Recently, my 27” iMac went out of commission for a day, and I had to rely solely on a 13” Macbook Air. It forced me to focus and had me second guessing how I work on computers.

I have a big monitor that sits on a big desk, which is littered with stacks of paper the same way my iMac is littered with stacks of apps. I see corners of windows everywhere, peeking out and siphoning shreds of attention away from the task at hand. This need to navigate from one app to the next has facilitated my evolution into a multitasking machine. Not since the arcade edition of Street Fighter II have I mastered so many gestures and key commands. Utilities like Mission Control, Alfred App, and Better Touch Tool, summoned by various combos of taps and swipes, have become key to the way I work. Emails get answered while to-do lists are created while graphics are exported while sites get updated. Notifications pop-up, and I suppress them. I am master of my desktop environment, and it’s wearing me out.

I noticed something interesting the day I was confined to just 13” of screen space. Even though I couldn’t see everything I needed to operate and reference at once, I became more focused. Only seeing one window at a time enabled me to mentally hunker down on the task at hand. My actions felt purposeful; my decisions, deliberate. Surprisingly, my productivity didn’t suffer. I did slow down, but also experienced a calm efficiency—similar to that which is required when fastening the innumerable rows of snaps on a screaming baby’s pajamas. If you rush, you’re going to mess up; if you miss snaps, it’s going to take longer. And rushing makes you sweat. Never let the baby see you sweat.

Then it dawned on me. All this multitasking I do shouldn’t be classified as a talent, especially as it relates to a computer desktop environment. To say that I’m good at multitasking is like saying I’m good at shuffling papers around on my desk. It’s more distracting that it is helpful.

Stop. Pull everything together into a single stack, take a breath, and enjoy the work. We’re not tarring roofs in 100° heat. We get to build for the web, and life is wonderful.

It’s like driving.

Dashboards in old cars aren’t like the ones we’re used to today. Sit in a 1965 Mustang and the only things you see in front of you are directly related to the task of driving an automobile. You’ve got gauges for speed, oil pressure, water temperature, and fuel level. You’ve got one foot on the clutch and one on the gas; you’ve got one hand on the wheel and the other on the gearshift. You’re completely engaged in the act of driving. You’re focused.


Today, our cars have all that stuff, as well as a slew of extras that have nothing to do with operating a motor vehicle. Dashboards ask us what song we want to hear, where we’d like to get directions to, and even what temperature we’d like our asses to be. Our steering wheels have buttons in them to help us answer those questions without taking our eyes off the road. But does any of this make us better drivers? Of course not. We’re shitty drivers with too many questions to answer and tasks to manage to be bothered with making it from point A to B.

The wagon: stay on or get off?

As soon as the Time Machine backup safely made its way to my 27” iMac I was right back to my old multitasking tricks. Honestly, I think the only reason I need a screen that size is for design. To really get my hands dirty, I’ve gotta have room to view the full canvas as well as zoom in to 3200%. But just because I need the space for a few apps doesn’t mean all other computing tasks (and my work life) should suffer. So, how to mitigate this? I’m a strong-willed person, but rather than relying solely on gumption I set out to retool the way I work at large screens from my desktop view out.

The first thing I did was to hide or remove all the unnecessary notifications that I could. I disabled new message sounds in mail and growl alerts for most apps. Then I removed anything that blinked or lit up (Twitter, RSS, etc.) from my menu bar except for Dropbox. I set my dock at maximum magnification so it would appear tiny until hover. I already use (and love) Alfred App to launch most anything, so my dock was already fairly tidy.

Then I took a Sunday afternoon to take things further with a few apps that minimize visual clutter and maximize productivity without getting in my way. Here’s what I kept after testing a handful:

I started with a quick cosmetic change. Menu Eclipse fades your menu bar out of sight when left inactive after a specified amount of time and can be set to reappear when you hover. It’s a small detail, but not having all those stats and bits of data in your peripheral goes a long way.

Menu Eclipse

Isolator app covers your desktop and all of its icons as well as other windows with a single layer. You can even choose the color and set blur and opacity for items being hidden. This has been the secret to my unitasking success thus far.


