Microsoft emphasizes focus in upcoming Office user interface

Once, Microsoft was rebuked for its egregious space-wasting when it came to user interface. Whereas the classic Mac interface, originally designed for a 9″ 512 X 384-pixel display, kept commands hidden in menus until they were needed, Microsoft fostered the distraction-free work backlash with toolbars filled with inscrutable icons and, later, a ribbon for Microsoft Office that consumed a large part of the work area.

The company recently scaled back the ribbon’s space requirements, though, and from the sound of this Verge article, more dramatic changes are in play as the Office team builds, per a preview video, “experiences built for focus.” Perhaps the closest look we get at the future concept is this ethereal view of old favorite Excel:

In addition to an overall simplification, Microsoft is also moving toolbars closer to the action where they are needed, which should also help with screen clutter. As is made clear both in the illustration and the even more abstract video, part of what’s driving the shift is Microsoft’s move onto platforms such as smartphones where there are not only smaller screens, but a need for larger targets to be hit by fingers as opposed to cursors.

There’s still much to be revealed here, but a redesign of Word that moves much of the user interface out of the way could put pressure on the cottage industry of distraction-free word processors.

TimeChi aims to be the “Fitbit of productivity”

Distraction-attacking gadgets present a paradox. They often seek to simplify an experience, but their very use often means an extra step or factor one needs to consider. Thus, their developers must take care to ensure that they don’t make the problem worse.

That’s a challenged faced by TimeChi, essentially a high-tech timer that allows you to designate periods of deep work. Unlike the illuminated BusyBox, the TimeChi’s lights are just for you as well as would-be interrupters; its glowing light might help message the latter but feels like it could be distracting to the former. TimeChi’s touch-based activaiton also seems like something that would pull focus, but the Australian team says it contributes to a sense of satisfaction that encourages productivity.

TimeChi also has a companion app and website that tracks its usage and allows you to designate what you’ve been working on during its timing sessions as well as how effective you think you were doing them. In this, it describes itself as “a Fitbit for productivity” although, paradoxically, a Fitbit is a more unobtrusive item than the TimeChi. For those for whom a timer or app plus Google Sheets is not enough, TimeChi is available for about $113 through the run of its Indiegogo campaign.

BusyBox is a sign of these distracting times

One way of classifying distractions is internally-driven interruptions versus externally-driven ones. The latter in particular may often be beyond your control. BusyBox, though, aims to minimize them by putting an illuminated sign outside of your mental temple. It warns all those who might enter that you are engaged in any manner of activities such as podcasting, gaming, or just being busy.

The sign, designed can be affixed with 3M Command Strips, is clearly inspired by the “On Air” signs that have graced studios for years, but repurposed for the pandemic era that often sees multiple family members doing office or school work at home.

The product comes in both a low-tech “standard” version that uses one of six templates and a surprisingly high-tech “digital” version that allows the creation of custom signs with graphics via an app that can even control distinct groups of BusyBoxes. It can be activated via popular voice assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant. While the standard version costs $90, the digital one costs a whopping $300. Both versions are available at half-price through the campaign.

Despite the price difference, the standard BusyBox will work for more than 120 hours per charge while the digital one will last a bit more than 10 despite it having twice the battery capacity of the standard version. The BusyBox team is also selling a remote activation button for $24.

The BusyBox looks like an effective way to siliently communicate to fellow family members or officemates that you’re working on something specific, particularly if, like its “On Air” sign inspiration, it’s something that demands quiet. Still, it seems expensive for what it is and raises the quesiton why it’s not easier to do something like this with a simple digital signage or remote screen control application and a smartphone or tablet.

The gorgeous BenQ PianoLight lights up when you walk by

Distraction can interfere with the discipline required to master a complex musical instrument like the piano, so anything that encourages one to play can be a real asset. That’s why I was compelled to try out the BenQ PianoLight, an unexpected product from the company best known for projectors and monitors. I was particularly interested in its proximity sensor; the light can turn on as you approach the piano. It doesn’t get more welcoming than that.

The product’s intrigue begins with the box, which balances despite an off-center handle due to the way BenQ has distributed the weight of the product in the package.

The light has a much smaller footprint than the one I’d been using but it emits a nearly perfect illumination of the entire keyboard, much as the company’s ScreenBar lamp spreads light across the surface area in front of a monitor. The simple controls for adjusting brightness and warmth allow for a degree of customization that’s not present in legacy piano lights.

