Operating System Windowing and Focused Productivity: An Assertion on Why iOS feels more productive

I’ve made no secret about my change to a mostly iOS work environment. I eschew the task managers that everyone talks about and stick with paper and pen because it allows more focus. It’s so much harder to make commitments for future me with paper.

In short, I believe that constraints are amazing. They make you more productive.

I’ve been thinking more and more about the constraints that iOS puts on my workflow. I’m not convinced that typical computing setups are ripe for productivity. My current thinking goes:

Multiple monitors and the “fast switching” allowed by traditional computer operating systems makes it so easy to get distracted. Thus, the “less capable” operating system found in iOS allows for more focus and productivity because you can’t easily clutter up your working environment.

What Some Research Says About Multiple Screens

During a discussion around multiple monitors, you often hear that research shows that you get more work done faster with two screens. I’ve read a bunch of the studies, and they’re all contrived work environments.

Here’s the template for most of the studies I’ve read. Give someone a spreadsheet and data in a second document. Measure how fast they can enter the data in the spreadsheet. Do it in a lab when you’ve volunteered for an experiment.

Most people’s computer work environment looks nothing like that. They might have Twitter open on the side. Maybe there is a company Slack channel to dig through and make sure they don’t miss an alert on. It’s quite probable email alerts are showing up on their screen because most companies have an “answer right away” email culture.

Don’t forget the random software update notices that plague every desktop OS I’ve ever used. They never come at a convenient time. Oh, plus applications that need updates, which only tell you they need updates when you open them and they phone home to a server to see if you’re using the current version.

Yes, you can shut off some of these notifications, but it’s an oh so hard decision to make. Even when you do, having some auto-updating feed like Slack or Twitter sitting on a second screen is enticing even when you don’t have an alert stealing your attention.

I mostly work on iOS, but every time I open up my 13” laptop connected to a 24” screen I have all this screen sitting in front of me that feels like it needs to be filled. I’ve talked to a bunch of friends, and they generally feel the same way. They have screen real estate, and it needs to be filled with something.

This screen filler is often that Twitter client, or Slack or something that’s not directly related to the task you should be doing right now.

In the midst of all those distractions that you can spread across your multiple screens, how on earth do you get any work done? I’d like to see an experiment that measured the utility of multiple screens in the midst of a real work day for users. I have a strong feeling that they wouldn’t turn out to be as effective as we assume for all but a few jobs done by a few disciplined people.

Any Benefit with Running Multiple Applications

Way back in the dawn of the computing era people wrote their programs on punch cards. They fed these punch cards into room-sized computers and a day or an hour later you got the output from your program. Then it was time to rejoice or debug depending on what you saw.

Moving from the typical shell like computer to a graphical user interface pioneered by Xerox PARC and popularized by Apple was a massive revolution. Computers were becoming something that maybe could be used by regular people.

Getting enough memory in your computer that you didn’t have to swap out floppy disks was a time-saving jump forward.

Overlapping windows were a leap forward in the utility of computers1. You could have your main work and then your reference material side by side.

I don’t dispute any of these leaps in the way computers ran brought more productivity to the workforce. More speed allows us to do more things with our computers.

What we haven’t done is look at how we’re using these changes in our day to day work. We have assumed that overlapping windows, and more space to put overlapping windows is always a benefit. But it has cost us our attention.

Over many years Cheryl Conner has looked at employees wasting time at work. In this 2014 edition, employees waste around half of their time at work shopping and visiting social media sites. Big companies are taking to filtering internet access for their employees. They’re using time nannies that take screenshots of what their employees are doing.

But that doesn’t solve the root problem. Having all this computing power to run so many things at once means it’s far to easy to distract ourselves with low-value tasks2.

But Aren’t Screens Addictive Especially Screens In Your Pocket?

In short, yes they are, and it’s affecting our mental health3. The screen sitting in your pocket is addictive. Despite being intentional about not having a phone in my pocket, I get phantom vibrations. This seems especially crazy since I run my phone in Do Not Disturb Mode 99% of the time.

It doesn’t vibrate or ring unless my wife calls me. The rest of the time it sits silently, yet the few years I did let my phone train me to distraction continue to stick with me.

Moving to a notificationless iOS setup was a conscious choice though, and one that most people don’t make. Most people go for all the notifications and alerts because that is the default request of every single application they install.

Most people go with alerts because that’s what the company culture expects of you. Culture expects that you answer text messages right away. That you get on email quickly and never let an animated GIF go by in Slack without comment.