Divvy: I’ve had Divvy a while, but use it differently now to deal with the windows themselves. Unless that task at hand calls for windows to be side by side, I set a keyboard shortcut (configured to a Better Touch Tool gesture) to make each window the exact same size, no corners peeking out, all apps perfectly stacked.

I’ve also got plans to try an app called Concentrate that lets you customize actions such as launching, closing, and hiding apps to assist particular tasks like writing, design, or coding. And if you really need to unplug, check out Freedom. This app locks you out of the internet for a specified amount of time.

That’s my current solution for clutter within the desktop environment, but what about my actual, physical surroundings? I’ll be moving offices in a few weeks, so I have a golden opportunity to make some changes. I’ve been researching standing desks and thinking about how time out of my chair and away from the screen could make me a happier web worker. I’ve had this fantastic A List Apart article on Habit Fields by Jack Cheng bookmarked for a while, and dig what he’s saying about how objects and surroundings influence our focus and demeanor. For my next trick, I will attempt to go zen-master all over my workplace.

70 Responses

Leave a comment or contact me via Twitter @TrentWalton

  • James

    I often wonder if people simply rely on too many apps and process tools and that in itself becomes another process to manage.

    I’m not a mac user so I don’t know those apps specifically but I know I get by without them by default of not being on a mac but I’ve seen a few articles recently where people are almost at the point of using apps to manage apps and wonder how they get by in an aveage day.

    It’s nice to see the simplification of workflow is brought home when you’re forced out of your normal working practice and how much bloat can accompany your daily routine.

    Absolutely love the art direction on this post btw.


  • TJ

    Dang good read, thanks for the insight. I constantly find myself distracted by too many open apps.

  • Bobby George

    Whenever I think about workspaces, I’m always reminded of this image of Steve Jobs.

  • Nol

    Thanks for the great article, Trent! I’m looking forward to trying out some of the apps/methods you’ve mentioned. Unitasking is definitely the way to go!

  • Desmond

    Great read. Only thing I’m wondering about is why you don’t turn dock hiding on. Been using SizeUp for window size management for a while and it gets the job done nicely for a dollar less.

  • Brendan Falkowski

    Going to give Isolator a try. The best focus-boost I found was turning off Growl.

    Aside, this art direction thing has gone to a whole new level. Took me 15 seconds to connect those weren’t badly scanned printouts of old apps, but screenshots of living apps stylized for the article’s sake. It’s both disorienting and clever.

  • Trent

    Thanks everybody! Happy to hear you’re enjoying the post.

    @Desmond: I’ve tried hiding my dock a few times before, but the slight lag in its reapparence on hover bothers me just enough to leave it in plain sight.

    @Brendan Falkowski: Thank you, sir! I struggled with how to incorporate window screenshots without negating the point of the post. That subdued color palette & color dodged grunge seemed to do the trick.

  • Markus Vad Flaaten

    Unit asking. No wait...

  • Jonas

    Good article Trent! I went through a similar period of clutter reduction and used Hyperspaces to hide all Desktop icons on specific spaces, hid the Dock, and put all the distraction stuff like email, Twitter, on dedicated spaces. (Unfortunately Hyperspaces is dead with Lion/Mission Control, so I need a new Lion way.)

    Anyway, this worked pretty well, it helps focus on a context — either you’re working or you’re looking at email. I’ve also tried apps that force you to stay on task but they’re too draconian and inevitably you end up having to turn them off for some reason.

  • Laurence McCahill

    Awesome post as always Mr Walton. Reminds me of a post I wrote a while back about work fidgets:

    My mouse keeps getting drawn back to the title. Mesmerizing.

  • Arunan Skanthan

    I agree with you Trent, less is more! I found I was more productive on a single screen monitor than on a dual setup, and also went to the extreme of swapping my smartphone for one that can text and make calls... I get to read a book on the train now.. :)

  • Dan Eden

    An awesome read, as always.
    I’ve found something interesting about the way I work recently - on Windows, I tend to do more. This is mainly down to the fact that almost every window I open on Windows occupies the full screen, so it’s just the task at hand I’m concentrating on. Things like Safari tabs with unread counts etc still distract me, so that’s a little annoying. But no doubt I’ll be using the full screen apps on my iMac a lot more now that I’ve noticed the productivity change when I’m on Windows!