There is room for improvement. The only component that needs to be attached is the glare shade, which is supposed to snap into the light. I’ve tried to attach it numerous times and it invariably falls off. A magnetic attachment method would have been a better solution. And the proximity sensor proved a bit too sensitive, turning the light on whenever any family member, including my cat, came within about two feet of the lamp. The feature has great potential; it would just be nice to dial it down a bit, just like the lamp’s brightness.

Regardless, the BenQ PianoLight is an elegant and effective light that is a particularly great complement to digital pianos. It’s simply one of the most attractive tech products I’ve ever used.

Book Review: Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction

Note: This review refers to the audiobook edition.

While Chris Bailey’s Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distractions (originally and less accurately subtitled How To Work Less To Achieve More) spends chapters explaining hyperfocus, a term borrowed from ADHD that means focusing on a single task in one’s “attentional space”, the title describes only part of its subject matter. The back half is dedicated to what Bailey calls scatterfocus, the opposite of hyperfocus in which the mind intentionally wanders. The two combine like the yin and yang; hyperfocus is all about short-term productivity sessions while scatterfocus helps enhance longer-term creative problem solving and ultimately leads to better focus.

In terms of visualization aids, Bailey describes and has shared two 2×2 grids. The first helps you sort out your tasks by whether they’re attractive and productive while the second helps sort distractions by whether they are fun and controllable. There’s less formality around sorting out scatterfocus modes, but he describes three: capture mode (letting your mind roam freely), problem-crunching mode (letting your mind wander around a particular problem) and habitual mode (engaging in a simple task and capturing the ideas and plans bubble to the surface). Bailey describes the last mode as the most productive and says it has generated reams of creative ideas.

When it comes to the distraction of tech, you’ll find many of the common ideas for stripping down your PC and smartphone to remove social media and even email. And while distraction-free or minimalist subsets of products are a favorite topic of Control-Break, Bailey suggests creating the opposite: a tablet that includes all the fun distractions for when you want to indulge in them. Bailey focuses a lot on intent. e.g., letting your mind wander is great, even desirable, when you’ve specifically engaged in one of three scatterfocus modes. He also alludes to the power of awareness, particularly in a discussion at the end of the book that would be better integrated earlier

One element of Bailey’s research I like is that he has engaged in personal interviews with some of the leading researchers in the space as opposed to just citing their academic papers or books. A few of my favorite discussions in the book revolve around specifics in the role of music in helping focus as well as the roles of media consumption and happiness in helping focus. Bailey is also not shy about suggesting caffeine and even alcohol as a way to enhance focus or creativity although he devotes far more attention earlier in the book to the drug-free benefits of meditation. There’s also a humorous gem of a section where Bailey relays a list of reader-submitted boring tasks that he took on as an experiment. (Spoiler: C-Span does not ignite the senses.)

When compared with Nir Eyal’s more recent Indistactable (reviewed here), Bailey, like Eyal, thinks about distraction as something that takes you away from your goal task, regardless of whether that task is “productive” in the traditional work sense. Unlike Eyal, Bailey seems to buy into the idea of fatigue and the limits of willpower (although he doesn’t dwell on it). Hyperfocus also leans a bit more toward the conceptual than practical execution than Indistractable; Bailey could offer more specific advice about how to enter the mental modes he describes.

Hyperfocus‘s paradox is that what separates it from other productivity books is the discussion of scatterfocus, which is hidden until you’re halfway through the book. But the real nut of the value comes from understanding and applying the interplay of hyperfocus and scatterfocus. If you come away with a technique to master these modes, that will make up for what the book lacks in hyperfocus insights alone.

QuietOn earbuds stop the noise without the music

Noise-canceling earbuds such as the AirPods Pro or, more recently, Surface Earbuds, are stolen (and likely reduced the audible jolt of) a lot of thunder from larger noise-canceling headphones that dominate long flights. But why should we have to trade one distraction for another, even if it’s relatively comforting music or white noise? QuietOn says that its noise-canceling earbuds are the smallest on the market, in part because they have no Bluetooth feature. The $199 buds use a button on their surface to quiet audio. QuietOn recommends the product for those trying to escape the snoring of a partner, but even small earbuds can be uncomfortable for side-sleepers.

Accent is an ambient display for the wall

As this Fast Company article I wrote back in 2017 shows, I’ve long been interested in the idea of ambient displays in the home. Their ancestors are analog products like clocks and framed photos. Then came digital photo frames and Chumby. More recently, they’ve shown up as smart displays. But despite some promising progress in wireless power, they all need to be plugged in.

