The Anti-Dashboard Manifesto

July 01, 2014

Here are some life hacks you might have heard before: I don't wear a watch. The physical manifestation of being owned by time — literally a collar with the owner's name on it — makes me uncomfortable, and it's not hard to check a phone or a clock. I don't use software to notify me of emails, tweets, or blog posts. Any time such a notification might show I'm surely doing something else that I don't want to lose focus on.

Now take that reasoning further: It's not useful to reserve a portion of my screen for displaying which applications are running, as the things that are running are visible and the things that aren't visible can be found when necessary. There's no need for an icon displaying wifi status; if I'm connected it's uninteresting and if I'm not connected I'll surely discover it if I attempt to use the internet.

I took this reasoning to its conclusion. I run my computers with the screen blank except for the apps I run, and the apps I run I configure to display a minimal amount of information. I think of this as being anti-dashboard: against the cognitive clutter of extraneous information. My computer is not a cockpit and I am at my best when I'm only thinking about the single task at hand.

Screenshot from my laptop while writing this.

It's important to immediately distinguish this argument from the rathole of endless productivity-optimization tweaking. I don't run a tiling window manager or any fast app launchers. I have tried that in the past and found the farther away from normal I got, the more time I lost to configuring tools and fixing software that hasn't anticipated my eccentricities.

Instead, I just turn off everything I don't use. I have one special keystroke, to summon a terminal, and from that I can run "time" or "google-chrome" or "acpi" as needed (that last one is for battery status). If I minimize a window it disappears completely, but I can find it again using alt-tab.

This anti-clutter position is a goal, not an absolute. All information is always relevant to varying extents. Instead, I use it as a guide: for any pixel, does having this information always in my face make things better or worse?

If I've sold you on the idea, here's how I implement it. My ~/.xsession:

gnome-settings-daemon &
xsetroot -solid slategray
gnome-terminal &
exec metacity

Running gnome-settings-daemon lets me configure most stuff on the system by clicking around in gnome-control-center. For emacs, there are a bunch of settings I change, including tool-bar-mode, scroll-bar-mode, mode-line-format, frame-title-format; see my (messy) config if you care.