptations, others follow one-day-a-week schedule of avoiding distraction, while others put aside an hour or two every day for the same purpose. 

Instead of following such a schedule, Cal Newport suggests following the opposite strategy of specifying a particular time for giving in to distraction. Regardless of how you schedule these blocks of time, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use. The idea behind this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from focused activities to superficial activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. 

This constant switching weakens the 'mental muscles' responsible for focusing your attention. By segregating Internet use you’re minimising the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these 'mental muscles' strengthen. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training. Following this advice, I first kept 30 minutes for focused activity during which I resisted any temptation for distraction. Then I would schedule 15 minutes for checking e-mail, Google searches etc. I gradually increased the Internet-free chunks of time to 40 minutes, 50 minutes, one hour, etc. This practice has worked well. 

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