How Your Computer Set-up Affects Flow

Don't lean in to the compromises inherent in laptop design.

The principle of flow is that it’s a state of productivity where we get completely absorbed in our task, and produce work at a very high rate. When we’re working in flow, things just seem to happen – and we often find at the end that more time has gone past than we were expecting.

For most of us, we do a lot of our professional work on a computer. There are things that we can do with how we set-up our computers that can promote flow, and conversely there are things that we do when we set-up our computers that makes flow more difficult to achieve.

The most common computing device that we use for work these days tends to be a “laptop”. This name, over the past ten years, has become corrupted. What we think of as a laptop computer is actually a “notebook”, so called because the first versions of these were the same size as a notebook. Personal computers started as devices that lived on a desktop, back in 1981 with the IBM 5150 PC, but quite quickly it became apparently that more use could be got out of them if they were portable. This started with “luggable” style machines about the size of a pilot’s case, but eventually came down to something like the “clamshell” design we see today where the computer opens up like a book and can, technically, be used on a lap.

However, there was never an intention to use laptops on one’s lap, just like there was never an intention to put a desktop on a floor. The form factor that we see today with laptop computers is a compromise, intended to make the computer itself portable which a) gives us some capital expenditure efficiency, and b) gives us the ability to fill time with computing tasks that otherwise we would lose. Laptop computers have small screens computer to desktops, keyboards that are less easy to type on, and touchpads that are way harder to use than mice.

Those compromises are supposed to give rise to the computer being usable in exceptional circumstances, not day-to-day circumstances.

A computer is designed to be used with a full-sized monitor (ideally two monitors), a keyboard, and mouse. Whereas it’s fine to open up a laptop in a Starbucks or McDonald’s and tap away on a tiny keyboard, peering into a tiny screen, and using a touchpad, if it’s a good way of stealing back half-and-hour and getting through some workload, what you’re actually doing there is leaning in to the compromises of the devices, and it’s this leaning into the compromises that affects flow.

To picture this, imagine you are an artist trying to produce a picture in your studio. You have a canvas on an easel, a bright sunny view out of the window, all the materials nearby, and importantly you have space that you can physically and creativity range within. Flow will very easily happen in this environment. Now imagine that instead of this perfectly set-up space, you have to produce the same picture in a small broom cupboard, with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, and the canvas on the floor. Flow will not happen in this environment – but you will likely be able to create the same result, because nothing has changed in terms of your skill, but it will take you longer, and be more stressful.

This is why it is so important to set-up your work environment, and your employees, work environment in a way that is sympathetic with how a computer is designed to be used. It’s easier ot achieve flow and do better work if we are working in our equivalent of an artist’s studio as opposed to a broom cupboard.

The most common mistake that I see within businesses of any size is that they give someone a laptop because they are often working peripatetically, but then they land in the office the open up their laptop and just starts uses it on a flat surface, together with all those incumbent compromises of a tiny screen, small keyboard, and trackpad – not to mention the ergonomic and posture issues. This same person will also probably go home and do the same thing on their kitchen table, and when out and about will do the same thing when they stop off at Costa. The optimal thing to provide for them is a monitor, keyboard, and mouse that lives on the desk that they use, and – space permitting – has the exact same set-up at home. This arrangement also automatically gives you two monitors – one for the laptop, and a desktop monitor.

(Dual monitors make such a huge difference to productivity, and are now so cheap and easy to set-up. It’s something I absolutely recommend to everyone, whether they’re using a laptop or a desktop.)

For bonus points, a) put a mains adapter on the desk so that they can plug-in without having to scrabble around on the floor, and b) buy a Kensington Easy Riser or equivalent to raise the laptop up and clear some space. However you do it, keep an eye on whether the tools you’re using and giving to your employees is promoting or working against achieving flow.

By Matthew Reynolds
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