How Windows Vista Makes Me More Creative

Logo: cross between Windows Vista and AppleHow do you make a MacBook Pro crash? Install Windows Vista.

Sadly, I’m not joking.

I’m a Mac convert, and like many converts, I started out full of evangelical zeal for my new faith. Having experienced both PCs and Macs, I couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly inflict Windows on themselves.

I used to lose several hours’ productivity every week due to my PC crashing or malfunctioning. Finally, after experiencing my own version of Dell Hell, I took the plunge and bought a Mac. Since then, I can’t recall losing a single hour of productivity to computer issues. ‘It just works’ shouldn’t be a USP for a computer in the 21st century, but it is.

Plus everyone knows all the cool creative kids use a Mac. πŸ˜‰

Yet two short years after I decided Microsoft was an unnecessary evil, I found myself partitioning my hard drive and installing Windows Vista onto my beloved MacBook Pro. It felt like giving Darth Vader the keys to the Millennium Falcon.

In case you’re wondering, everything you’ve heard about Windows Vista is true. It’s an appalling excuse for an operating system. Garish, buggy, crashy and constantly interrupting me with pop-ups about mysterious ‘problems with your computer’. As far as I’m concerned, Windows Vista is the problem with my computer.

So what possessed me to install this bloated monstrosity on my Mac?

Sheer desperation.

A couple of years ago, I was struck down with RSI. Which meant I couldn’t type or use a mouse without excruciating pain in my hands and arms. Which was kind of inconvenient for a creative entrepreneur who relies on the internet for new business.

I tried all sorts of solutions – ergonomic keyboards, Wacom tablets, ice packs, acupuncture, physiotherapy. My wife even volunteered to take dictation for my articles. (Top tip: not recommended for marital harmony.)

Then I discovered the one area where Windows wipes the floor with Mac OS: speech recognition.

MacSpeech Dictate, the flagship speech recognition software for the Mac, is irredeemably flawed by it’s ‘golden rule’: you must not touch the keyboard while dictating. i.e. you have to be literally word perfect at controlling it via voice commands for the software to be any use. I’m not, so it isn’t. (There’s a new version of MacSpeech, called Dragon Dictate, but apparently they still haven’t fixed the problem.)

But Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the Windows equivalent, is one of the most amazing pieces of software I’ve ever used. These days, my RSI is 90% cured, and I could type this article if I really wanted to. But I’m sticking with Dragon – even if it means sticking with Vista – because it makes me more creative in three ways:

1. A More Natural Way to Interact with the Computer

I’m a pretty fast typist, but I could never type as quickly as I can speak – and Dragon keeps up with my natural speaking voice.

I’m dictating this article to you while walking up and down in my office, via a Bluetooth headset. I’ve set the font to extra large, so that I can see it from across the room. I even have the stereo going full blast, as dance music puts me in the mood to write. Impressively, Dragon’s accuracy is completely unfazed by Underworld.

I’ve written before about how I believe speech recognition can improve your writing. Any poet will tell you that oral composition is a lot older than typing or even writing. If it was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me.

I’m a writer, so speech recognition is an obvious tool for me. But I believe it’s the tip of a very large ergonomic iceberg, and in the coming years we’ll see a whole host of new ways to interact with computers through physical movement, voice and even emotions. Sixth sense technology is on the horizon. Just ask the Wii users and Guitar Heroes in the audience. πŸ˜‰

Takeaway: Experiment with alternative input / interaction devices for your computer. They may look like quirky gadgets, but they could also unlock more creative ways of using your machine.

2. Removing Distractions

I’m probably the only person on the planet who uses Windows Vista to minimise computer-based interruptions.

Yes, the crashes, pop-ups, and constant requests to upgrade are annoying. But it’s actually because Vista is so crap that I can use it to minimise distractions while I’m writing.

The only reason I use Vista is to use Dragon for writing. Once my draft is done, I reboot my Mac into OS X. I deliberately haven’t imported all my Firefox bookmarks and passwords from OS X, so I can’t login to most of the sites that typically distract me when I’m using the Mac. This turns Vista into a hermetically sealed space for writing. When I’m in Vista, I have to write because I can’t really do much else.

Quite a few writers do something similar. I believe Leo Babauta has a laptop with no internet connection, which he uses for writing. Maya Angelou used to book herself into a hotel room with nothing but a notepad and a bottle of sherry. There’s even a story that Dylan Thomas was locked in a room by his BBC radio producer, and promised a tot of whiskey every time he completed a certain number of pages of his radio drama commission.

Takeaway: You don’t need to go to such extremes – I mean Vista, not the whisky πŸ˜‰ – but find a way to seal yourself off when it’s time for focused work. This is where artists and performers with dedicated studios or rehearsal spaces have an advantage over the rest of us. But if you work on a laptop, you could go to a cafe or the library, use a different computer, or even a typewriter.

3. Getting in a State

I’ve written before about how creative rituals can help you get into the creative zone. The smell of coffee, the sound of your favourite music, or feel of your favourite paintbrush can act as a trigger for the emotional state in which you do your best work.