  • Matthew Roberts

    I agree with most of these points.

    Dual screens suck, unless you happen to be doing a particular job that can benefit that (When I used to do music, we used Logic Studio, and had a mixing desk on one screen, the rest on another - that made sense)

    people design most stuff to be used in a single screen environment these days - for wide screens.

    I am already using isolator. Very good! the menu bar I am trying - it’s a bit odd at first, but easier than Lion full screen and all the swipe nonsense.

    multitasking is ok - but as I get older, have 3 kids and a dog and all the crap that goes with it, I need to single-task. I just don’t have time and energy to waste.

    Leo Babauta is the man -

  • Nathan Leigh Davis

    Couldn’t agree more. I love my laptop and shun dual screens for these reasons.

    I’ve been trying out the Pomodoro Technique recently. Twenty-five minutes of work followed by a five minute break. Simple, but it’s an excellent way of breaking up tasks and getting productive.

  • bgalmar

    Nice post, Trent.
    I totally agree with you and do believe that there is really no such thing as multitasking. The truth is that we can really only do one thing at a time. The challenge is doing them as efficiently as possible and balancing your distractions.


  • Owen McGauley

    Nice article. Love the style of the headline/heading. I recently moved from Windows to a 27″ iMac and I noticed a reasonable dip in concentration and productivity. Maximised applications really focus the mind. I find Photoshop on Mac quite distracting, but Isolator is perfect.

    Thanks for the tip!

  • Matthew Roberts

    Only me (again!)

    This is the post i was looking for about simple-tasking:

    It’s succinct and totally on point.

  • Trent

    @Laurence McCahill: Nice write up. I especially agree with keeping personal to-do lists off of the computer.

    @Matthew Roberts: Good find... thanks for posting that :)

  • faye

    Very true. Multitasking is counterproductive. To learn more about the effects of multitasking, you may want to check this free exercise at

  • Rob Alan


    Very insightful. Thanks for sharing! I’ve been using mainly just my 15″ MBP with everything at full-screen—plugging into a monitor only when necessary (for that 3200% zoom). It definitely helps. And as Nathan mentioned above, I’m using the Pomodoro Technique also. A handy app to add to the list:

    On the standing desk, in my opinion be sure you can both sit or stand, and pay attention to your body (posture and monitor height more than ever). I’m sure you know it’s been suggested that either sitting or standing 100% of the time isn’t good for us. It’s best, they say, to take mini breaks, get up and move around—or if standing, sit.

  • Christian

    You might consider simply standing for a stretch every half hour or so, rather than committing to a standing desk. Apparently standing all day has some heavy negative effects too, and short stretch breaks are the best compromise


  • Trent

    @Rob Alan: I’d definitely need Focus Booster to pull off this Pomodoro Technique. Thanks for sharing!

    @Christian: I’ve found the same thing—my desk is going to be adjustable height, and I’m happy to have some flexibility there. Oh, and jinx! I’ve had that Cornell study bookmarked for a while :)

  • Shawn Scammahorn

    Great article.

    I’m a Linux (Ubuntu) guy myself. The new Unity dock irritated me for a long while, but while it’s on autohide, I only see the current program I’m using and the panel (time, Dropbox, wireless connection, volume, etc).

    I do find myself staying more focused this way

    I use Gnome Do (QuickSilver for Linux) to launch, and a couple keystrokes (via Compiz/Scale) to switch between non-minimized progs.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I may have to continue tweaking my setup :)

  • hp

    It’s healthier to stay sit while working but stand up every 20 minutes than to work standing the whole work day.

    Can’t remember where was the source but just letting you know.

  • Dennis

    Hi Trent,
    thanks for the nice read. I’ll give the Isolator App a go. If you have Time, check out SpiritedAway for Mac. It really helps me to get rid of that Windowclutter with minimizing Windows after a certain Time. Keep up your inspiring Work!
    Cheers from Germany,

  • Philip Karpiak

    Good read, Trent.

