Terminal Productivity: How Colours Affect Your Command Line Workflow

A sysadmin’s time is best spent in the terminal. The terminal is what an axe is to a lumberjack. There are a thousand and one different CLI customizations that can be done and I know several people who take their workflow very seriously. Every little bit of their terminal is changed and their laptop is their best friend.

When an interior designer plans out the paint scheme in a home, the colours are chosen very carefully. There’s deliberation in what colour the bedroom should be, what colour to paint the kitchen, and even what colour to paint the front door. Colours are important in the meanings they convey and the emotions they evoke. What’s more important about these colours, however, is that those that are chosen fulfill the purpose desired. If you want to be hungry, then you’ll use a yellow hue, and if you want to be calm, blue would be a better choice

What can colours do for your workflow, however? Is it possible to induce more energy just by looking at a certain shade of purple? Can green on black actually hinder your performance? Let’s dig in.

A while ago (over a month ago actually), I asked users on Mastodon what colours they use for their command line:

Admittedly, the wording was piss poor, but regardless many came forth. With names of themes I had not seen before:

Some came forth with just color specifications or pictures, having customized beyond the idea of a theme:

By far the most common choice of a single colour scheme, however, was the use of a theme by Ethan Schoonover called Solarized.

and of course I’m using Solarized as well. The dark version, to be specific.

So that’s all good and dandy, we have a few examples to examine but first let’s lay down the ground rules for what can be considered ‘productivity’. If we go by the definition, to simply produce anything could be considered ‘being productive’. I’d like to go a little more narrow and say that productivity is making progress, any kind, towards a personal goal. So remind me, what does this have to do with colours?

The colours that we perceive can elicit specific biological responses that could be conducive or unfavourable to making progress. Whether the colours are grating to our eyes is just one thing; that can certainly be distracting. According to Angela Wright, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the hues can be categorized by affecting the mind, the body, the emotion, and the balance, the hues being blue, red, yellow, and green, respectively. Since terminal work is, primarily, a work of the mind then we can agree that would be the best colour to look(heh) at. The result of looking at blue in any capacity, however, can vary entirely on the type of person you are and the type of work you’re looking to complete.

The intensity of the colour also matters in whether you want to stimulate or soothe your mind. If you’re the type of person who thrives on excitement, and can only code in a straight up binge of Monster energy drinks, then a more intense blue might be more your style. If you’re the type of person who has to have little visual distraction and you’re someone who thrives in a calm environment, then you’ll be looking towards a more pastel-style blue. A caveat to avoid here is confusing intensity with brightness. Notice that the first blue is darker, but the way it hits the eye is more intense. The pastel blue might be brighter, but it’s certainly less glaring.

In the end, we can see that of all the chosen themes, solarized dark seems to be the best for soothing the mind, perhaps into a hypnotic state. But if we really want to pump up the productivity, better make it all a straight up hyperlink blue (kidding, you’ll poke your eye out).

But what about the other colours? What do red, yellow, and green do?

RED: Considering that red affects the body an intense red would possibly increase levels of adrenaline. Or it could make you very antsy. Consider getting a stand-up desk. A pastel-like red or soft pink might do better to keep you from getting restless leg syndrome.

YELLOW: Yellow affects emotion. Emotions can cloud judgment, or lead us to feel anxious and our self-esteem to drop to the drain. Tread lightly with your use of yellow, as it could make or break your confidence and optimism.

GREEN: This is the colour of balance. More or less green won’t make as much of a difference versus the presence or absence of it. Green is thought to bring a balance between the three other aspects of colour effects. Between the mind, the body, and the emotion, you’ll find a balance with the colours. It can also leave you with a feeling of refreshment. Give consideration to even painting your bedroom a shade of green to provide a sense of revitalization when waking up.

These are, however, not all the colours that are involved in psychological affectation. If you want to read more, check out Angela Wright’s page on the psychological properties of colours.

A special thanks to the following for helping me out by providing colourful feedback (all from the Fediverse):

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