E-ink to the rescue then? Google X engineer and Calmtech advocate Max Braun last year created Accent, an E-Ink-based frame that requires no power cord. As Braun notes, it is heavily based on the Waveshare three-color (black, white and red) display for Raspberry Pi computers. Thus, it’s good for things like calendars, OK for things like maps, and bad for things like photos. Braun followed up Accent with a poster-sized digital newspaper wall project called Paper which, according to the children’s riddle, is indeed black and white and re(a)d all over. However, with color e-paper technology such as E-Ink’s Print-Color technology becoming more prevalent in 2020 and beyond, a more suitable digital replacement for the photo frame could finally become a reality.

Turning a laptop into a Dropbox-synced typewriter

There are a few tips around the web for turning an old laptop into a distraction-free typewriter. You could go back to some of the very earliest laptops that ran DOS, but they are big and clunky and had poor battery life, and that was back when you could find batteries for them. Also, it’s handy to have at least one USB connector for moving text into the modern world.

The best guide I’ve seen ran on back in 2012. (when the photos were intact). It recommends using a ThinkPad 600 for its profile and excellent keyboard and has a reasonable walkthrough for how to set things up using Ubuntu Server. But why can’t someone create this as a disk image to make it even easier for folks?  A Linux-derived TypewriterOS? (No, not this.)


Book Review: Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

Note: This review refers to the audiobook edition.

Perhaps Nir Eyal feels as if he has to right the wrongs that were enabled by companies taking the concepts in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products too far. Or perhaps he sees the value in playing the mercenary in the epic battle for attention between companies’ and consumers’ interests. In either case, his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life leverages five years of reviewed research and personal experience to help adults, organizations, and kids defeat distraction. I focused mostly on the first cohort.

A few defining early points lay the groundwork for Eyal’s process. First, while I tend to think of the opposite of distraction as “focus,” Eyal defines it literally as “traction,” referring to the original word root. Much of the book then lays out how we must make time for traction with techniques such as time blocks and prevent distraction with techniques such as pacts (Many of Eyal’s tips for preventing distraction will be familiar to those who have read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, who curiously are not among the many credited authors and researchers.) In addition, he discusses how to master internal triggers and hack back external triggers, be they the latest Facebook notification or a chatty coworker.

Second, we tend to think of distracting behavior as fun pursuits when we are trying to get work done, but Eyal points out that what is distracting depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. In other words, if we have blocked out time to play video games because that’s how we want to spend our time, then tending to a work email may actually be the distraction.

The discussion on external triggers discusses many of the kinds of tools that this website is devoted to; many will be discussed in future posts. However, Eyal is careful not to blame technology for distraction. Indeed, early in the book, he describes several failed experiments he undertook in technological prior restraint, such as switching to a flip phone; these were either too restrictive or ineffective without the other parts of Eyal’s framework. Rather, he is focused on achieving balance using tech to your advantage. Some of the methods he discusses involve, for example, circumventing ads, which is ethically gray and could break down the line if publishers see them as a threat.

Many audiobooks have companion downloads to, for example, illustrate concepts that can’t be conveyed via audio, but Eyal has done his listeners a great service with an 80-page PDF workbook at his website that summarizes key points in the book, an especially thoughtful aid for books like these where it can be tough to remember.

Indistractable is a trove of well-presented research and techniques that elevate the quest for focus beyond crossing off the next to-do item to a skill critical for achieving the kind of life you want. It’s definitely worth a read or listen.

Mudita builds a 21st Century feature phone

The Mudita Pure takes an approach that falls somewhere between the Light Phone 2 and the Punkt 02, two other distraction-minimizing handsets with E-Ink displays. Like the Light device, it has a handful of apps that the creators have deemed essential, including a few apps that Light has not been able to deliver in some time such as a music player. (The screenshot shows off some thematic song choices.) In fact, the Mudita team has even developed a custom OS, an effort that leads one to think the team has ambitions far beyond the current hardware.

Like the Punkt device, though, the Pure is keypad-based, and that seems out of place when you’re planning to support messaging apps such as Signal. The Mudita campaign doesn’t mention T9, offering only that its keypad lets you “write a message without looking (with some practice).” Regardless, nobody wants to go back to those days, and Light’s software keyboard used for SMS and contacts seems like a better approach. That said, the Pure’s form factor is a very familiar update of 1990s Nokia design.

While its Indiegogo campaign, which included a well-done campaign video, ended with raising over $260,000, Mudita is still accepting pre-orders. The Pure is now available for just under $300 and is expected to arrive in October after missing its initial April target.