    I used to cherish my monitor and only because I thought I needed it to get the most potential out of Photoshop, gaming aside. But being forced to use just my MacBook Pro’s screen a few times I now pretty much use only that. It’s not so much about being more focused – I never had more than one app onscreen with the monitor either – but I just feel more closer to my work, the way the keyboard is connected to my screen and all. My back would probably like me to go back to using a monitor though…

    The way I have OS X setup to show single apps only is just with a preference setting: put ‘defaults write single-app -bool YES; killall Dock’ in the Terminal and whenever you click an app in the Dock it will show that app and hide all the rest. If you need a few apps up at once just CMD+Tab to them.

  • Davin

    Great post. I was reminded of this post from Caterina Fake:

    Caterina shared an image from David Kidder with a “single tasking” daily routine.

  • Michael A

    I used to own to classic mustangs. One of them I raced, so no radio or a/c... talk about being focused on driving!

    I recently went form working in-house to full-time freelance and thought I needed the same setup I had in the office - iMac with extra monitor. I’m glad I decided not to spend the money on the setup and use my 4yo MBP. I am totally focused on my design, for the most part, and efficiency is up compared to working in-house.

    Thanks for the app list!

  • seth

    Hey Trent,

    Great stuff man. Inspiring and informative as always. I love the background image. Can I use it as a starter, tweak and run with it for myself? Trying to recreate in Photoshop with no success. Hints? I am just starting out and diving in head first. Peace bro.

  • Raik

    As a Alfred user you could try a extension what makes reminders (a’ la pomodoro technique). Easy to use and nothing fancy... like it should be.
    Look for “Create reminder”

  • george

    Awesome read. Thanks for the well put and well founded thoughts.

  • Jen

    Great post! I’ve found that those who define themselves as great multitaskers often don’t produce the best quality. I
    tend to want to say I’m a “smart tasker” as opposed to a “multitasker,” but “unitasker” is an excellent term as well.

  • The Design Works

    Great post, I’ll definitely be checking out some of those apps and hopefully getting back to concentrating on being a great web designer rather than just a good multi-tasker.

    P.S. Diggin’ that font stack of yours too :)

  • Trent

    @Dennis: Spirited Away looks great. I’ll check it out!

    @Seth: Maybe try and build your own... This might help.

    @Raik: Thanks for the tip!

  • Jordan Borth

    Great post, Trent.

    Over the years I’ve progressed to be more minimal in everything I do. I find it has enhanced most aspects of my life, including design. From the clothes I have, technology I use, apps I use, furniture we have, etx.

    Less, but better;)

  • seth


    Great Trent, thanks, will do. Peace.

  • Sam Hardacre

    Great read Trent.

    The layering of apps on a single screen is one of my only pet peeves of the Mac interface. It does remind me of stacks of paper just cluttering up the screen. Since Apple released Spaces, I’ve used that to separate out all the apps I run, each running on its own space.

    On a day to day basis I only run 4 or 5 apps all day long so I set up 8 spaces giving me 2 spare then just tab through to switch. A bit of a pain to set up at first but now I have it in place, I find myself focussing more on the task at hand on a particular screen.

    I will definitely be trying Menu Eclipse to hide the menu bar. I’ve been after something like that for a long time! :)

  • Travis Ulrich

    Great read... But I’m not giving up my dual displays! ;)

    I agree though, multitasking does quickly turn into ‘busy work’. When I notice that I’m running from task to task without fully completing any of them I press [command]+[option]+[esc] and start looking at what apps I can close and then I [command]+[tab] to the Finder and [command]+[w] (over and over) until all my windows are closed.

    I think the next step (and god grant me the strength) is to turn my Mail client to not automatically receive all email.

    I’ll be checking out Menu Eclipse. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

  • Patrick Haney

    Great writeup, Trent. I’m currently working to improve my focus during the workday, and unitasking seems like something that would benefit the OCD like myself.

    Like Dennis, I highly recommend checking out Spirited Away. I’ve been using it for years, and it’s great for hiding applications you aren’t using.