So for me, standing up and walking away from the computer, switching the stereo on and walking up and down as I start to write, puts me in a very different state to sitting hunched over the laptop.

Takeaway: Find some way of marking your creative work out as different to your other activities, such as a ritual or routine; a dedicated location; or unique triggers such as a favourite pen or guitar, ‘work clothes’, a particular kind of music, or even a lucky charm.

And if you get really desperate, you could always try Windows Vista.

Image by Toby Dylan

Over to You

Have you tried writing with speech recognition, composing music on the Wii, or any other kind of ergonomic aid to computer creativity?

What would be your ideal way of interacting with a computer for creative work?

Do you seal yourself off from distractions when it’s time to work? If so, how?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

β€œOf all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. As I am in the process of selling my house, I have moved my studio from the living room – perhaps too comfortable – to my garage.
    I have found a difference in the way I approach my work – I go in there and paint – no distractions, and I get the work done.

  2. I went through two years of lost work to PC problems (without even touching Vista) and finally switched to Macs (replacing lots of hardware and software, a very expensive proposition, but not getting any work accomplished was more expensive). I *keep the final PC* to run the three necessary PC programs that I have, rather than put ANYTHING on my Mac that resembles Windows. (I replaced the hardware three times looking for solutions to the problems, and reformatted the hard drive and re-installed software on all three systems more times than it would be sane to try to remember.)

    But that’s not the point.

    Dragon Naturally Speaking is *fantastic* software and transformed my daughter’s life.

    In terms of “dedicated space” for writing, I leave the house three times a week and go to the library or coffee house for a couple of hours. And in the past year, while working on a major project, I have gone to a cabin away from home on several occasions (several different cabins: whatever is available to me for free) for between five and eight days and just focused on the work. That’s the best. Even with internet, the leisure to think about ONE task for an extended time brings amazing breakthroughs.


      • Going away for the first time was the hardest–everything would fall apart while I was gone, right? Preparation did, and does, take some coordinating, but I’m totally hooked.

        I’ve been to four different locations, on five occasions. In several instances, someone’s mountain house needed a human presence while the owners were gone. I didn’t think this sort of thing was possible. It is. If the cabin can be kept comfortably warm and there is a space where I can work, and I’m pretty flexible about that, it’s heaven on earth. I pack food for the week (these places tend to be Out There), easy to fix and things that I enjoy eating (soup, bread, apples, good tea, and so on), and it is like a personal artist’s residency.

  3. I’ve been doing a little experiment with handwriting vs. typing because I read an article how handwriting may have the ability to engage more of our creative resources. I’m finding it to be true.

    I’ve also found that, with my computer off, I get more written. Of course, I have to type it back out and do some editing. Still, it’s more or just as efficient as typing. A large part of that is that I’m not aimlessly bouncing from link to link. I’m doing my work.

  4. Steve Gallison says:

    I use Dragon at home and have three books in the process. Tthe quality of the word recognition is top drawer. I am communicating with people where I grew up and I ask them questions via telephone on one ear and repeat their information to check accuracy and it has saved me a ton of time.

    It has a lots of uses for people just to keep records or for those who conduct telephone consultations and need records to back up their business records.

    It has hundred of applications. Great product!

    • Interesting, hadn’t thought of using it to record meetings. I guess if you both recorded it, you could splice them together and make a transcript. πŸ™‚

      • Steve Gallison says:

        Since a good mic doesn’t catch the background noise- you can use it for note taking and a good mic doesn’t require you to speak loud.

    • Steve,
      Tell me more about how this is helping in book writing. It sounds like you are using it to record research. So, are you just using it to take notes or are you writing your books out loud with the recorder then editing them after DNS transcribes them?

  5. I was thinking about voice recognition software, but before I shelled out the money I decided to do a little experiment. I tried dictating to my iPod to see how well I could talk an article instead of writing one (I’m a slow writer).

    It was a total disaster.

    I might be able to train myself to write out loud, so to speak, but for now, the words just don’t flow. There’s some kind of connection between my brain and my hands that my mouth wants no part of. I can talk a spontaneous blue streak, but throw a computer or other dictation device into the mix? Forget it. It seems I need somebody real to talk to.

    Pencil and paper are brilliant inventions.