My Experience with iOS

In general, I focus more on my simplified iPad setup. I feel this comes for three reasons.

1. iOS is a bit less capable

Yes, iOS is a bit less capable than my Mac is. You can use the same keyboard command in iOS as macOS to switch between applications, but sometimes it lags a bit.

In macOS, you can hold down CMD once you’ve used CMD+Tab to switch to an application and then paste right away. This keyboard sequence doesn’t work the quite the same way in iOS. You have to release and press CMD again to get the keyboard command registered.

This is annoying, and at the same time forces you to be a bit slower and more deliberate about what you’re going to do. Going too fast means that the copy/paste cycle I was trying to perform didn’t work correctly and I need to stop and think about which step I’m at.

We are creatures of habit, and the smallest bit of friction in a habit can help break it. While this can turn out poorly for us, like when we choose to eat the cookies instead of preparing the carrots, it can be good. That bit of extra friction that iOS sometimes causes in switching applications means that in a moment of boredom quickly checking Twitter may not work. The keyboard command didn’t register, and that friction kicks me in the head to remind me that I’m supposed to be working on something else.

We all have these cycles of things we do when we’re trying to avoid something. You’ll quickly check email, then Twitter, and see what’s happening in some other application. Then you’ll look at your work, and see it’s a bit hard or you’re not 100% sure what the next step is so you’ll head back to your distraction cycle.

A small amount of friction in that cycle can help you break it. That slight pause in the instant gratification monkey can help break its hold on you.

iOS also doesn’t allow multiple screens with multiple different applications on it. I can see at most three apps at once, and one of them is sitting on top of part of the other. I can see at most two full applications at a time without visual obstruction.

Every application is always full screen, and there is no extra visual space to “fill” with other things. I’ve continually found that this means I stay focused on the task at hand instead of getting sucked into the distraction sitting just beside my work.

At the same time as you can’t have multiple applications open and visible, many things feel so much easier. Take my image formatting and shrinking routine.

In macOS, I’d find the image. If it the image is too big I’d run a terminal command to resize it, which meant first opening terminal and then navigating to the directory the image is in. Then I’d run a second command on the file, but I had to find the file name again first, to reduce the image file size for the web. Yes, it only took at most 30 seconds, but in iOS with Shortcuts, it takes 2 seconds.

With Shortcuts (Workflow pre-iOS 12) I find the image and then hit the share sheet and select my shortcut. It resizes the image for me and makes the file size proper for the web. Then it gives me a second copy of the image in an appropriate size for an email. That workflow took me around 10 minutes to set up a year ago, and it just works.

Yes, there are applications similar to Shortcuts for macOS, maybe something like Hazel, but they always felt way more “programmer” than Shortcuts does. It’s so much easier that even the few times I’m using my Mac and need to resize an image I grab my iPad to do it then grab the image out of it’s iCloud save spot from my Mac.

2. iOS Stays Out of the way

The second significant benefit to iOS is that in contrast to desktop operating systems, iOS stays out of the way.

Applications naturally update in the background at some point. They never tell me they need an update just as I’m trying to use them. These updates then never get in the way of the work I’m just about to do, unlike macOS.

iOS almost never tells me that it needs to update and the few times it does it never says that it must update now blocking my ability to tell it to stop. I’ve always been able to get iOS to schedule itself for tonight and then either let that happen or run the update manually at the end of my workday.

Windows used to force me to update at some point, no matter what settings I had to tell it to never update during the workday. While macOS never forced me to update the operating system randomly despite my settings, it’s not free from update interruptions. What felt like monthly I’d want to do some work and suddenly be told that the application I wanted to use (mostly xCode) required an update to the OS which required a reboot.

Invariably xCode would also need to update stuff and download stuff after and I’d be stuck not working for 30 minutes. Worse, my whole computer was consumed making these updates so that I couldn’t do anything else either.

I haven’t updated my current Mac to Mojave and every time I turn it on I have an “upgrade” notice sitting in the top corner. This notice isn’t dismissible without diving into the AppStore. I can’t set it to never show up again. I have to live with another distraction that Apple feels I should have because the latest version of macOS is something I must want. Even though I’ve repeatedly told it to leave me alone, I better do it now because my Mac says so.

Repeated nags to upgrade isn’t a problem with iOS. You get a single popup and can set it for later. Then it doesn’t bug you again. You can work. macOS seemingly reminds me every few hours to update to whichever operating system is the latest and greatest.

3. I’ve tailored the apps available

Finally, I’ve tailored iOS to be more specific to what I want to do. Yes, I understand that this is a personal choice and that I can make the same choice in macOS. I could choose to block Slack for part of the day, but the friction to that feels so much higher.

