Our computers are emailing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, calendar managing machines. Nobody would argue about how useful it is to have all these features available in one device, but sometimes I feel like their multi-tasking personality is driving us nuts.
In my last post, I mentioned virtual desktops in Windows and as I got a lot of use out of this little known feature today, I want to go a little deeper into how it helps improve my workflow and productivity.
If you are on Windows 7 or 8, you can unlock virtual desktops by visiting the sysinternals site, now owned by Microsoft, and downloading the Desktops 2.0 tool here.
Of course, installing additional software to enable virtual desktops might seem strange to Mac and Linux users who have had access to these features by default for a while, or Windows 10 users who could unexpectedly stumble across this feature when Windows-key tabbing (as I did).
You might be wondering why you would even want this tool, what its purpose is and whether it is actually useful or just a gimmick. These are the thoughts I had years ago when I first encountered virtual desktops in Ubuntu, but recently I found myself having a practical need for it and I was so glad that I could get this feature in Windows 7.
I think the simplest way to explain Virtual Desktops is to point to smart phone home screens. Most of us have multiple home screens on our phones, accessed by swiping left and right to show us different apps and widgets that we have placed there. Virtual Desktops are like home screens for your PC.
The Clean Desk Feeling
I’m sure that I don’t need to convince anyone that when your desk is clear of everything but the essentials, you feel calmer and more focused. Moving on from that, you get a similar feeling when your computer desktop is also clear of everything that you don’t need to be looking at right now, just the essentials.
You may be a regular Excel user like me, but you still need to have emails and your browser instantly accessible. New email notifications can be a significant distraction, regardless of how important they really are, and the browser is a constant temptation even for the most diligent of workers. Not only that but keeping them open creates screen clutter and even with keyboard short-cuts it can be a confusing mess at times.
I’ve tried getting comfortable with keyboard switching and holding down the Alt key when I’m switching programs, but I can have so many things open at a time and reading the titles of several different things that are all very similar can become a mental drain, so usually I don’t even do that and just switch and pray.
Sometimes I even keep everything else closed and have to start over from a blank slate each time I reopen the needed application or file. That always felt like a distinct blow to my productivity and for many people wouldn’t even be considered an option.
Well there is hope, you just need extra workspace(s)!
With virtual desktops, I keep different applications and files open on different workspaces which I can very quickly switch to whenever I want. For example on one of my workspaces I have just my emails open, and on my other workspace I can focus on the task I have set up there without any distractions, only returning to my emails when I am ready for a break or have finished the task at hand.
My main working screen will only have two things open, the application I am working in and the file manager showing whichever folder that has my working files in. That’s all.
I used to keep notes open on my desktop too but found it was very cluttering. Now that I’m using virtual desktops I have gone back to doing that and only see the notes when I switch.
Pausing Tasks For Later
Another great use of virtual desktops is having multiple tasks/projects open at the same time without them distracting you from the main one.
For example, I was working on my regular reporting today when I was approached by a colleague with some questions about another report I had worked on the week before. I switched to a new desktop and opened the report up straight away, performed a few small checks and resolved the query. Afterwards I closed everything down and switched back to my main desktop where nothing had moved, changed or been lost.
Previously this sort of interruption could drastically derail my work, requiring me to shut down files I had been working on at the time to prevent mistakes or getting myself confused. A couple of times I’d even accidentally closed something I hadn’t meant to.
Now, as long as I always switch to a different desktop for ad-hoc tasks, I never need to worry about mixing up the things I’m working on. Everything can basically sit in its own sandbox where I can do whatever I want until I’m done with it.
This has also proven to be a time saver as I’ve found that it is much easier to get back into the flow of my previous tasks when everything is in exactly the same place that I left it, down to having the same text, cell or file highlighted that was before.
Go Big Or Go Home
Full screen, it’s better than windowed. With virtual desktops, you can make everything you work on full screen because it is so easy to switch between them. I’ve even found that files that I would usually want to compare side by side, I can instead compare by switching between virtual desktops, on full screen, and compare just as closely as I would have before.
Being able to keep the full screen means a lot less scrolling or moving sliders, so there’s less actual navigation needed while I work, which means I can focus more on the actual work rather than my view of the work.
Alternatives To Desktops V2.0
Desktops V2.0 (the virtual desktop tool I am using) does have some limitations that I have accepted thus far, including not being able to have Chrome open on every desktop. There are workarounds, but they’re clunky and I don’t need browser access on multiple workspaces that badly. I have also read that other virtual desktop software can let you drag your window to the side of the screen to move it onto another desktop, like home screens on smart phones. I would like to have this feature and I may try out an alternative later on, but I’m sticking to this one for now as it does the main things well.
I’ve read some good things about Dexpot and that might be the one I try next, but you’ll have to do your own research and comparisons to find out if either are right for you. Just remember, if it can make a difference to your work, just start using one now and worry about which is best later!