Detours in desktop applications

It is amazing how often it is useful to follow a detour when using desktop application tools in daily PKM tasks. Normally we assume that solving IT problems involves some steps along a click path where each click takes us closer to the target. In some cases, however, the first step does just the opposite.

I encountered many occasions where it is useful to perform some action just to immediately afterwards reverse or cancel it. Example: when I want to copy a file’s name, I initiate a Rename operation (rightclick > rename), copy the highlighted name to the clipboard (rightclick > copy) , and abort the rename opeation by clicking elsewhere.

Other examples: Many occur in Powerpoint.

  • When I mixed more than 8 colors, the older ones are no longer avaiable in the palette of the More Fill Colors dialog box. When I want to reuse the color of an older shape I select this older one, go to user defined colors, move one of the RGB value adjustment arrow controls by one unit downwards, and immediately bac k upwards again, and press OK. This brings the color to the recently-used colors palette.
  • When grouping, moving, and then ungrouping shapes, sometimes the connectors get misaligned. I select the one with the most connections in the group, move it by one unit downwards and immediately upwards – voila, the connectors are neatly redrawn.
  • Sometimes I want to do another operation with a large selection of objects that was laborious to determine. Just undo and redo – and they are selected again.

Also outside Powerpoint, similar situations are encountered:

  • I often click the Show Desktop quick-launch icon not in order to work with desktop items but to immediately afterwards restore one or two individual windows.
  • If I started to drag & drop an object the with mouse-button pressed down, and then change my mind, I can move the mouse to completely inappropriate location to get the Not-Allowed symbol displayed because this is the only safe place to release the mouse button without causing an inappropriate action.
  • Similarly, if I merely pressed the mouse button at a dangerous click area, I can move the mouse on while keeping the button pressed until I find a location to release it where it does nothing.
  • In the last examples, the fact that releasing the mouse button is more relevant than pressing it, is in itself rather paradoxical for the unexperienced user believing in goal-orientation. Similarly, it is the closing a window at the end of a task that determines the start options (such as browser width or notepad width for optimal ergonomy), not the opening as the beginner might expect.

Not only the small action steps within an application but also the very choice of which application to use is often paradoxical. I use some office applications for purposes that have nothing in common with the usual focus of these programs, often just for a transient short phase between phases of processing the dataset in other applications.

For instance, I use Word to perform certain find/ replace operations in absolutely non-textual contexts, e. g. Replace ^P^P (empty lines) by <P>^P (HTML paragraphs). I use Excel just for importing to or exporting from Access, e. g. because it better handles grouped reports. I use Access sometimes just to import a table, sort it sophisticatedly, export it, and delete the entire temporary database again. I use Word just to make a web page more readable for printout – in two narrow columns for more ergonomy. And when I process hierarchical relationships to assemble a tree view, I use both Access and HTML to, basically, generate nested <UL> lists, see (in German) this section. (And I am still happy that I no longer have to write a program myself as 25 years ago!)

All these deviations from the expected problem-solving path, require a different attitude towards IT tools than the usual one:


  • Normally, you can pick the appropriate steps and tools in a goal-directed way and learn to deploy them “just in time“;
  • For such detours, however, it is ncessary that you know the tools and the various possible (click-)paths and outcomes as you know the roads in your geographical neighborhood, and that you have acquired a sense of orientation and overlook, and this happens in advance, gaining “just-in-case” knowledge and familiarity.
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