It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m doing on macOS; I continually feel pulled to add something else to my screens. Even the very rare time I’ve gone mobile with my laptop4 the fact that I can easily layer applications has me starting up stuff I don’t need currently.

I’ve rarely felt this with iOS, and thus it’s been so much easier to be intentional with how my iOS devices are set up.

Most people assume that something like iMessage must be set up on every device that supports it. In contrast, here is how I’ve set up my iPad.

There is no iMessage at all on my iPad. I never connected the accounts. There are no alerts on my iPad at all. Yes, I have Slack on it because I interact with my coaching clients on it, but it never alerts me.

There are entire classes applications that I leave off my iPad because it’s purpose is not as a social media machine. It’s supposed to help me write and read and develop code for clients. All it has is applications that help with those endeavours.

I do use my iPad in two modes though. It’s a work machine and a personal machine. That does mean that I have Netflix and Youtube on it, both of which I watch when I’m doing dishes. In the future, I’d love to have two iPads with one being a work iPad and the other being a personal iPad. Then I could push the separation between the modes of work even further and not have personal entertainment options on the work machine.

No iOS isn’t all roses

While I love iOS, there are still things that I can’t do with it. I write books, and I can’t take a book out of Scrivener and publish it on Amazon on my own. I could use something like Ingram Spark but if I have a bunch of file edits that gets costly.

Vellum is my book formatting tool of choice but they’re on record as saying that they don’t have any plans for iOS currently. I’d love to say I’d build something to solve this problem, but then I’d need a Mac to develop for iOS which puts me back to square one.

I do video courses for the Asian Efficiency Dojo, and they use Screenflow, which means I need a Mac. I can write the content, record and edit the audio, build the Keynote presentation all on my iPad. When it comes to the final recording though I need to use Screenflow so I can have the deliverable they want.

If I was delivering a final rendered file and they didn’t do any final tweaking then I know I could do the whole thing without needing Screenflow, but that’s not what I’m delivering.

Being almost all iOS all the time does make me an edge case. I’m often looking for slightly different ways to do things and get the same result. The longer I’ve been at this, the less edge case items I find5.

Further Questions I Want Answered

I started this by saying that I don’t think that multiple monitors are as productive as everyone thinks. The research I’ve seen doesn’t ring true to how I know people work.

I’d like to see a few more questions answered:

Is there research on multiple screens versus single screens that aren’t of the contrived data transfer type I’ve seen so far?

Is there research on iOS/table style interfaces and focus? Does this system (well setup without a bunch of notifications) produce more focused work time?

Is there a comparison of desktop versus iOS/tablets for getting work done? How does it change across job type? I could see a writer being more productive, but maybe a developer isn’t?

For now, for me iOS allows me to produce more work with less distraction. Just as I talked about in Part II of The Art of Focus, being iOS first lets me control my time and focus in a way I have never been able to before. I’ll continue to try and do as much work as possible on iOS.

Photo by: wiredforsound23


  1. Again this was first done by Xerox PARC and popularized by Apple under Steve Jobs first tour of duty. 
  2. You could probably even say NO value tasks. 
  3. See this article from The Seattle Times
  4. Since I use my iPad as my “desktop” most of the time, this is so so rare. I take my iPad with me everywhere and then I have my whole computer all the time. 
  5. And as I solve the edge cases I share them on YouTube so subscribe if you want to get more productive with your iPad

2 thoughts on “Operating System Windowing and Focused Productivity: An Assertion on Why iOS feels more productive

  1. You do not present an hypothesis; it’s an assertion. An hypothesis claims a variation in one value causes a variation in another via an implied direct relationship: “If X increases, then Y increases” (there are several variations on this, of course). Your assertion that iOS makes you more productive relies on an assumption (A1) and three implicitly supported, though here unsubstantiated, hypotheses (H1, H2, and H3):

    A1. A mobile OS is less capable than a “traditional” OS.
    H1. Greater (less) OS capability increases (decreases) the opportunity for distraction.
    H2. Greater opportunities for distraction decrease focus.
    H3. As focus increases, productivity increases.
    Each of these—including A1—deserves its own thorough discussion.

    All that said, I find merit in this line of thinking. I don’t accept your pseudo-scientific approach implied by calling your assertion an hypothesis, but I don’t necessarily disagree with your assertion.

    1. You are correct in your critique and I should know better than to use that wording since I have studied Psych and we talked about what a hypothesis is. I’ll make an update to use better language around the definition.

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