Constraints can give rise to some great ideas

Much like many other aspects of creative life, constraints can make you both more efficient and more creative


Learn to tailor work with the constraints. Photo: iStockphoto
Learn to tailor work with the constraints. Photo: iStockphoto

This week’s meditation on the untangled life is in two parts. The first has to do with hardware and the second with software, which is an elegant arrangement, don’t you think?

Late last year, my daughter, and I love her very much indeed, dropped a glass of water on my laptop, a five-year old Apple MacBook Air. RIP. So with a heavy heart, but a light wallet, I decided to purchase a new machine. And mostly out of budget constraints, but partly out of curiosity, I purchased a cheap and cheerful Acer Chromebook R 11 with 4 GB RAM and a touchscreen.

This is not a review of the machine. But I really do like it very much. It is light and sturdy and has excellent battery life. It excels at working within the Google ecosystem. But most of all, it has an extremely limited collection of apps and extensions.

Wait. Did I just say that I like it for its limited app ecosystem?!

Yes. Let me explain. When you use an operating system like Windows or macOS you have a universe of useful applications to choose from that can achieve every conceivable task. Thus many people often end up downloading very specific apps to do very specific things. Which is great. But eventually, especially if you are undisciplined, like I am, you end up with tons of apps that you rarely use but are loath to uninstall. This usually clogs up the hard drive on your machine and weighs your operating system down with detritus.

The Chromebook is far more constrained (for now. Soon all new Chromebooks will run Android apps, which is still constraining in some sense). The only apps and extensions you can install on your Chromebook are those that work off the browser. Essentially, everything you do on a Chromebook happens within the constraints of a browser window. Install a Slack or a Google Hangouts app and what you get are the browser versions of those apps running inside specific windows. Then there are browser extensions which can get a fair amount done while you are on the Web, such as bookmark sites (Pocket), cite papers (Paperpile), or relay mobile notifications (Pushbullet). Overindulge, however, and you end up ruining your browser experience.

And all these constraints are a good thing? Yes. Because you learn to tailor your laptop-usage behaviour to make maximum use of these constraints. Much like many other aspects of creative life, these constraints can make you both more efficient and more creative. This has been my experience. I’ve now developed an on-the-go working style in which I’ve learnt to make the most of Google Docs and a short set of other apps and extensions such as Google Hangouts for communication, Pocket Casts for podcast listening, Paperpile for citations, Kindle Cloud Reader and, most of all, WorkFlowy.

I am amazed that I hadn’t heard of WorkFlowy until I purchased the Chromebook. WorkFlowy is, to put it simply, an app for writing and maintaining bulleted lists. I know exactly what you’re thinking right now: Aren’t there a million list-making apps? And can’t you just make lists in Google Docs or Evernote or whatever? Yes, yes and yes. But WorkFlowy is brilliant in a few ways. First, it is fast, simple, and syncs brilliantly with the WorkFlowy Android app on my phone. Second, it will take you no more than 15 minutes to figure out how it works. It has no bloat. Third, there is a great online community of users and WorkFlowy buffs who have great ideas and templates that you may find useful. (I recently found a great template to outline and write book-length manuscripts).

But what I love most about WorkFlowy, and why it has become central to my day-to-day life, are the collapsing and zooming functions. Everything in WorkFlowy exists as an entry on a list. So your highest-level lists could be: Work, Home, Things To Do, Shopping List. You have sublists (Book Manuscript), and then further lists (Character Outlines) nesting within each of them, and so on. How much you want to see on the screen is up to you. You can collapse or expand as you wish. Zooming brings added focus.

Suppose you want to outline the Butler character in your crime novel. You can zoom right into the Butler Outline bullet point in your WorkFlowy app, and everything on the screen will go away. What is left is a clean, pure environment ready for taking copious notes. Without your mind being distracted by the shopping list or the “Books To Buy” list lurking in the periphery. Done with work? Zoom right out again and tackle something else. It all sounds simple indeed. And it is. This is why it works on a Chromebook. But WorkFlowy has been a great addition to my workflow. Full functionality requires a paid account, but I highly recommend giving the demo a shot. I have hundreds of entries in dozens of lists that all exist safely tucked away inside an entirely manageable list of half-a-dozen top-level superlists.

Constraints are not all that bad. They often give rise to some great ideas.

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