  6. Hazel Bowden says:

    Hello there. Could I please put forward my experience with Dragon/Naturally Speaking?
    I do not use it for creative work (i.e. I write poems by hand with pen and paper, and have written a historical piece on trade union emblems both for an academic journal and for sale at a museum/library type place at which I do some voluntary work). I also have an RSI type problem which causes me great pain and limitation on and off, and for which I use, in my part-time work in welfare rights, the most current Dragon system Naturally Speaking Professional, intended to enable me to move about between, and input to databases and programmes such as Word and Outlook Express for emails etc. Unfortunately it is slow, causes my computer to crash a lot if I have more than a couple of applications open on the task bar, and horribly inept at recognising my voice, despite having used it for around 6 years. I am based in England, U.K., and speak with a regional accent, which seems to be part of the problem – colleagues who speak what we call Received Pronunciation (RP) have used the programme with much greater success than I.
    I use and amend a lot of standard letters, and so the system never really gets a good run at continuous text, again probably a major part of the problem, but it is installed on my work computer and so not portable to my place of voluntary work or home. Perhaps if it was it would get more used to my voice and work better, but at the moment I limp along using it when I absolutely have to for paid work , and typing and using a special large mouse for people with my difficulties as soon as I am humanly able…
    By the way, I have had thorough training twice in the use of the system, so it’s not that I don’t know how to use it properly – it’s just not fit for the purpose for which I need to use it, in relation to my paid work.
    It’s good to hear that your experience has been so good though, you know. Maybe one day, in a different context, I too will find it, or another version thereof, more useful.



    • The earlier versions of Dragon were not as quick at learning to recognize anyone’s speech patterns. As a result, my daughter figured out ways to “train” it to accurately identify words, developing a user-specific file of pronunciations. Some of this was part of the program itself, and I don’t know if that piece remains–reading specific text into the program, so it would know what it was supposed to be “hearing” and could begin to develop a personalized sense of the user’s language.

      However, my (now-adult) daughter extended this process farther, and actually had a work-study job in college in the assistive technology department (for students with disabilities, of which she was one) helping people “train” Dragon. When I was taking my experimental steps into using the program, we began to do this, but then my hands healed and I didn’t need it. . . . I know that she would take her personal file on a USB drive with her, to plug into Dragon when she was using the program on a different machine.

      I wonder if any of the ways in which people got the “old” Dragons to work correctly might help you out with the “new” one?

      • Thanks for sharing your experience, Hazel. I can relate to some of it. When the RSI was really bad, I found it difficult to operate the computer purely with Dragon – complicated applications and surfing the web was not easy at all.

        I use Dragon almost exclusively for drafting text, and only in the native DragonPad processor, where it works like a dream. I remember trying it in Word and not being so impressed.

        On the other hand I know Jon Morrow operates his PC exclusively with Dragon and seems very happy with it. I’ve also seen videos of users with a range of different national and regional accents using it with no problem.

  7. Definitely an intriguing title, Mark. πŸ™‚

    I live in the Windows world and I’m getting increasingly curious about Dragon Naturally Speaking… I’ll see if they have a demo version.

  8. Interesting reason for using Windows on a Mac. I have to use a tablet (Wacom) for my hands and with it I’m much faster than the typical mouse user. And I type faster than I speak. Got Windows 7 this week and it doesn’t trust me at all. In the lowest setting for the ACL it’s still very annoying. And the animations are so wonderfully tacky. The worst offender was the new Wacom tablet, which started a service making waves at EACH mouseclick.

  9. The idea of using speech recognition to improve one’s writing is fascinating.

    I can imagine that by communicating your words in a unique way (speaking instead of typing) would definitely have an impact on the finished product.

    At some point I’d like to give it a try.

    I feel like a purist with typing, but in truth, as you referenced, perhaps it is those who compose using speaking who are the purists!

  10. I’m an artist and the computer I use for my art is not connected to the internet. I decided on that mostly because I didn’t want the RAM to be used up on unnecessary programs (I also don’t run a firewall or anti-virus program on it, so I make sure everything that’s going on it is fine before I install it).

    When I sit down to paint, I just get into it. I don’t need rituals, don’t need to get rid of distractions. If I’m in the mood to paint, I paint. I do my painting in Photoshop, rather than with ‘real’ media. But yes – I do think that if I had the ‘net on the same computer, I’d never ever do anything other than blog or surf!

    • Interesting to hear you talking about ‘painting’ on the computer. I tend to think of painting as a tactile/sensuous activity, but I guess it makes as much sense as talking about ‘writing’ on the computer.

      • It still is a tactile/sensuous activity even on the computer because, by now, my brain thinks the mouse (I don’t use a tablet/stylus) is a paintbrush! I do my art in a different way from most artists working in the digital media.

  11. I recently got hit by RSI/ tendonitis, which as a full-time creator of children’s games and websites and part-time piano player was disastrous so in my work life, I went back to using:

    * talking to face to face
    * pencil and paper
    * the phone

    instead of a computer wherever possible.

    This helped hugely to seal myself off from all the distractions as for me the Internet was the main source of distraction.

    It also had the benefit of strengthening my relationships with everyone I worked with.

    I read someone say recently (but can I find it to attribute it? No I can’t. Apologies) that the computer isn’t for creative work, the computer is for work work. It’s for getting the creation realised, not the process of creation.

    That resonated with me because I don’t touch the computer until the thinking and creating feels all done. Only then, when I can spend a known amount of time at the machine with a clear sense of what I’m doing, do I turn it on to get the idea out.

  12. Hazel Bowden says:

    Re. impure language – can’t help but notice that Dragon has little difficulty recognising the expletives which occasionally erupt in response to it’s continual misrecognition of those words more acceptable for ordinary use…