Joao Alves

Engineering Manager at Skyscanner

Minimalism in Software Engineering — tidy that desktop

Posted at — Mar 19, 2019

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Index:

  1. Minimalism in Software Engineering — an introduction
  2. Minimalism in Software Engineering — tidy that workplace
  3. Minimalism in Software Engineering — tidy that desktop
  4. Minimalism in Software Engineering — tidy that calendar

Hi everyone, welcome to article number 3 on this minimalism series on software engineering. Today I’m going to explore the changes I made on my machine and workflow to reduce the number of distractions during work time. After spending some time thinking about it, I realised how our machines can literally be considered distractions black holes if we don’t put some effort in managing how we use them.

As a software engineer, you probably have loads of different apps installed on your machine and most of the time a lot of those apps are actually open. Not only they’re consuming resources that are scarce (when you need to use Android Studio daily that’s an issue 😃), but most importantly these apps are just distractions waiting to happen all the time.

One of my favourite features on MacOs are spaces and how you can quickly swipe through them so easily using the trackpad. These days Windows also support the same thing and it’s great to manage full-screen windows and not having to deal with smaller windows stacking behind each other all the time. But if you start using this feature without restrictions, you end up with a load of desktops and unnecessary apps and windows open on those.

It’s easy to waste a lot of time just swiping around to find the one you’re looking for, and if you end up stopping because some app or tab in your browser called your attention, just add to that wasted time. This breaks your flow completely and it’s much harder to go back to the task with the right mindset afterwards.

My previous setup

I used to have 2 Chrome windows open all the time in full screen (work vs personal tabs), Slack in full screen, Android Studio full screen and then another space just for Finder or smaller apps, so 5 spaces in total. When using an extra monitor, my Android Studio space lives in there on its own. So, this was my minimum, 4/5 spaces. But this could easily grow if I started opening stuff like Zeplin, Postman, Spotify and so on, as I love to open everything full screen.

My current setup

There was a lot to improve just regarding spaces management so I decided to start here and limit myself to 3 spaces, one for Android Studio as I need proper focus in there, another for the browser where I just have work tabs open (more on app rules below), and a 3rd one for the smaller apps where I usually have Slack, Zoom and Notes sharing the space.

So, basically, I got rid of my personal Chrome window and I just open it when I’m taking a break or if I need to take care of something personal that can’t wait. No more swiping left and right several times to find a specific place, or being caught on an infinite loop of distraction on my personal Chrome window where I had email, Whatsapp, Twitter and other things open all the time. Getting rid of all of these things was probably the thing with the biggest impact of all, definitely try to spend a few days at work where you have nothing personal open and see the difference.

App rules

Going deeper into the apps, I decided to set some rules as well. Having one less Chrome window helped but if the one I keep has 50 tabs open it kind of defeats the purpose 😃. Here’s a list of rules I created and am trying to follow since:

Slack: on Slack, I disabled the notifications and the main new rule is that I only jump into a conversation if it’s in a relevant channel or thread. I have a bit of OCD and have a hard time leaving unread messages on the screen, every time my eyes visit Slack, so this is a hard one for me but I’m getting better at it with time. I would like to have the app minimised as well and check it only at defined intervals but unfortunately, this is not a viable option for me right now, but it’s definitely something I should give a try at some point and figure out if affects other people work that much. If you don’t have that problem, definitely do it.

Chrome: the obvious rule for Chrome is around the number of tabs open all the time. By default, I have only 5 now: work email and calendar (in the new Outlook web version you can’t switch tabs inside anymore), my JIRA board, my Google Keep filtered for labels and the project GitHub. For JIRA and Github I’m trying to open them now only when I need so sometimes I can be with 3 only.

All other tabs have a come and go policy, so when I don’t need them anymore, I close them. You might think that you would waste some time re-opening those things, but if you compare that with having 50 tabs open and the time you find searching the right one, there’s an obvious winner. I was one of those persons that would easily get to that state where you can only see the icons on the tabs, so I know what I’m talking about 😃.

Android Studio: I’m not as aggressive with Android Studio because it depends on what I’m working on but I try to keep the number of files open to a minimum as well, because I already hated when I had to pick an open file from a drop-down menu, now I hate it even more.

I don’t have much more apps open now so didn’t create specific rules for anything else, the only other general rule is that I close every app unless I’m actively using it.

Bonus tip

Try to apply similar rules to your smartphone, uninstall apps that you don’t really use and clean your main screens, we don’t really need shortcuts for most of the apps we have there. It also helps a lot to have your phone in do not disturb mode. I have mine like this 24/7 only with my wife’s contacts and my kid’s nursery on the exclusion list, it’s amazing how relaxed and concentrated you can be without checking your phone every time it pings or vibrates.And we’re done for today, try some of those things and let me know if it helped you, it definitely changed the way I work for the better. See you next week for some tips on how to manage your calendar and how to deal with people at your workplace 👋

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