Focus and Context SwitchingΒΆ

This post is inspired by Cory Doctorow’s Inventory about the technology he uses for his work and ongoing personal angst and gadget lust.

For the past six months or so I collapsed my entire computing existence into one, single, computer. It’s a nifty Thinkpad x200, a small laptop with just the right balance of usable screen space, sufficient computing power, and great build quality. And when I say “everything,” I mean it. I hook it up to a monitor and keyboard at the office and do my day-job (technical writing/sys admin stuff) on this system, I have a similar “desktop” situation at home, and I write fiction, do all of my email, write and blog posts, off of this system. I even have development web servers running here.

In a number of ways it’s great, and I wouldn’t trade this for the world. Everything just works the way I want it to, and I never have to worry that I’ve left some important edits to a file on a system elsewhere. Everything is always with me.

Now to be fair, I have additional computers. My old(der) desktop at home keeps backups of files, plays music, and does a number of other tasks. I have (and use) the server that this and other websites run on for some tasks, and I have another instance at the office that manages some work functions, but despite their varying physical distance from me at any given point, my interactions with these computers is always as if they’re remote. When I use a computer, it’s this one.

Now there isn’t a real problem here, except that from a workspace and mindspace perspective the context switching can be somewhat complicated and frustrating. While I’ve got most of the kinks worked out of the docking (monitors and keyboards) process figured out, it takes me a few moments to settle into or out of “laptop-mode” or “workdesk-mode” or “homedesk-mode.” While not having to worry if my files are all up to date, it’s also somewhat distracting for all my different projects to be open all the time. The article I’m working on for work is always open and a few key presses away from the novel I’m working on or the latest in-progress blog post.

Again, this isn’t a really huge issue, but it means that when I get somewhere and want to begin working I have to take a deep breath, and spend a moment or two getting going again. These do fit into the category of “first world problems,” and I’m not sure if there’s a really easy solution. I’ve toyed with a number of resolutions to this angst:

  • Distribute my existing machines such that I have a machine that lives at work and a machine that lives at home so that I can just sit down at a desk and start working without shenanigans. Given the available hardware, this might mean that I’d spend most of my time using systems that I’m not particularly fond of.
  • I’ve toyed with having a “tycho writing laptop” that wouldn’t have a web browser installed, for more distraction free writing. I’ve got my old laptop set up to do this, but I’m not likely to take it anywhere (i.e. for the commute,) so it might make sense to get a little netbook for the train for this function, but that seems like overkill.
  • I might redistribute more of my workload to servers rather than doing everything on the laptop. I’m thinking about having the terminal sessions that I use for email primarily live in screen sessions elsewhere.
  • I’ve thought about getting a second laptop, (like my main system at the moment,) both for redundancy and to help reduce the cost of switching between various contexts.

As I’ve been toying with this, I’ve been making a number of tweaks to my work flow to help address the pain of context switching, most of which are too trivial and too specific to outline here. Mostly I’ve been tweaking some customizations, improving how I use virtual desktops. While these tweaks have improved things greatly, better internal system management doesn’t solve the underlying issues: it takes time to reconnect to networks, to close tabs in the web browser, to get to the relevant files open in emacs, and navigate to the proper desktop. All the while other contexts (other files, other virtual desktops,) lurk nearby.

And figuring out how to solve this problem involves a certain amount of “head game” for me: avoiding having “the old laptop” be the primary computer for a given task, making sure that I don’t need a network connection for essential tasks. Assorted other weirdnesses.

If anyone recognizes features of this angst that in their own work they’ve managed to resolve, I’d love to hear about your setup.


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tychoish is a blog about software, science fiction, community, music, knitting, and economies with particular attention to their past and future histories. Produced in Brooklyn by tycho garen.