    Combine this with a Terminal command I use for the OS X Dock that makes any app’s icon somewhat transparent when it’s hidden, and you’ve got a nice uncluttered look to your Mac:

    defaults write showhidden -bool YES

  • Maybelle

    I love what you said about multitasking - that it cannot be qualified into a talent as it relates to a computer desktop environment, that to say that you’re good at multitasking is like saying you’re good at shuffling papers around your desk. It’s really a matter of adapting and survival. That must have a hell of a 13″ experience! Thanks for sharing!

  • Torbot

    Great article! You could consider a new MBP with hi-def screen. I used to shun the idea of designing on a laptop and loved my dual-monitor setup, but my wife and I both decided to simplify and do a work/travel thing. This meant laptops, and I was really concerned about the screen real-estate issue. I picked up a 15″ and sprung for the hi-def screen and am *loving* it. Turns out I have better resolution than my previous monitors, am closer to the screen and feel more focused on the task at hand. Being able to work at a desk, on a couch or out on the patio has made working fun again.

  • elice82

    My white intel iMac is going slow. So I use now more my 13″ Macbook (unibody, aluminium). You are more focused. Because a lot... doesn’t fit in that kind of screen size.
    I think it is true (@MAYBELLE) that what you don’t have you need to use what you got! But it got me thinking. It always has been big bigger biggest. And two same thing (computer & laptop) side by side. More and more I realize that those could be one. Still a bigger screen then the 11″ or 13″ Macbook air is nice. But not a 15″ or 17″ Macbook (it heavy). But the 27″ Cinema Led Display is to big for me.
    I wish that Apple would make a 21.5″ Cinema Led Display. I even would buy the Macbook Air 13″. 11″ Is too small for me.
    I’m mobile and I have a bigger screen for woking at home but not too big.

    For you back! Less is more!

  • javier lo

    You are my super hero!

  • Ced Funches

    Very interesting. I like the app suggestion. Leads me to think of the new startup revolution. Apps for everything. Funding flying around for the next big thing. When really, My most productive time is planning, sketching and video games to clear my mind.

    Great stuff as always Trent.

  • Dan Denney

    I just wanted to thank you for this write-up. I haven’t embraced all of the techniques yet, but just switching to using Alfred as a launcher and reducing my dock down to a few items has been fantastic.

  • Alex

    1) Thx Mr. Walton for your insights! I now use Isolator for focussing on one task/application!

    2) @Bobby George: Great photograph! Was worth a tweet for me.

    Thanks your sharing to both of you!
    Kind regards.

  • Mark Nielsen

    Can you run alternative window managers on OS X, as you can with other *NIX systems? I design and develop on Linux and I’ve found ultra light-weight window managers to be a massive help in both staying focused and managing a lot of windows when I need to. I started with wmii (, and it is good, if a little purist. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found Awesome window manager ( to be just the ticket.

  • Kevin Letchford

    Its really annoying, I wish i had gone with the hd mac book pro screen. I do find it personally nearly imposable to do design work on a whim with out having a 2 screen set-up. Every thing becomes more restrictive and focused on working on one element at a time.

  • Aaron Kelly

    Trent - do you have any preference of chair? A standing desk would be awesome, but in the mean time I need a new chair that isn’t too springy, or soft. Maybe something wooden, but comfortable. Any suggestions would be mucho appreciated. Thanks.

  • Spark Creative

    Good suggestions, I am always trying to find ways to simplify. I’ll give these apps a try!

    Now, only if there was an app to keep the marketing director out of my hair ;)

  • Alexandru Nastase

    I do not know how did you get so multitasking in the first place, but the article is brilliant and well put, much respect

  • Tiffany Duening

    Not to be a pedant, but it should be “no corners peeking out” instead of “peaking” in the Divvy paragraph.

    Great post though! Just downloaded Concentrate. Thanks!

  • Trent

    @Tiffany Duening: Good catch! Thanks!

