A GNOME Desktop

What Linux Taught Me About Productivity

Lessons From Talking to Desktop Linux Users

I’ve spent the past two years interviewing people about their desktop Linux setups, asking them about the Linux distributions they chose, the desktop environments they use, and the software upon which they rely. Over the past 73 interviews, a number of common lessons have emerged. Most of these apply to anyone who relies on a computer to do their work, Linux user or not. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from these interviews:

1. Consider your workflow

Non-Linux users are often surprised by the amount of customization that’s possible within Linux desktops. Some of this has to do with the distribution someone is using, but some of it has to do with the concept of desktop and window managers which control the look and feel of the desktop. It’s fairly trivial to change desktop and windows managers, making it very easy for users to dramatically change everything about their UI without changing the underlying system at all. As a result of this choice and customization, which really doesn’t exist to quite the same extent within Windows and Mac OS X, most of my interview subjects have thought long and hard about what’s most productive for the way they work, usually through trial and error. For just about every interviewee, if not every interviewee, it’s not about the desktop that looks nicest or has the best effects. Instead, it’s about the desktop that is most responsive to their particular workflow. For some, it’s an incredibly intricate, customizable environment, like KDE. For others, it’s a simple window manager that isn’t even really a full desktop. While not all computer users have the same ability to customize their work spaces, anyone can think about how they want to work and then consider whatever software options are available to them, in terms of accomplishing those goals. Don’t compromise your work to bend to the functionality of a tool. Your desktop should bend to your will and your workflow, not the other way around.

2. Figure out what’s important

Desktop Linux users tend to be mindful of the political implications of using free and open source software. And the free and open nature of Linux is what drives many to use it for their work. But many subjects talked about using software that was not free or that was not open source, or even both, because it was the best software for the job they were trying to perform. Some people might call this selling out or compromising principles, but when your work depends upon a certain tool, you want the best tool you can find. And if the free and open source versions of software you need aren’t very good, consider this an impetus to support or fund the tools that need more work in some way. But don’t get caught up in the politics of technology just for the sake of politics. Take some time to consider what’s important to you, from a political, technical, and personally productive standpoint.

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment

To use Linux for your daily work is to be a pioneer. As with any operating system, things will break. Unlike other operating systems, the only support recourse is to figure out how to fix it yourself. With that in mind, it’s safe to say most Linux users have at least some spirit of adventure within them. And within that spirit of adventure lies a willingness to experiment, either in terms of playing with different kinds of software, or even making changes to the underlying functionality of the operating system. And often, out of these experiments, users discover things about themselves, from interfaces they like, to functionality they didn’t realize they needed. Linux makes it very easy to experiment, from the customizable nature of the operating system to the package managers that make the installation of new software as easy as installing an app on your phone, to the fact that most of the software within the package mangers is cost-free. Most users, no matter what operating system they are using, have some kind of access to different kinds of software, and while it’s not always cost-free, many vendors offer limited trials. Experimenting with new software can open up worlds, turning users on to better tools and showing them a more effective way to do their work. Of course, the corollary to this is if that if you jump from tool to tool, never settling on anything, you’re probably not going to get much done. For most interview subjects, it’s not about compulsive tool-hopping, so much as it’s about being open to the idea that a better tool than the current one might exist.

These lessons come from desktop Linux users, but they apply to anyone who uses anything electronic to accomplish their work. It’s not the operating system that’s important — it’s the ability of the user to understand and articulate their work preferences that is. So the next time you’re sitting in front of a phone, tablet, or laptop, frustrated you’re not getting any work done, take a few minutes to consider these lessons and see if you can’t make using your computer or device a more natural and productive experience. Interviewing all of those Linux users has taught me it’s not about the specific software, or even the underlying operating system, so much as it’s about how software moves us toward our goals.