Why do I do this?

Yesterday I was working on several documents on my computer and so there were several windows open as I shifted my attention from one to another. The overlapping open windows were scattered across the screen so that I could make any one of them ‘live’ by just clicking on it. I noticed at one point that if the document I was going to work on was at the right end of the screen, I would first move it to the left end before working on it.

So I was constantly moving the working window to the left and others to the right, rather than working on them while they were in in whatever location they were in.

It should not make much difference because my computer is a laptop with a small 13″ screen, so shifting the open document from the right to the left of the screen was physically an almost trivial change. But psychologically, it seems to matter to me, at least unconsciously. I must have been doing this for a long time before I became explicitly aware of it and am at a loss for a explanation. Does anyone else do this? What might be the reason? (I am right-handed, in case anyone thinks that may be relevant.)


  1. sonofrojblake says

    We read English (and Tamil, and Sinhalese, if either are relevant?) left to right. Perhaps if your first language were Arabic, Urdu or Hebrew you’d instinctively put them on the right?

  2. blf says

    I don’t do that — or at least I don’t believe that I do — but what I do do is avoid windows (excepting full-ish screen sized ones) being adjacent to the right-hand border. The reason? First, to almost-always have a stripe of clear area so I can do various sorts of clicking on the “desktop”; and Second, several small little tools / widgets / whatevers — a clock, load monitor, and similar — are located within that stripe and I like to keep them visible whilst still allowing them to be covered if the situation demands.

    But why the right side? I dislike using the top or bottom since vertical screen area is a precious resource (for the typical “landscape” screen layout). And I speculate it’s because I sit slightly left-of-keyboard centre so as to be aligned with the so-called home keys (I touch-type on a QWERTY† keyboard) — the right-hand side of the keyboard is occupied by the (rarely-used) numeric keypad. (The screen is almost always centred with the keyboard.‡) It seems more natural to have the windows straight in-front than offset slightly to the right (“more natural” maybe because my vision is corrected with progressive lens, so there can be a tiny bit of head movement to see off-centre windows).

    I am also right-handed, but do not see how that is relevant, excepting, perhaps, that means the mouse is on the right-hand side of the computer. But… so what?

      † Actually, the keyboard I am using to type this is labeled as a French AZERTY, but is configured as an English QWERTY — which isn’t a problem as long as I don’t look at the keytop labels.

      ‡ Even when the screen and keyboard are independent units. I have no idea why I keep them basically-centred with each other.

  3. flex says

    I don’t know of any natural tendency for people to use the left hand side rather than the right. It would be interesting to know how you sorted exam papers when you were teaching. Did you keep a pile of un-graded papers to your left, and the graded papers to your right? Or maybe the paper you were grading was in front of you, the un-graded papers in a pile in front of them, and the graded ones to the right?

    Since you didn’t mention glare as a possibility, that’s probably not why you use the left-hand side of the screen to work on. But there may be something in your posture, position of other things in the room, or even how a desk was positioned at the university where you used to work. Once you get into a habit, the habits can last for years. So maybe in your office you grew used to working on the left side of the screen because of glare or positioning, and that habit has continued.

    I use a desktop setup with two monitors so I have about 40 horizontal inches to work in. Generally I tend to keep my working pane on the left side and the reference panes on the right. I also use the right side for brief breaks to to a little web browsing, but I don’t consider it work. Both at work and at home the monitors are aligned to prevent glare. No windows at work, but there is a north-facing window at home which could cause glare on my left-monitor if it isn’t positioned properly.

    I believe that it’s more how I sit than anything else which dictates why I tend to put things on the left side. While writing I will slightly turn my back to the window. This means that no matter how bright the window is, I won’t be seeing outside and my vision will not be bothered by different levels of brightness between the screens and the window. Turning the back of my chair slightly toward the window on my right naturally makes the left-hand monitor easier to focus on.

    Also, at least at home, turning my chair slightly to the left allows me to see out the door of the room and monitor the stairway where the dog likes to hang out, and I can keep track my wife moving up and down stairs. Not that I need to do those things, but they can’t sneak up on me that way 😉 .

  4. chigau (違う) says

    Does anyone remember when a “desktop” was the top of a wooden desk?
    Covered with:
    open books; with bits of non-sticky paper marking important stuff,
    file-folders made of card-stock; containing piles of paper, with hand-written notes,
    a box; containing … something,
    your lunch,
    and a coffee cup.
    This does not include the bottom drawer on the left wherein was the bottle of …

  5. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake @#1 and flex @33,

    When I grade exam papers, the ungraded pile is on the left and once graded get transferred to the right. As for the room environment, I do take my laptop with me to other places and think I do the same thing. I am not sure because I became aware of this habit only a few days ago. I will have to see if I do the same thing, though now that I am conscious of it, the instinctive nature of it will be hard to discern.

    As to the posture, that is a possible reason.

    As to the suggestion that it is because we read in English from left to right and from top to bottom, that is plausible but then many people should be doing the same thing.

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