  • Anthony Jones

    Why not use, you know, real productivity tool, like Windows 7. I have 30″ and still only one window open at a time (I have 2 more monitors for when I need to open more windows), very convenient and lets me focus. It’s just ridiculous that all the window management features Windows has built in are sold as some lame “apps” to mac users at outrageous prices. If you are adamant on using iOS, have a look at the following utilities: Afloat, Quicksilver (and its successor projects), PresentYourApps, SizeUp and Gyazo/Tinygrab. Features of each would take too much time to describe, but it’s the tools that make iOS experience somewhat bearable, if still inferior to Windows. Also, regardless of the platform you are on, consider investing in additional programmable input device, like Logitech G13. I have one and despite using only about 10% of its potential, absolutely love it - great timesaver and very versatile tool for a variety of tasks. Hope this is helpful, good luck!

  • Gaston

    Yeah the Pomodoro Technique is pretty good. The free book gives some good theory on how we can all focus and work.

  • Joel

    Good article. I work on a multiple monitor system in a windows environment, and I learned very early on (re: years ago) that too many windows and instant messenger applications and email are just too draining. Now each of my development applications is tailored to fit the entire screen. All other windows have been backgrounded (period) until they are needed to complete the current task. If instant messenger is a distraction, I turn it off. If email is a distraction, I don’t disable alerts, I shut the program down (heresy, I know). Now if I could just get the human distractions to stop calling or walking in I might be able to get something done.

  • Jake Parsell

    I like using the when I need to focus. Easy to configure to close apps that aren’t essential to your task and even set iChat status to let others know not to bother you until the Pomodoro is up.

  • Sandeep

    You might find this interesting. Multitasking makes us very in-efficient and focusing is a difficult thing to do with the distractions we have online.

  • Cynthia Armstrong

    Excellent article. Well written, valuable info. Thanks

  • Yousaf

    Great post! Just downloaded Concentrate. Thanks!

  • Caminito

    I love the header awesome, can you place a tutorial. on how it was done

  • Catherine

    Really usefull the isolator app… i damn ♥ it!

  • Matt

    I’ve found that fresh installs of the OS help with the clutter... I do a back up of my home directory to grab all the important stuff and then wipe the OS.
    Reinstall and soon enough you’ll notice not only a snappier experience, but also you wont have the distractions.
    Since doing the most recent one at work (due to an upgraded machine), I’ve found that I only have the apps I absolutely need for work, and not all the distracting stuff I’d accumulated before. I haven’t even fully recovered my old home directory yet... I just sits there until I need the files and then I get them...
    Makes for a way more blissful user experience, and with the App Store, its not hard to only fetch that app you’re missing when you need it.

  • Arthur

    I get by without them by default of not being on a mac but I’ve seen a few articles recently where people are almost at the point of using apps to manage apps and wonder how they get by in an aveage day.

  • Andy

    I’ve been slowly collecting more and more little apps that stop me procrastinating and get down to work. I’m terrible for finding something else to do.

    Self Control ( is probably the most useful one I’ve found. Hope you find it useful too.

  • Dimitris

    Had similar experience a while ago when my big boy crashed. Very helpful article.

    I also use timerescue app to log my productivity and improve myself, really handy!

  • Wei

    I love the interaction/animation on the title, UNITASKING. Is it just HTML 5 and CSS? Do you think you can please share how you create it? Thank you.

  • Ben Thoma

    You know you’ve written something relevant and poignant when you still receive comments years after it was first posted—well done.

    I appreciated your diversion about cars. I am disheartened by the amount of distraction that car companies are building into cars now. It’s really grown exponentially and I fear their desire to play to want consumers “want” (I don’t believe it) is putting all of us at more risk on the road than ever before. But that’s probably for another post.

  • Henry

    @James: James, I couldn’t agree more. While most of these tools designed to reduce distractions and enhance productivity seem fantastically useful, they can become a distraction in themselves. I feel like I am constantly chasing an ever-more efficient workflow, but spending significant time researching, buying/downloading and being enchanted by this ever-growing plethora of tools. I feel it may be beneficial to allocate long periods when I deliberately ignore such developments!

  • Derek

    Menu Eclipse and Isolator are awesome. Adding those to my setup. I’d throw in Houdini as a productivity utility worth checking out. Based on intervals you specify, apps are automatically hidden out of view.

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